Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/February 1880/Prehistoric Records


THE caves, tombs, and gravel-drifts of the earth, which are of all objects the most uninteresting to the casual observer, have in our days become strangely eloquent. At the touch of science they have lent a voice to the dumb past. Raising the veil of antiquity, they have unrolled page after page of ancient history, written neither with pen nor pencil, but stamped on the rude implements of war or the chase, imprinted on the few threads of decaying tissue that inwrap the crumbling skeleton, engraved on the bracelet of bronze or silver that encircled the slender wrist of some prehistoric beauty, or chased on the brooch of gold that clasped the mantle of some renowned but forgotten chieftain.

So exact are the deductions to be drawn from these mute records of the past that they have been divided by Sir John Lubbock, in his "Prehistoric Times," into four well-defined ages—the drift age, the age of polished stone, the age of bronze, and the age of iron; each of these marking an advance in knowledge and civilization which amounted to a revolution in the then existing manners and customs of the world. The drift age or Paleolithic period is marked by deposits of rude stone implements; to it succeeds the Neolithic, or age of polished stone, in which the same stone implements were in use, but of a superior class, highly polished and well finished.

The wandering savage who lived by the chase and cut up his prey with the rude, unpolished flint knives of the Paleolithic age was coeval with many extinct animals which then ranged over the wide forests that in those early times covered our own country in common with many portions of the Continent. In the caves of Derbyshire and elsewhere, many of the rudely chipped knives and arrow-heads of these ancient hunters are found, the rudest occupying the lowest strata; showing that even in that remote age man had the same tendency to improve as now, and that the practice of even these rude germs of art led to a gradual perfecting of them. Some of the remains of the ancient Nimrods of that remote and, but for these stone records, unwritten age have been found in caves and sepulchral tumuli; and of all the living races of men they resemble the Esquimaux most closely. With them are found the remains of such extinct animals as the cave-bear, the mammoth, and the woolly rhinoceros; and they appear to have been driven along with these animals toward the north, through the action of some geographical change whose magnitude we have now no means of gauging.

The Neolithic era marked the dawn of a new and higher civilization. In many parts of the country, notably at Hardham in Sussex and in Kent, many collections of polished stone implements have been found, such us stone axes and adzes, chisels, gouges, small saws, hammers, awls for boring, stone picks for turning up the soil, pestles, mortars, querns, and spindle-whorls. Needles have also been found, which imply a knowledge of the art of sewing; and cups and various other vessels of rude earthenware, which show that these old-world folks could ply the potter's craft with a considerable degree of deftness. The bones found show also that they no longer depended for a precarious subsistence altogether upon the spoils of the chase, but that they were herdsmen and fishermen as well. They possessed the horse, a small short-horned ox, two kinds of swine, goats, and horned sheep, with dogs of a large breed. In architecture they were unquestionably far behind, for their dwellings seem to have consisted of pits roofed with wattle. The remains of these ancient Neolithic builders are plentifully scattered over the country. They were all built or rather scooped out upon one plan. There was a circular shaft for an entrance, going down to a depth of from seven to eight feet, five to seven feet wide at the bottom, and narrowing to three at the top; and round this was a chamber or cluster of chambers. In these huts are found a variety of the polished stone implements mentioned above, bones of the domesticated animals, and shreds of pottery. In north Kent there is a series of vertical shafts sunk in the chalk; but these seem to have been rather flint-quarries than the homes of our Neolithic forefathers.

In the north of Scotland, modified perhaps to suit the greater inclemency of the climate, the Neolithic dwellings are somewhat different, and take the form of massive circular huts or burghs, as they are called. In these are found the same stone implements and the same bones of animals. The flint of which these stone implements are made was obtained by quarrying for the flint nodules in the chalk. Many of these mines with the mining tools still remain, with great quantities of chips and splinters; which show that the flint implements were, partially at least, manufactured on the spot where the flint was obtained.

