Popular Science Monthly/Volume 17/July 1880/The Fossil Man


PREHISTORIC Archæology, the latest-born of the sciences, like her elder sister Geology, has lived through the successive stages of scornful denial, doubt, and unwilling assent, and has finally won for herself substantial recognition. The "antiquity of man" is now an established fact. Even its most strenuous opponents are forced to concede that there are proofs of his existence during a lapse of time far exceeding the limits of the previously approved chronology. For somewhat of the suspicion with which this result has been received, certain of its advocates may have themselves to blame. "Where absolute chronological determinations were of necessity impossible, and where, even at the present stage of the investigation, only general approximations can be reached, it was at least injudicious to startle received opinions, and to arouse prejudices, by asserting for mankind an antiquity of hundreds of thousands of years. Moreover, the great name of Cuvier was held up as a barrier in the path of those who claimed to have discovered proofs of man's existence under geological conditions differing from the present. Cuvier, however, never denied the possibility of finding "the fossil man"; he only questioned the sufficiency of the evidence of his existence which had been brought under his notice, and with great reason, in view of the numerous instances in which pretended fossil human bones had turned out to be those of animals, or even merely natural formations.

Many have been the definitions given of the term "fossil"; but by the phrase "the fossil man" is intended in this article man as the contemporary of certain species of animals now either totally or locally extinct, which we know only from their bones, dug out of the earth, but as to whose existence history and tradition are silent. Such animal remains are found, mingled with those of species still living; but they occur under geological conditions which show that the formerly existing surface of the earth differed in certain respects from its present state. This geological epoch, the nearest in point of time to the present, is called the Quaternary period. It is characterized by extensive deposits of rolled and water-worn pebbles, gravels, and clays, underlying the cultivable surface-soil, and due to the action of former extensive glaciers and of great and rapid currents of water. These latter were produced by the melting of that sheet of snow and ice which once covered large regions of the northern portions of Europe and America, combined with a climate much more humid than the present, and a consequent greater rainfall. This moister climate arose from a different relative arrangement of the then existing continents and seas. The general contour of the earth's surface, then, so far as existing elevations are concerned, seems to have resembled very nearly its present appearance; thus these great currents in many instances took the courses of the present river-systems in northern and central Europe and North America. The Quaternary deposits, consequently, have often been left in the neighborhood of existing streams, which now seem like shrunken rivulets in comparison with these mighty rivers of old. Through these deposits and the underlying strata the present rivers have cut their channels, leaving the Quaternary gravel-beds sometimes as high up as two hundred feet on the slopes of their valleys. In some cases oscillations of level of the surface, or other causes, have left such deposits where there are no longer existing rivers. They are, however, all characterized by similar features, and are called by geologists indifferently Quaternary gravels or drift; while the beds composed of the finer particles, often of great thickness and spread like a carpet over extensive plateaus, are named loess or brick-earth. That such beds of gravel or loess were not deposited by the sea is proved by the fact that such animal remains as occur in them are all those of land or fresh-water, and never those of marine, species.

But it is not only in the Quaternary gravels and loess that the bones of extinct animals are found; they occur more frequently in numerous caverns and fissures in the rocks. As these are met with most commonly in limestone formations, the bones are in consequence generally imbedded in or covered by a stalagmitic formation, produced by the percolation through the roof of water charged with carbonate of lime. Such a floor of stalagmite, sometimes of great thickness, covering and completely sealing up the contents of the underlying beds, is at once a proof of their antiquity and a guarantee against the possibility of such contents having become confused with objects of a later date.

