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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/February 1881/Prehistoric Science En Fete

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 18‎ | February 1881

PREHISTORIC SCIENCE EN FÊTE.

TO the uninitiated an "International Congress of Prehistoric Anthropology and Archæology" may seem a formidable affair, where no more cheerful entertainment than a feast of dry bones could be allowed, and where a member indulging in a joke would be instantly called to order. Those who attended the late meeting of this Congress at Lisbon know better. They know that under cover of their imposing title this scientific Congress can give itself up to sociability, and even levity, without imperiling its dignity. They know that this assembly of men, representing the scientific world in nearly every country in Europe, has as human an idea of enjoyment as the most ordinary mortals who have never even heard of the Neanderthal skull, and to whom the term palæolithic or quaternary man calls up no vision of cave-bears ,or hairy mammoths, living hob-and-nob, so to speak, with our flint-using ancestors.

Let us follow the fortunes of the Congress, the idea that the typical Dryasdust flourishes among its members being dispelled. The first unofficial séance may be said to have taken place at Almorchon, a junction half-way from Madrid, where all the scientific pilgrims, more or less tired and dusty, made a rush at the buffet to get what food was to be had. Those who had been traveling from Madrid since the previous evening and those who had taken a preliminary tour through Andalusia here met, and Instantly there was a Babel of tongues—German, Italian, French, and English. Only Spanish was not to be heard, so that, but for the tropical heat of the sun and the Sahara-like aspect of the surrounding country, one would hardly have realized that one was in the Peninsula. Friends were inquiring how each other's work had sped since the meeting four years ago at Buda-Pesth, or that of Stockholm two years earlier. Scientific men who had never met before, and who only knew each other by books or letters, were being "enchanted to make each other's acquaintance" in the best French they could muster. Some were deploring in hushed tones the great loss just sustained by anthropology in the death of M. Paul Broca, who was to have been present at Lisbon. Here was the universal favorite, M. de Quatrefages, of the French Institute, in a gray suit and wideawake, looking more like a genial English geologist than a French savant, shaking hands with all. Professor Virchow, talking slowly to a learned confrère on the one hand, and M. Henri Martin, deep in an Iberian controversy, on the other. Here was a spruce and speckless Frenchman, as fresh and bright as in his native Paris; there, a crumpled German, bearing evident traces of a night in the train. After all, there was ample time to exchange greetings and compliments, as well as for the more important business of eating, as the proverb, "Hurry no man's cattle," is also applied to trains in Spain. A Spaniard in a hurry was the one curiosity no member of the Congress was fortunate enough to light on, although every facility to see all the rarities of the country was politely accorded them.

At last the excruciating sound of the whistle summoned all to ensconce themselves in their snug corners of the carriages again, and only at daybreak next morning—on Sunday, September 19th, to be exact—did this first detachment of science, coated with a yet thicker layer of dust, arrive at Lisbon, after thirty-three long hours from Madrid.

Until last year a direct train accomplished this journey in ten hours less time; but Spain, tenacious of old traditions, suppressed that train as savoring too much of progress, and consequent Nihilism and dynamite.

All that Sunday the newly-arrived foreigners talked of nothing but the lovely position of Lisbon, with its many hills and broad Tagus. They much admired the great reservoir of the famous aqueduct with its tail sixteen miles long, and also the cats with no tails at all. Lisbon literally swarms with cats, and not a few have their ears and tails cropped; this is a scientific note made by a savant on the spot. There were also many speculations among this festive company as to whether they should get as much dancing as at Pesth, where—let not this confidential disclosure damage their scientific reputation—in the course of one short week did they not fit in three dances, one of which was extemporized in the waiting-room of a railway-station, in returning from a ghoul-like expedition, undertaken for the purpose of rifling some dozen Bronze-age graves? Such was their heartless levity! After this disclosure it will be no shock to hear that, on the eve of their serious work at Lisbon, most of this frivolous body patronized the bullfight. In extenuation, it must be admitted that a Portuguese bull-fight is not, like the Spanish, a public shambles and knacker's yard, but a bloodless trial of dexterity, from which the gorgeous cavaliers, on their splendid Andalusian horses, come out unharmed; and the bull, whose horns are encased in leather-and-iron gloves, is driven out very happily among a herd of tame oxen, whose business—and well the sagacious animals understand it—is to decoy him out of the arena.

