Popular Science Monthly/Volume 12/November 1877/Modern Troglodytes



THE Troglodytes or Cave-dwellers of ancient Nubia belonged to a tribe which seems to have formed an intermediate link between the Semitic and Ethiopian races, but which has become entirely extinct before the second century of the Christian era. Between Sidi Elgor and Port Er-nassid (the ancient Berenice), on the shores of the Red Sea, Dr. Brehm examined many of the limestone-caverns which were the favorite haunts of these singular beings, and found no difficulty in distinguishing the bones of the Coptic and Arabian burial-places from the Troglodyte skeletons, which could be recognized by their demi-simian skulls, their attenuated brachial and femoral bones, and especially their narrow chests.

These peculiarities Dr. Brehm ascribes to the unnatural habits of the wretched cave-men, who, from cowardice or constitutional sloth, passed the greater part of their existence in the penetralia of their foul burrows, while their neighbors preferred a manlier way of securing themselves against enemies and wild beasts, and saved themselves from the glow of the midsummer sun by cultivating shade-trees. "Herodotus speaks of persecutions," the doctor remarks, "but this fixed custom of theirs may perhaps be attributed to vicious habit, strengthened by hereditary transmission, quite as much as to necessity, for men can become fond of vitiated air, as they contract a passion for fermented drink or decayed food."

It seems really so, if we reflect on the hereditary perversity of millions of Europeans and North American citizens, who in the midst of social security, and without the excuse of the persecuted Nubians, insist on secluding themselves and their children in the foul atmosphere of tenement-houses, factories, and workshops, which might just as cheaply be supplied with pure as with warm air.

The air we breathe, which a great English physician calls gaseous food, may become impure to the degree of being indigestible to our lungs and utterly unfit for the performance of functions which are quite as important as those of our solid and fluid victuals. Dull headaches, nausea, loss of appetite and of the sense of smell, and the sadness produced by the unsatisfied hunger after oxygen, are only incidental and secondary evils; the great principal curse of the troglodyte-habit is its influence on the respiratory organs. In 1853, when Hanover and other parts of Northern Germany were visited by a very malignant kind of small-pox, the great anatomist Langenbeck tried to discover "the peculiarity of organic structure which disposes one man to catch the disease while his neighbor escapes. . . . I have cut up more human bodies than the Old Man of the Mountain with all his accomplices," he writes from Göttingen in his semi-annual report, "and, speaking only of my primary object, I must confess that I am no wiser than before. But, though the mystery of small-pox has eluded my search, my labors have not been in vain; they have revealed to me something else—the origin of consumption. I am sure now of what I suspected long ago, viz., that pulmonary diseases have very little to do with intemperance or with erotic excesses, and much less with cold weather, but are nearly exclusively (if we except tuberculous tendencies inherited from both parents, I say quite exclusively) produced by the breathing of foul air. The lungs of all persons, minors included, who had worked for some years in close workshops and dusty factories, showed the germs of the fatal disease, while confirmed inebriates, who had passed their days in open air, had preserved their respiratory organs intact, whatever inroads their excesses had made on the rest of their system. If I should go into practice and undertake the cure of a consumptive, I should begin by driving him out into the Deister (a densely-wooded mountain-range of Hanover), and prevent him from entering a house for a year or two."

The ablest pathologists of the present time incline to the same view. "There is a cure for consumption," says Dio Lewis, "though I doubt it' it will ever become popular. Even in its advanced stages the disease may be arrested by roughing it; I mean by adopting savage habits, and living out-doors altogether, and in all kinds of weather."

That low temperature in open air does not injure our lungs has been recognized even by old-school physicians, who now send their patients to Minnesota and Northern Michigan quite as often as to Florida; and is conclusively proved by the fact that of all nations of the earth, next to the inhabitants of the Senegal highlands, the Norwegians, Icelanders, and Yakuts of Northern Siberia, enjoy the most perfect immunity from tubercular diseases. Dry and intensely cold air preserves decaying organic tissue by arresting decomposition, and it would be difficult to explain how the most effective remedy came to be suspected of being the cause of tuberculosis, unless we remember that, where fuel is accessible, the disciple of civilization rarely fails to take refuge from excessive cold in its opposite extreme—an overheated artificial atmosphere—and thus comes to connect severe winters with the idea of pectoral complaints.