In such Quaternary gravels and caverns mingled with the bones of numerous extinct species of animals, such as the mammoth, the woolly rhinoceros, and the cave-bear and others, human bones have been discovered, although comparatively rarely, while the implements and objects of man's fabrication are found in large quantities. They are, however, all made of stone, or of the horns and bones of animals. Such human remains as have been discovered show man at this earliest epoch to have been possessed of a cranial development quite equal to the average now. Already the anthropologists have been able to establish the existence of at least three different races, named, from the localities in which the skulls have been discovered, the races of Canstadt, of Cro-Magnon, and of Furfooz—caverns situated respectively in Germany, in France, and in Belgium. But implements and weapons of undoubted human workmanship are as good proof of man's existence as his actual bones; nor is the scarcity of these latter limited to Quaternary times. None were found, for example, when the great Haarlaem Lake was drained, although many a bloody sea-fight had taken place on its broad bosom.

Nor is it in rare and special localities alone that traces of early man have been found. They are met with in England, in France, in Belgium, in Switzerland, in Germany, in Italy, in Spain and Portugal, and in southern India; and in the winter of 1878 I was fortunate enough to discover them in Upper Egypt, where hitherto their occurrence has been either denied or doubted. Our own continent, too, seems to be not wanting in them, as within the past few years they appear to have been discovered by Dr. Abbott in the glacial drift of the valley of the Delaware. The field is vast and the laborers have been few, but their numbers are rapidly increasing; and, as extended research has been constantly rewarded by repeated discovery, we have every reason to expect that there are most important results yet to be reached, both on this continent and in the almost unexplored regions of Asia, the acknowledged cradle of the human race, where thus far only slight traces of early man have been met with.

But though the antiquity of man is admitted, and the fact of his coexistence with extinct animals during the Quaternary period can not be denied, yet both the duration of the Quaternary period and the question of his existence in the previous Tertiary age are still stoutly contested. The proofs of his presence in Tertiary times are as yet "few and far between," and the believers in his existence at that remote epoch are by no means numerous; still, as History so oft repeats herself, it may well happen that the late Abbé Bourgeois, of Pontlevoy, who has been thus far the principal champion of the Tertiary man, may share in the eyes of posterity in the well-merited honors of Boucher de Perthes, of Abbeville, who first established the existence of "the fossil man." Whether the duration of Quaternary times extends over a period of one hundred thousand years or more, or twenty thousand, or even less, is immaterial, and probably never can be absolutely determined. The chronological scale is too uncertain, with conditions varying according to locality and circumstances, to give ground for great hope of success. Still, who shall venture to set a limit to the triumphs of science? The methods of prehistoric archæology are scientific; its votaries are steadily increasing in numbers; its progress has been marvelously rapid, and we may with confidence await the result.

The most remote historical date thus far even approximately determined is that of the early dynasties of Egypt, although even on this point the authorities differ by as much as a thousand years. Taking, however, the lowest computation, we find, some four thousand years b. c., a flourishing civilization established in Egypt, with a condition of the arts, especially of statuary and of architecture, fully able to stand the test of comparison with those of the present day, but which afterward steadily degenerated under the iron rule of the priesthood. This date has been reached by the light of written inscriptions, so that the history of mankind has thus been carried back to a point of time as remote as that of his creation, according to the belief of our fathers. Now, a flourishing civilization with admirable arts, and especially a fixed literary language, presupposes ages of development and progress, so that we see the "prehistoric man" thrust thus at least one stage into "the dark backward and abysm of time." But only monuments inscribed by Nature's own hand are our helpers in the arduous task of attempting to measure by a scale of centuries the duration of the existence of "the fossil man." The slow excavation of certain river-beds during the present geological period, thus bringing to light in their banks relics of man, above which the soil has accumulated in depths varying according to known historical periods; the secular growth of peat-mosses and of films of stalagmite; the deposit of cones of detritus at the mouths of mountain-torrents; the leisurely filling up of lakes by the accumulation of soil washed down from neighboring mountains—such are the sole standards of measurement that have thus far been devised for the careful computations or the wild guesses of those who have hitherto essayed the difficult problem. Its final determination must properly be left to the geologists, some of whom regard the Quaternary period as more justly to be assigned to the present stage of the earth's history than as constituting a past geological epoch rightly so called. But the discovery of traces of early man in regions widely remote from each other, and especially in countries where the earliest civilizations have arisen, is a complete answer to the objections of those who would make of "the fossil man" only a savage race localized in western Europe in times not far removed from those of which history takes cognizance.