The following day there was the impressive inauguration of the Congress by the King himself. The hall provided for the séances is the library of a suppressed monastery, where all the old calf and vellum bound books lining the walls seemed quite in harmony with the dryness of some of the discussions, though the way our authorized ancestor Adam was unanimously ignored might have made the worthy old monks' hair stand on end. At one end of this hall a great throne was erected, with ermine and the Braganza arms all complete. Opposite a band was stationed; in the gallery around admiring natives were congregated. All the male representatives of science were in evening dress, gibus in hand, and resplendent with orders. M. Capellini, of Bologna, a great man though small of stature, was noticeable for the number of his decorations. With four full-blown crosses and ribbons, besides a dozen lesser stars glittering on his shirt-front, he was a gorgeous sight. The only English member yet arrived was conspicuous for the unrelieved black and white of his attire.

With royal punctuality, precisely at one o'clock, the band struck up the national hymn, and their Majesties entered: Dom Fernando, the tall Dowager King Consort (if that is his official title), and Dom Luis, the dumpy reigning King, his son. Every one, it is to be hoped, knows Thackeray's "Rose and the Ring," and if they do not they should know it, so it is needless to describe their royal highnesses further than by saying that the courteous Dom Fernando is the image of the old king in that charming tale, and the accomplished Dom Luis its hero Prince Bulbo in person. There was no mistaking the fact, the immortal Bulbo stood before us—on tiptoe mostly, to add height to his august presence—and we were duly impressed accordingly. With royal patience he and his father sat under their ermine awning, listening to inaudible speeches, with homme miocène as their refrain—what a long course of boring it must take to teach any one to bear it so patiently! who would choose to wear a crown?—and then with royal courtesy they descended from their eminence to be introduced to the leading members present. That over, they had to begin again with the Literary Congress, whose session here also opened that day; while the archæologists and anthropologists escaped to examine the bony and stony treasures of a museum illustrating these sciences, established in the same building. In this arid region many warm discussions as to the antiquity of man took place, and as to how far some undetermined flakes of flint, with dubious bulbs of percussion, found in a questionable stratum, went to prove his existence in Tertiary times. This was the main question of the Lisbon session.

Two days afterward an excursion was made to Otta, the abovementioned haunt of this doubtful Tertiary being, to test the value of the evidence. By 6 a. m. all on science or amusement bent were steaming out of Lisbon. An hour later all had left the special train, and were distributed among twenty-two carriages and omnibuses, drawn, as a rule, by four fine mules, the manners and customs of which were curious and unexpected. The leaders would suddenly bolt round and stare at their scientific load with superhuman curiosity. It required many of these wayward beasts to drag the carriages through the four or five inches of dust underfoot. After three hours of such wading, a little sheltered from the blazing sun by the clouds of dust the mules raised, Otta was reached. Otta, or rather a sandy wild with a thin growth of foot-high dwarf-oaks, some miles farther on, is the spot our Tertiary phantom is supposed to have selected for his dwelling. There was a lake there in those days. No one would be predisposed to acknowledge as an ancestor either man or ape capable of displaying such bad taste in his choice of a home; for in Portugal beautiful and wooded retreats abound, so there was no excuse for settling in a bare desert—except perhaps the fishing. However, all dutifully hunted for this creature's remains; but only one flake, near the surface, was found by an Italian, Signor Belucci from Rome, and that caused hardly less excitement than the discovery of a new gold-mine.

But the dryness of the day and subject was exhausting, even to those most affected by the fièvre tertiaire, and all readily abandoned the dust of ages and flocked into a tent, a lodge in that vast wilderness, which seemed to have come there by enchantment. Due justice was done to the sumptuous breakfast prepared, for science does not impair the appetite, and then followed endless toasts. The health of the foreign members having been proposed, a representative of each nation, French, German, English, Italian, Spanish, Danish, Swedish, and Slav, returned thanks in widely varying accents for their hospitable reception in Portugal. M. de Quatrefages was by far the best orator, and the President, Senhor João d'Andrade Corvo, spoke well. After much time, wine, and breath had been expended, a practical Englishman, who meant work, and was not broken in to foreign dilatoriness, proposed as a final toast Au silence et au travail. The hint was taken, and hammers and sunshades again put in requisition, but again with no decisive result. Two of the ladies of the party, escorted by two gallant Frenchmen, made the difficult ascent of a neighboring steep hill, to look down disdainfully on the worthy archæologists grubbing below like ants, and following as useless a quest as those minute busybodies seem to indulge in as a rule. When it is mentioned that the thermometer stood at 96°, it would be superfluous to indicate the nationality of the fair climbers.