In some instances, caves seem to have been used as dwellings by the Neolithic inhabitants of Europe; and, where not employed as a shelter for the living, they seem to have been frequently selected, when within reach, as a resting-place for the dead. In these cave-mausoleums, numerous skeletons of both sexes and of all ages are found. Where no cave was to be had, the dead, as our readers are already aware, were buried in barrows or cairns; numerous broken implements were laid beside them; and, from the quantities of calcined bones found in some of these graves, it is believed that, in the case of a chief, human sacrifices may have been offered. From the number of these tombs and the plentiful remains of Neolithic dwellings scattered over Britain, we are led to the conclusion that our country, in common with Europe, had in those days a somewhat large and tolerably civilized population, who had flocks and herds, who practiced agriculture, and who were hunters and fishermen.

In the pile or lake dwellings of Switzerland, which are assigned to this era, many interesting discoveries have been made. Three kinds of wheat—one an Egyptian variety—have been found; also two kinds of barley, two kinds of millet, the remains of fruit such as apples and pears, peas, flax, and weeds. For their cattle and swine the lake-dwellers seem to have laid up winter fodder in the shape of acorns and beechnuts. They made cloth of their flax, and could even weave it into an ornamental pattern. From an examination of the human remains found in these curious lake-dwellings and in the sepulchral caves, the most eminent geologists are of opinion that our Neolithic ancestors were of the same race as the Basque-speaking peoples who are still to be found in the north of Spain and in the south of France.

However acquired, the possession of bronze marks an era of advancement. The dwellings of the people who used it were better, and their circumstances more comfortable, than those of the Neolithic tribes they succeeded. They had axes and sickles of bronze, gouges, chisels, hammers, and knives; and, as a natural consequence, all the products of their labor were superior and better finished. They could weave well a tough and strong fabric, and their clothes were formed of several pieces sewed together. Their cloth is almost invariably of linen—no woolen cloth belonging to this period having been found either in France or Switzerland; but in a wooden coffin discovered in 1861 at Ribe, in Jutland, the remains of a body were found inclosed in a cloak of coarse woolen cloth; a woolen cap covered the head, the lower limbs having been wrapped in woolen leggings. Under the cloak was a woolen shirt, girt round the waist by a long woolen band. A bronze dagger in a wooden sheath had been laid beside the dead hand; and in a small box were a few necessary articles for the long journey toward the spirit-land, consisting of another woolen cap, a comb, and a knife—the whole inclosed in a bull's hide. Another coffin contained the paraphernalia of an ancient belle, a brooch, a knife, a double-pointed awl, and a pair of tweezers—all of bronze, two studs, one of bronze and one of tin, and a javelin head of flint; while a third coffin, that of a baby, contained a small bronze bracelet and a bead of amber. Sir John Lubbock considers that these bodies belonged to the close of the bronze period. Bodies wrapped in woolen cloth have also been found in Britain, as at Scale House barrow near Rylston in Yorkshire. It is, however, worthy of remark that it is only in the exceptional cases in which the body is turned into adipocere (an unctuous, waxy substance), that woolen cloth is found; in normal circumstances that fabric would disappear far more rapidly than linen.

The bronze remains found in the Rhône Valley prove that the art of metal-working, once acquired, was carried by these early races to great perfection. They were acquainted with the processes of casting, tempering, stamping, and engraving metal. With this discovery of a new art came a simultaneous improvement in the potter's craft; the rude cups of the Neolithic age disappear, and are succeeded by vessels of an endless variety of form and ornamentation, some of which are extremely beautiful. Some of the vases are inlaid with tin, others are marked with the same patterns employed to decorate the Etruscan vases of Italy; while others, found in the pile-dwellings of the Lake of Bourget, have representations of men and animals. The collections of bronze jewelry are also abundant and curious. They consist of bracelets, armlets, long hairpins with decorated heads, rings, ear-rings, girdles adorned with pendants, brooches, buttons, studs and torques for the neck. War being in these early days as common as it appears to be in more modern times, we find well-stored armories, comprising battle-axes, arrows, and clubs, lances and short swords, as also helmets and shields of thin plates of hammered bronze. Their graves resemble those of their Neolithic predecessors, with one important difference—dead bodies were burned as a rule instead of buried, the ashes, inclosed in urns, being placed in the tombs.