Among the many attempts that have been made to reach a solution of the problem, the most satisfactory, perhaps, have been the systematic explorations that have been carried on without interruption since 1865, by a most competent committee of the British Association, of a large cavern in south Devonshire, near Torquay, called "Kent's Hole." I have had the opportunity of personally studying the modes of procedure there under the guidance of Mr. Pengelly, secretary of the committee, and can bear testimony to the scrupulous care, the vigilant watchfulness, and the great skill and knowledge with which the investigations are prosecuted. The following is a brief sketch of what has been discovered in the course of the exploration: The bottom of the cavern was found to be encumbered with huge blocks of limestone that had become detached from the roof, between and under which was a layer of vegetable mold of varying depths up to a foot or more. In this layer were found objects of various periods, running back as far as the times of the Roman occupation of the island. Below this came a floor, a stalagmite of an average thickness of sixteen to twenty inches, and underneath it a layer of cave-earth four feet deep, in which were found objects of man's fabrication. Still lower they came upon a second floor of stalagmite, which in some places had attained a thickness as great as twelve feet. Below all came a breccia, in which were found numerous teeth and bones of the cave-bear, and with them three undoubted flint instruments. Now, in one part of the cavern there is a huge boss of stalagmite rising from the floor, and on it is inscribed "Robert Hedges, of Ireland, February 20, 1688." For nearly two hundred years the process of the formation of stalagmite appears to have been going on, and still the letters are now only covered by a film of not more than one twentieth of an inch in thickness. Even granting that the deposition of stalagmite may have proceeded much more rapidly under former conditions than at present, when more water and more carbonic acid may have penetrated the cavern, still it is evident what a lapse of time is required to account for the formation of such a mass of material as we have here. Nor can accident or fraud be invoked to explain the presence of these relics of man, under the circumstances in which these have been found. The work was executed under the daily supervision of the committee, and by trustworthy laborers, and no intermingling of objects falling from a higher level; no burying of them in later times in excavations made in an older deposit; no attempt at making gain from forged articles palmed off upon credulous collectors in this case is possible. Like results have been reached by the same committee in the "Brixhaw Cave," on the opposite side of Torbay, which was purchased and thoroughly explored by them immediately after its accidental discovery in 1858, through its roof having been broken into in quarrying. In this case the additional guarantee was afforded for the genuineness of the contents, that its exploration was almost contemporaneous with its discovery. Space will not allow more than an allusion to the laborious and fruitful researches of the late Messrs. Lartet and Christy in the caves and the rock-shelters of the valley of the Dordogne and its affluents, in the south of France. By their labors and those of the numerous band of explorers who have followed in their footsteps in the same country, and by the discoveries of M. Dumont in the valley of the Meuse in Belgium, we have been enabled to gain some definite knowledge in regard to "the fossil man," his manner of life, his implements and weapons, and even his artistic capabilities.