There is a rather numerous class of beasts whose lungs seem able to adapt themselves to an atmosphere almost devoid of oxygen, but the human animal and the Quadrumana do not belong to that class. Monsieur de la Motte-Baudin, who was connected with the scientific staff of the Jardin des Plantes as their "menagerie-doctor" for more than twenty years, never omitted to dissect his deceased patients before turning them over to the taxidermist, and invariably found that all monkeys had succumbed to some variety of phthisis, while the lungs of the badgers, bears, and foxes, were perfectly sound. The three last-named animals are natural cave-dwellers, and have been provided with organs especially contrived to resist the effluvia of their burrows; while the Simiæ, like man, are open-air creatures? whose proper atmosphere is the cordial air of woodlands.

Among the natives of Senegambia pulmonary affections are not only nearly but absolutely unknown; yet a single year passed in the overcrowded man-pens and steerage-hells of the slave-trader often sufficed to develop the disease in that most virulent form known as galloping consumption; and the brutal planters of the Spanish Antilles made a rule of never buying an imported negro before they had "tested his wind," i. e., trotted him up-hill and watched his respirations. If he proved to be "a roarer," as turfmen term it, they knew that the dungeon had done its work and discounted his value accordingly. "If a perfectly sound man is imprisoned for life," says Baron d'Arblay, the Belgian philanthropist, "his lungs, as a rule, will first show symptoms of disease, and shorten his misery by a hectic decline, unless he should commit suicide."

Our home statistics show that the percentage of deaths by consumption in each State bears an exact proportion to the greater or smaller number of inhabitants who follow in-door occupations, and is highest in the factory districts of New England and the crowded cities of our central States. In Great Britain the rate increases with the latitude, and attains its maximum height in Glasgow, where, as Sir Charles Brodie remarks, windows are opened only one day for every two in Birmingham, and every three and a half in London; but going farther north the percentage suddenly sinks from twenty-three to eleven, and even to six, if we cross the fifty-seventh parallel, which marks the boundary between the manufacturing counties of Central Scotland and the pastoral regions of the north.

It is distressingly probable, then, to say the least, that consumption, that most fearful scourge of the human race, is not a "mysterious dispensation of Providence," nor a "product of our outrageous climate," but the direct consequence of an outrageous violation of the physical laws of God. Dyspepsia (for which also open-air exercise is the only remedy), hypochondria, and not only obstruction but destruction of the sense of smell—"knowledge from one entrance quite shut out"—will all be pronounced mere trifles by any one who has witnessed the protracted agony of the Luft-Noth, as the Germans call it with horrid directness—the frantic, ineffectual struggle for life-air. Dr. Haller thought that, if God punishes suicide, he would make an exception in favor of consumptives; and there is no doubt that, without the merit of martyrdom, the victim of the cruel disease endures worse than ever Eastern despot or grand-Inquisitor could inflict on the objects of his wrath, because the same amount of torture in any other form would induce speedier death.

But not only the punishments but also the warnings of Nature are proportioned to the magnitude of each offense against her laws. Injurious substances are repulsive to our taste, incipient exhaustion warns us by a feeling of hunger or weariness, and every strain on our frame that threatens us with rupture or dislocation announces the danger by an unmistakable appeal to our sensorium. How, then, can it be reconciled with the immutable laws of life that the greatest bane of our physical organism overcomes us so unawares that consumption is proverbially referred to as the insidious disease? Should it really be possible that Nature has failed to provide any alarm-signals against a danger like this? The truth is, that none of her protests are more pathetic or more persistent than those directed against the habit that is fraught with such pernicious consequences to our respiratory organs.

It is probable that some of the victims of our numerous dietetic abuses have become initiated to these vices at such an early period of their lives that they have forgotten the time when the taste of tea and alcohol seemed bitter, or the smell of tobacco produced nausea; but I am certain that no man gifted with a moderate share of memory, who has grown up in the pest atmosphere of our city tenements, school-rooms, and workshops, can forget the passionate yearnings of his childhood for the free air of the woods and mountains; the wild outcry of his instinct against the process that inoculated him with the seeds of death, and stunted the development of his most vital faculties. The remorselessness of the pagan Chinese, who smother the life-spark of their infants in the swift embrace of the river-god, is mercy itself compared to the cruelty of Christian parents who suffocate their children by the slow process of stinting their life-air, through years and years of confinement in dungeons to which an enlightened community would not even consign their malefactors.