But for an opportune vineyard passed on the return journey, all Europe might have been bereaved of her science, as the great expedition nearly died of thirst. Anthropology would have been nipped in the bud, and archaeology would have returned to the dust, had not a supply of grapes averted the awful calamity.

Next morning, Wednesday, primeval cannibalism was the subject of debate, but "long pig" was not discussed for dinner, as might have been expected, thanks to good Portuguese cookery.

The day following the gay assembly were abroad again, going to Santarem, where they were received with flags and rockets, welcomed by the mayor, and escorted to the kjökkenmöddings, their goal, by hundreds of picturesque mounted peasants. Here a grand display of skeletons, and of the refuse of the meals by which these frames were nourished, rejoiced their eyes; and later the speechifying, etc., were gone through with as much enjoyment as before.

On Saturday the two kings honored the séance with their presence to hear the great Tertiary debate, which M. Mortillet, of the Musée St. Germain, opened with needlessly elementary instruction as to the formation of flakes, and asserted his belief in the disputed ancestor's existence in a speech lasting an hour and a half.

"He argued high, he argued low,
He also argued round about him."

An Englishman, known, from his habitual demand for evidence, in the foreign scientific world as le petit St. Thomas, answered him with geological and other objections. He said that no flakes indubitably found in these Tertiary beds were of unmistakable human manufacture, but were such as might be due to natural forces; and insisted on the necessity of strong proof before accepting, as an established fact, man's existence at a time so widely remote from ours—a time when the hipparion was the nearest living representative of the horse, and since which the whole fauna had almost completely changed. Then St. Thomas wound up by declaring that, though for twenty years he had upheld the antiquity of our race, as proved by the discoveries at St. Acheul and in other old river-valleys, and it therefore ill became him to dispute it now, he could not be satisfied to rest his pedigree on a single bulb of percussion.

M. de Quatrefages, who does not believe in evolution as applied to the human race, declared for Miocene man. So did M. Capellini, who had already brought some pet whalebones, found in the marine beds of Italy, before the Congress at Pesth; which bones he believes to have been scored in Miocene days by wrought flints. Others venture to think the marks may be due to the teeth of fishes rather than to human agency. Virchow was dubious. Most suspended their verdict until there should be more conclusive evidence, so the resolution of this great question was adjourned to the next session.

Of course, one excursion was to lovely Cintra, and to Dom Fernando's picturesque Penha palace perched on a peak there, with its castellated walls and little gilt domes. It was grand to see savants gravely riding the tiny donkeys down perilously deep descents. However, thanks more to the sure-footedness of the beasts than to the skill of the riders, no one came to grief. The views at Cintra over the rocky peaks, great pine-woods, and long-stretching plain, with the misty Atlantic as an horizon, are beautiful, and the Moorish remains there are most curious. That evening the real King gave a ball at Cascaes to the Congress, but, in spite of the courtesy of the hosts, the dancing was less gay than at Pesth, not being impromptu. The supper was the great feature of the entertainment. Footmen in gorgeous liveries brought in trays of tempting delicacies, fish, flesh, fowl, and good red wine, to which all were prepared to do justice after a hard day's work. Only there were no plates, knives, forks, or other appliances of civilization. Nothing but large wooden toothpicks.

All hang back, eying longingly the dainties good manners forbade them to seize, and watching what course royalty would pursue.

But the court, nay, royalty itself, unhesitatingly took a toothpick, dug it into the chosen morsel, poised it a moment in the air, and it was gone. Thus emboldened, all possessed themselves of these handy instruments, and dug in their turn, roving and sipping like bees, though all with inward misgivings as to whether they had been spirited away suddenly to China or some other Eastern haunt of the primitive chop-sticks. On after-inquiry it was learned that in all large court assemblies these toothpicks were put in requisition, as it was feared that silver forks might be pocketed by the guests. It was neither as an insult to scientific honesty, nor a compliment paid to the archæological tastes of the Congress, that such primeval weapons were used.

The day after this last and most foreign experience nearly all these learned birds of passage had flown—some to the wintry north, others to the sunny south, all bearing a grateful remembrance of a charming week, and of the warmth of Portuguese hospitality; all speculating as to when and where would be their next merry meeting.—Fraser's Magazine.