The "classic ground," however, for the student of prehistoric science must ever be the Somme Valley, from Abbeville to Amiens. From its Quaternary gravels came those rude flint implements with which Boucher de Perthes succeeded at last in silencing the cavils of the incredulous, and establishing the coexistence of man with extinct species of animals. St. Acheul, an old abbey close to Amiens, has given the name to these objects, which are the most ancient type of man's workmanship hitherto met with, for in its vicinity they have been found in greater quantities than in any other locality. When first discovered they were called by the workmen "cats' tongues," from their shape and roughness. In outline, form, and general appearance they are perfectly characteristic, and they differ entirely from all other stone implements which have ever been discovered under different conditions. No one who is at all familiar with the subject can possibly confound one of these palæolithic axes, as they are called, roughly chipped and unground, with one of the neolithic or polished-stone times. These latter are found in large numbers, and substantially resembling each other all the world over, and are mainly relied upon to prove that everywhere man has at some time lived in a stage of culture, in which he had not attained to the knowledge of the use of metals. The palaeolithic weapons, however, or the St. Acheul axes, are of much rarer occurrence. But, if a collection of specimens from various localities, including our own country, be placed side by side, their resemblance to each other will be found to be most striking. At St. Acheul I had the satisfaction of seeing dug out in my own presence, from gravel-pits now more than a quarter of a mile from the river, and one hundred feet or more above its present level, and in a spot overtopped by no higher ground from which anything could possibly have been washed down, two such implements. These, though unfortunately broken, are yet as convincing, from their excellence of workmanship, as if they were still perfect. In this case there was no possibility of deception, through their having been buried beforehand, for me to see them dug out, since I came to the spot unannounced. The workmen at this place know well the value of such objects, and have the habit of fabricating them for sale. If, however, one of their forgeries be placed by the side of a genuine object, there will be found to exist certain infallible tests by which to discriminate between them, so that there need be no mistake. Freshly broken flint presents a peculiar dull and raw surface, entirely unlike the glossy, varnished appearance of objects which have undergone a long exposure to atmospheric influences, and have been subjected to chemical changes and the friction of sand and water. These causes produce the characteristic "patina," which distinguishes genuine flint implements, and which varies greatly according to the conditions under which the objects have remained. It is of very different colors, but has never been successfully imitated by artificial means. Many of the implements also, like mine, are marked by a beautiful moss-like deposit of oxide of manganese, called "dendrites," which is an additional guarantee of their genuineness, as it is only produced by a long lapse of time. In the gravel-pits in the neighborhood of Paris, on both banks of the Seine, in many visits ranging over several years, I have been able to procure a large number of worked flints, together with the usual fossil bones that accompany them. So, too, in similar excavations at the Ponte Molle, near Rome, at a long distance from the present bed of the Tiber, and far above the limit of any possible inundation now, I have obtained numerous specimens both of flints and bones.

To go thoroughly over the arguments of the geologists, by which the very great antiquity of such Quaternary deposits with their contents has been established, would require more space than is at my command. I will simply state a few facts, leaving others to draw their own inferences from them. Implements of the St. Acheul type have been found in place at the bottom of undisturbed gravel beds more than thirty feet deep, both at Abbeville and at Amiens, and in the former locality peat-beds have been subsequently formed in the more deeply excavated portion of the valley more than thirty feet in thickness. Now, whatever may be the lapse of time needful for the accumulation of such a mass of peat as this, it is all posterior in date to the ancient implement-bearing gravels. At Amiens Roman graves have been found in the superficial deposits at about the present level of the river, and far below that of the Quaternary gravels, showing that more than fifteen hundred years have produced scarcely any change in the configuration of the valley, so far as its depth is concerned. So, too, on the top of Milford Hill, in the neighborhood of Salisbury, England, are found Quaternary gravels containing implements of the St. Acheul type. This hill is cut off from the main spur to which it belongs by a transverse valley, which proves that, at the time when the gravel was deposited there, such a depression could not have existed, as in that case the water would have flowed along the valley, and not left its contents on the top of the hill. On each side of the hill is also a similar valley, which, for the same reason, could not have been there when the gravel was deposited. Thus the top of the hill once formed the bottom of the bed of a river flowing along a valley whose sides have now entirely disappeared, and in their place a new valley has been excavated on each side to the depth of one hundred feet.

That these Quaternary gravels can not be owing to any sudden cataclysm is proved both by the regularity with which they are deposited, and by the fact that the materials of one river-system are never found mingled with those of another. For example, the gravel-beds of the Somme Valley are entirely composed of débris from the chalk and Tertiary strata occupying that area. But within a very few miles of the head-waters of the Somme comes the valley of the Oise. This latter valley contains the remains of other and older strata, none of which have ever found their way into the Somme Valley, as would certainly have been the case if any great and sudden inundation had ever swept over the surface of the whole country.