Honest Jean Paul relates that he used to secure a seat in a certain corner of an overcrowded village schoolhouse, where a knot-hole in the wall established a communication with the outer world. Through this orifice he imbibed comfort and inspiration as from a flask, but conceived conscientious scruples against the practice, as he never could indulge without becoming conscious of a temptation to abandon his old parents and his home, and join a troop of wood-cutters or gypsies, not from any vagrant tendencies, or want of dutiful sentiments, but from an almost irresistible desire to make the luxury of fresh air a permanent blessing. "I knew they would charge me with black ingratitude, if I should run away," he says. "Good God! how I longed to prove my affection by working for them in wind and weather, fetching in cord-wood from the woods and splitting it into the nicest, handiest pieces, carrying messages over the snow-covered mountains and be back in half the time any one else could make the trip—do anything that would save me—not from my books, but from that glowing Moloch of a big stove, and that stifling, soul-stifling smell of our dungeon!"

Even to the most inveterate believer in natural depravity this might suggest a doubt whether the repugnance of children to study may not be founded on a physical virtue rather than on moral perverseness. To whatever is really beneficent we are commonly drawn by natural attraction, and whatever appears violently repulsive to youthful minds may be justly suspected of containing more of evil than of good. The very disciple of Socrates who used to run sixteen miles a day to hear the ἆριστος ὶατρων (best of physicians), would have hesitated to purchase physic for his soul at the price of physical health; and we cannot blame our children for being unable to reconcile the precepts they hear with those they feel, and giving way now and then to the more consistent and more logical prompter.

The farmer's boy may look forward to each afternoon and each summer vacation as a refreshing interlude, and to the last term of his school-years as the last act of the tragedy; but in cities the end of the school-room bondage is too often the beginning of the endless slavery which awaits the young apprentice of the workshops, factories, and counting-houses. In Northwestern Europe and the Eastern States of North America, eleven million human beings, a fourth of that number minors, are performing their daily toil in an atmosphere that saps the vigor of their souls and bodies more effectually than a diet of potatoes and water could do it in the same time. A full third of the cotton-spinners of Lancashire and Massachusetts are girls and boys in their teens! They do not complain to a stranger, unless he should be able to interpret the language of their haggard faces and weary eyes; but no one who has fathomed the depth of their misery will charge me with exaggeration if I say that, to the vast majority of the unfortunates, loss of feeling and of reason would be a blessing. What do they feel but unsatisfied hunger in a hundred forms, and what can reason tell them but that they have been defrauded of their birthright to happiness; that not only their opportunity but their capacity for enjoyment is ebbing away; and that, whatever after-years may bring, their life has been robbed as a day of its morning or a year of its spring-time?

The opium-habit may be acquired in less than half a year, and the natural repugnance to alcohol and tobacco is generally overcome after four or five trials; but the factory-slave has to pass through ten or fifteen years of continual struggle against his physical conscience, before the voice of instinct at last becomes silent, and the painful longing for out-door life gives way to that anæsthesia by which Nature palliates evils for which she has no remedy. In more advanced years the habit becomes confirmed, and we find old habitués who actually enjoy the effluvia of their prisons, and dread cold air and "drafts" as they would a messenger of death. They avoid cold instead of impurity, just as tipplers on a warm day imagine that they would "catch their death" by a draught from a cool fountain, but never hesitate to swallow the monstrous mixtures of the liquor-vender.

Rousseau expresses a belief that any man, who has preserved his native temperance for the first twenty-five years, will afterward be pretty nearly proof against temptation, because very unnatural habits can only be acquired while our tastes have the pliancy of immaturity, and I think the same holds good of the troglodyte-habit: no one who has passed twenty or twenty-five years in open air can be bribed very easily to exchange oxygen for miasma.

Shamyl-ben-Haddin, the Circassian hero chieftain, who was captured by the Russians in the winter of 1864, was carried to Novgorod and imprisoned in an apartment of the city armory, which resembled a comfortable bedchamber rather than a dungeon, and was otherwise treated with more kindness than the Russians are wont to show their prisoners, as the Government hoped to use his influence for political purposes. But a week after his arrival in Novgorod the captive mountaineer demanded an interview with the commander of the armory, and offered to resign his liberal rations and subsist on bread and cabbage-soup like the private soldiers of his guard, and also to surrender some valuables he had concealed on his person, on condition that they would permit him to sleep in open air. One more week of such nausea and headache as the confinement in a closed room had caused him, would force him to commit suicide, he said, and, if his request was refused, God would charge the guilt of the deed on his tormentors. After taking due precautions against all possibility of escape, they permitted him to sleep on the platform in front of the guard-house; and Colonel Darapski, the commander of the city, informed his government in the following spring that the health and general behavior of his prisoner were excellent, but he had slept in open air every one of the last hundred nights, with no other covering but his own worn-out mantle, and a woollen cap he had purchased from a soldier of the guard to keep his turban from getting soiled by mud and rain.