In the lake-dwellings of eastern Switzerland the implements found are of bone and stone; but in those of western Switzerland there are rich accumulations of bronze implements and utensils; while in the upper layers of débris iron begins to appear; showing how in its turn the bronze was supplanted by a metal still more universally useful, and destined to be the type of a grand era of enlightenment and progress. Almost as interesting and instructive as the lake-dwellings of Switzerland are the Danish kitchen-middens or shell-mounds, refuse-heaps which have accumulated round the tents or huts of the primitive population. Many of these have been examined; and rude flasks, sling-stones, axes, flint fragments, and the bones of various animals, have been obtained from them.

In primeval times, many animals were abundant in our own country and all over Europe, which seem gradually to have disappeared. Some of these enumerated by Sir John Lubbock are the cave-bear, the cave-hyena, the cave-lion, the mammoth, the woolly-haired rhinoceros, the hippopotamus, the musk-ox, the Irish elk, the wild-horse, the glutton, the reindeer, the auroch, and the urus or wild-ox. Simultaneously with these or with some of these were human beings, who harbored in caves, and whose skeletons are found in caverns mixed up with the bones of these animals, and with stone or bronze implements. About these cave-men there is necessarily much less information than there is about those of the Neolithic period; comparatively few skulls have been found which were in a state that admitted of restoration; and, among these few, there are great differences.

With regard to the antiquity of man, Sir John Lubbock, after carefully examining the views of many eminent geologists, comes to the conclusion that man certainly existed in Western Europe during the period of the mammoth and the Rhinoceros tichorhinus, and that the presumption is that he also existed in Pliocene and even in Miocene times; but the proofs of that—the remains of the earliest representatives of our race—are to be sought, he thinks, in warm, almost in tropical climates.

From the manners and customs of modern savages much light may be thrown upon the early condition of prehistoric man. After considering the condition and progress of the Hottentots, Veddahs, Australians, South-Sea Islanders, Esquimaux, and others. Sir John Lubbock remarks that, in reading any account of the savage races at present existing in the world, "it is impossible not to admire the skill with which they use their weapons and implements, their ingenuity in hunting and fishing, and their close and accurate powers of observation." By all these qualities we may suppose prehistoric man to have been distinguished in at least an equal degree. The habits and customs of existing savages, however, while presenting many points in common with each other, present also many points of divergence, arising from independent development; and such was no doubt also the case in the most ancient times: the degrees of civilization even in the stone age would differ much.

It is evident that man when he first spread over the surface of the earth must have been in a condition represented by the lowest type of savage. Then by slow degrees, by imitation, and by the teaching of experience, the capacity of lodging and clothing himself, and of improving his simple implements, would 'develop and expand, until man, physically one of the weakest and most unprotected of all animals, would, to quote from our author, "by dint of that subtile force which we term mind," make himself independent of nature, careless of the inclemency of the seasons, skillful to force from the stubborn soil the food which suited him, or the ores from which to forge the weapons which gave him power; till at last, "monarch of all he surveyed," he could cope in his native coverts with the shaggy lion, and be more than a match for the fierce wild-bull, and overtake in the chase the fleet stag or bounding antelope.

The wild man, like the wild beast, is always timid, always suspicious, always on the watch; and the condition of the savage woman is still more cruel. "She shares," says Sir John Lubbock, "all the sufferings of her mate, and has also to bear his ill-humor and ill-usage. Even the possession of beauty, far from being an alleviation, is only an aggravation of the evils of her lot, by securing for her a hard thralldom to many masters."

With growing civilization, on the other hand, come security and confidence, and that sense of justice and honor which is the best protection of the weak; and, with the increasing and ameliorating influences of science, a great improvement may still be looked for in the condition of our race. We stand perchance upon the threshold of a future, brighter than even the brightest dreams of our past; on the verge of a Utopia long deemed impossible, when the moral nature, unvitiated by an erring will, shall no longer fetter the eager soul to base aims and unworthy aspirations, but shall leave it to its free scope and native regality of birthright and action. Then to the human race, still in its vast masses so ineffably degraded, a new and more mighty civilization may unlock boundless stores of knowledge and power, and unseal fresh fountains of pure and unfailing enjoyment.—Chambers's Journal.