From such considerations as these, and many others that might be brought forward, prehistoric archæologists are united in the opinion that the St. Acheul axes found in these Quaternary deposits, and in certain caverns, accompanying the bones of the same fossil animals, are relics of the earliest phase of man's existence yet discovered. Of course, the few are excepted who maintain the belief in the Tertiary man. Such implements have been searched for and found in many countries, but there was still one unfortunate hiatus in the line of argument. It was objected, if such evidence of the great antiquity of man has been discovered in so many different regions, Why is it not to be found in Egypt, the oldest country of which we have direct historical knowledge? This question several have attempted to answer, but hitherto they have failed of complete success. This was owing to the nature of the case, and the peculiarities of the country. Most travelers spend the winter months in their dahabeeahs, ascending and descending the Nile, and have little leisure for long and patient researches; while the distinguished scholars who have resided for long periods in the country have been exclusively occupied with studying its numerous historical monuments, and no one of them has had any special acquaintance with or interest in the prehistoric question. It is true that M. Adrien Arcelin and Sir John Lubbock, and also Dr. Haury with M. Lenormant, who all made the usual Nile trip, have published articles on the subject, some of them figuring in plates certain worked flints discovered by them in Egypt. But they did not succeed in satisfying prehistoric students that they had actually discovered evidence of the Palæolithic age in that country. That they had indeed found worked flints there, could not be questioned by any one who has had competent experience in the subject, though even this has been denied by the distinguished Egyptologist, Lepsius. Some have even supposed that such objects may have been used by the poorer classes within the historic period, of which the paintings and sculptures in the tombs give us such vivid glimpses. The opening of an hotel at Luxor, in Upper Egypt, the site of ancient "hundred-gated" Thebes, in the winter of 1878, gave me an opportunity of carefully studying the question on the spot. I remained seven weeks and searched the region thoroughly in various directions, so far as was possible in journeys of one day's length. The Nile Valley here is bounded on each side by hills of Tertiary limestone on whose flanks the present surface-soil rests without any intervening Quaternary deposits. On the western or Libyan side these hills are pierced by many dry ravines, or wadys, through which the desert sands make their way down toward the cultivable strip of alluvial soil on the bank of the river. Though Upper Egypt is a rainless region, still occasionally, perhaps once in twenty years, heavy rains occur, and great torrents tear their way down these wadys into the Nile. In the bottom of such ravines, and occasionally on the elevated plateaus of the hills, I succeeded after long and toilsome searching in finding several implements of the true St. Acheul type. I also found innumerable examples of all the various objects that are commonly discovered in other countries, in which the existence of "the stone age" is considered to be established. These were axes, scrapers, piercers, knives, flakes, nuclei, etc., together with some forms that were entirely novel, and all without exception were made by the process of chipping. Although polished implements have been occasionally discovered in Egypt, I have never myself happened to find a single example. Some few objects were met with in the eastern desert; but on the Arabian side the valley is so much wider that it is almost impossible to reach the hills in one day and have any time left for searching. At Paris I showed the objects I had discovered to M. de Mortellet, curator of the prehistoric department of the great museum of St. Germain-en-Laye, under whose charge had been placed the organization of the anthropological department of the late French Exhibition. By him I was requested to place them there, where they were seen and examined by many scholars from various countries occupied with prehistoric studies, and by all they were pronounced to be true palæolithic objects. Quaternary deposits do not occur in the Nile Valley, so far as I am aware, though they have been found in various parts of the Sahara. Consequently it is only in such spots as those in which these implements were discovered, that any relics of the early man can now be met with there. If man lived in Egypt at that remote epoch, most traces of him must now lie buried under hundreds of feet of Nile mud, the product of the annual inundation of the river for countless ages. The discovery, therefore, in the Nile Valley of all the usual types of objects of "the stone age" in other countries, including those of the most remote times, would seem to furnish a sufficient reply to the objections of such as maintain that no traces of "the fossil man" have been discovered in Egypt.