General Sam Houston, the liberator of Texas, who had exiled himself from his native State in early manhood, and passed long years, not as a captive, but as a voluntary companion of the Cherokee Indians, was ever afterward unable to prolong his presence in a crowded hall or ill-ventilated room beyond ten or twelve minutes, and described his sensation on entering such a locality as one of "uneasiness, increasing to positive alarm, such as a mouse may be supposed to feel under an air-pump."

The cause of this uneasiness is less mysterious than our nature's wonderful power of adaptation that can help us ever to overcome it. The elementary changes in the human body are going on with such rapidity that the waste of tissue and organic fluids is only partially retrieved by the digestible part of the substances which we feed to the abdominal department of our laboratory twice or thrice in twenty-four hours. The difference is made up by the labors of the upper or pectoral department, which renews its supply of raw material independently, or even in spite of our will, twenty times per minute, or 70,000 times in twenty-four hours! With every breath we draw we take into our lungs about one pint of air, so that the quantity of gaseous food thus consumed by the body amounts in a day to 675 cubic feet. The truth, then, is that eating and drinking may be considered as secondary or supplementary functions in the complicated process performed by that living engine called the animal body, while the more important task falls to the share of the lungs. The stomach may suspend its labors entirely for twenty-four hours without serious detriment to the system, and for two or three days without endangering life, while the work of respiration cannot be interrupted for six minutes without fatal consequences.

The first object of respiration is to introduce elements needed in the preparation of blood, the second to remove gaseous carbon and other secretions of the air-cells. The deleterious consequences, therefore, of breathing the same air over and over again arise not only from the exhaustion of oxygen, but also from the circumstance that the confined atmosphere may become azotized or surcharged with carbon to the limit of its absorbing powers, just as water, after being saturated with certain percents of salt or sugar, refuses to dissolve any further additions. The act of reinspiring air, which has already been subjected to the process of pulmonary digestion, is thus precisely analogous to the act of a famished animal devouring its own feces, and if performed habitually cannot fail to be attended with equally ruinous consequences. Corruption of the alimentary ducts would surely ensue in the latter (supposed) case, putrefaction of the respiratory organs does follow in the other. Working-men employed in localities whose azotized atmosphere is loaded besides with particles of flying cotton-fibre, metallic dust, or fatty vapors, inspire substances which are just as indigestible to their lungs as mercury and alcohol are to their stomachs, and like these cause a rapid deterioration of the tissues in proximity to which they are deposited.

The only wonder, then, is how Nature can resist outrages of this kind for any length of time; and it is a curious reflection to think what amounts of hardship of the primitive sort, such as hunger, fatigue, cold, heat, deprivation of sleep, etc., a healthy savage might accustom himself to, if he tried as hard as the poor children of civilization try to wean themselves from their hunger after life-air!

Can necessity be—we will not say an excuse, but—an explanation of such systematic self-ruin? We must utterly refuse to believe it. Wherever men barter life for bread, there is a violent presumption that they do not know what they are doing; for against recognized health-destroyers even the poorest of the poor will rebel with a prompitude that vindicates the dignity of human nature under the most abject conditions of bondage. Let a railroad contractor be caught in the trick of adulterating his flour with chalk or his sugar with alum, and see how quickly his navvies will leave him; or observe how firmly reckless Jack Tar insists on his anti-scorbutic raspberry-vinegar! Miners have left a colliery en masse, because the owner shirked his duty of providing safety-lamps; and the very negro slaves of a South Carolina plantation attempted the life of their master, who stinted their allowance of quinine brandy which his father had issued them to counteract the miasmatic tendencies of the rice-swamp.

Neither is it possible to suppose that want of hygienic education can be the origin of such ignorance; for Nature does not wait for the scientist to inform her children on questions of such importance. All normal things are good, all evil is abnormal; vice is a consequence of ignorance only in so far as it is a result of perverse education, and the troglodyte-habit is the direct offspring of mediæval monachism. Until after the fourth century of the Christian era, habitual in-door life between closed walls was known only as the worst form of punishment. Though the Greeks and Romans were familiar with the manufacture of glass, they never used it to obstruct their windows; in all the temples, palaces, and dwelling-houses of antiquity, the apertures provided to admit light admitted fresh air at the same time. The tuguria of the Roman peasants were simply arbors; and the domiciles of our hardy Saxon forefathers resembled the log-cabins of Eastern Tennessee—rough-hewed logs laid crosswise, with liberal interspaces that serve as windows on all sides except that opposed to the prevailing wind, north or northwest, where they are stopped with moss.

Men had to be utterly divorced from Nature before they could prefer the hot stench of their dungeons to the cool breezes of heaven, but our system of ethics has proved itself equal to the task. For eighteen hundred years our spiritual guides have taught us to consider Nature and everything natural as wholly evil, and to substitute therefor the supernatural and the artificial, in physical as well as in moral life. The natural sciences of antiquity they superseded by the artificial dogma, suppressed investigation to foster belief, substituted love of death for love of life, celibacy for marriage, the twilight of their gloomy vaults for the sunshine of the Chaldean mountains, and their dull religious "exercises" for the joyous games of the palæstra. This system taught us that the love of sport and out-door pastimes is wicked, that the flesh has to be "crucified" and the buoyant spirit crushed to make it acceptable to God; that all earthly joys are vain; nay, that the earth itself is a vale of tears, and the heaven of the Hebrew fanatic our proper home.

"The monastic recluse," says Ulric Hutten, "closes every aperture of his narrow cell on his return from midnight prayers, for fear that the nightingale's song might intrude upon his devotions, or the morning wind visit him with the fragrance and the greeting of the hill forests, and divert his mind to earthly things from things spiritual. He dreads a devil wherever the Nature-loving Greeks worshiped a god." These narrow cells, the dungeons of the Inquisition, the churches whose painted windows excluded not only the air but the very light of heaven, the prison-like convent-schools and the general control exercised by the Christian priests over the domestic life of their parishioners, laid the foundation of a habit which, like everything unhealthy, became a second nature in old habitués, and gave birth to that brood of absurd chimeras which, under the name of "salutary precautions," inspire us with fear of the night air, of "cold draughts," of morning dews, and of March winds.

I have often thought that mistrust in our instincts would be the most appropriate word for a root of evil which has produced a more-plentiful crop of misery in modern times than all the sensual excesses and ferocious passions of our forefathers taken together. What a dismal ignorance of the symbolic language by which Nature expresses her will is implied by the idea that the sweet breath of the summer night which addresses itself to our senses like a blessing from heaven could be injurious! Yet nine out of ten guests in an overheated ballroom or travelers in a crowded stage-coach will protest if one of their number ventures to open a window after sundown, no matter how glorious the night or how oppressive the effluvia of the closed apartment. Pious men they may be, and most anxious to distinguish good from evil, but they never suspect that God's revelations are written in another language than that of the Hebrew dogmatist. Here, as elsewhere, men suppress their instincts instead of their artificial cravings. If we have learned to interpret the fact that a child whose mind is not yet biased by any hearsays is sure to prefer pure and cold air to the miasmatic "comfort" of a close room, the troglodyte-habit will disappear, as intemperance will vanish if we recognize the significance of that other fact—that to every beginner the taste of alcohol is repulsive, and that only the tenth or twelfth dosis of the obnoxious substance begins to be relished; just as the Russian stage-conductor relishes the atmosphere of his ambulant dungeon, whatever may have been his feelings of horror on the first trip.

If ever we recognize a truth which was familiar enough to the ancients, but seems to have been forgotten for the last ten or twelve centuries, viz., that our noses were given us for some practical purpose, the architecture of our dwellings, our factories, school-rooms, and places of worship, will be speedily corrected; and even the builder of an immigrant-ship will find a way to modify that floating Black Hole of Calcutta called the steerage. Prisons, too, will be modeled after another plan. Our right to diet our criminals on the ineffable mixture of odors which they are now obliged to accept as air depends on the settlement of the question whether the object of punishment is reform or revenge? In the latter case the means answer the purpose with a vengeance indeed: in the first case there is no more excuse for saturating the lungs of a prisoner with the seeds of tuberculosis than there would be for feeding him on trichinæ or inoculating him with the leprosy-virus.

The exegesis of consumption very nearly justifies Michelet's paradox—that the greatest evils might be easiest avoided. "There is no excuse for famine," says Varnhagen von Ense; "we could all live in clover if we did not misapply a large portion of our arable land to the production of tobacco, opium, and other poisonous weeds, and send ship-loads of our breadstuffs to the distillery. I am sure that if the spontaneous productions of the soil furnished us mountains of grain and rivers of honey, we would still manage to use it up in the manufacture of intoxicating poisons, and complain of hunger as before. If any one should doubt this, let him reflect on the fact that, while we are surrounded by a respirable atmosphere of more than 800,000,000 cubic miles, civilization has contrived a famine of air!"