Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/December 1889/The Descendants of Palaeolithic Man in America

Popular Science Monthly Volume 36 December 1889 (1889)
The Descendants of Palaeolithic Man in America by Charles Conrad Abbott
1148972Popular Science Monthly Volume 36 December 1889 — The Descendants of Palaeolithic Man in America1889Charles Conrad Abbott







THE modest, peaceful valley of the Delaware River, from the head of tide-water southward, is as little suggestive of the Arctic Circle, for at least nine months of the year, as do its low and weedy banks in summer suggest the tropics. On the contrary, every tree, shrub, sedge, beast, bird, or fish that you see above, about, or within it is a feature of a strictly temperate climate. Nevertheless, a dim recollection of more stirring times still clings to it, and the year not unfrequently opens with the river firmly ice-bound. Over its shallows are often piled great masses of up-river ice, borne hither after a storm by the swollen current. Often the broad and shallow channel is effectually closed, and the river becomes, for the time being, a frozen lake.

But the ice, of late centuries, has not been able to hold its own for any significant length of time. The increasing warmth of the sun, and the south winds with their accompanying rains, soon start the little icebergs oceanward, or melt them when they are securely stranded. Except a few scattered masses along the shady shores, the river, by April, is a quiet, shallow, tide-water stream again.

No appreciable amount of detritus is now brought from the up-river region by a single winter's accumulation of ice. As the river and its shores are to-day, so they were a century ago perhaps for many; but the winter of our varying year is a mere puppet-show compared with what New Jersey winters once were, and the culmination of arctic rigors gave our Delaware Valley, in that distant day, a far different aspect; and, with each succeeding glacial flood, more and more sand, gravel, and great bowlders were rolled down from the rock-ribbed valley beyond and spread upon the open plain through which the present stream unruffled flows.

The land was somewhat depressed then, and the water flowed at a higher level, but nothing unfavorable to man's existence obtained in the whole region. As a skilled geologist has pointed out, "The northern ice was one hundred miles away, and did not prevent primitive man from assembling about the low and hospitable shores of the miniature sea, . . . and over the bosom of the bay, little affected by tide because of its distance from the ocean, and little disturbed by waves because of its shoalness, palæolithic man may have floated on the simplest craft, or even have waded in the shallow waters." Ay! may have; but did he? What evidence is there that that most primitive of mankind, who left such abundant traces of his presence in the valley of many a European river, and also in Asia and Africa, was ever likewise here in eastern North America? It is precisely the same evidence—rude stone implements of the simplest type, often but slightly modified cobbles merely, that were found to be more effective by having a chipped and jagged edge, rather than the smooth and tapering one that water-wearing produces. These same worked stones in other countries always of flint, but in New Jersey of argillite, a slate-like stone that has been altered by heat, and possesses now a conchoidal fracture—these occur in the Delaware gravels; and the vivid pictures of glacial time, with primitive man a prominent feature thereof, that have been given by Wright, Wilson, Haynes, McGee, Upham, Cresson, Babbitt, and others, are doubtless familiar to all readers of recent scientific literature.

In associating man with ancient river valleys, we are too apt to think only of the stream, and ignore the surrounding country. Though largely so, palæolithic man was not strictly an amphibious creature; for instance, on each side of the ancient Delaware River extended wide reaches of upland forest, and here, too, the rude hunter of the time found game well worthy of his ingenuity to capture, and so powerful that all his wit stood him well in need to escape their equally determined efforts to capture him. While the seal and walrus disported in the river; while fish in countless thousands stemmed its floods; while geese and ducks in myriads rested upon the stream, so, too, in the forest roamed the moose, the elk, the reindeer, the bison, the extinct great beaver, and the mastodon, all of which, save the elk, had long since left for more northern climes when European man first sighted North America.

The association of man and the mastodon is somewhat startling to most people; but, as has been time and again conclusively shown, it is no unwarranted fancy. We are apt to consider the mastodon as a creature of so distant a time in the unrecorded past, that man must necessarily have appeared much later upon the scene. The truth is, comparatively speaking, the creature so recently became extinct that, in all probability, our historic Indians were acquainted with it. Certain it is that, in the distant long ago of the great Ice age, the mastodon existed, and equally certain that with him lived that primitive man who fabricated the rude implements we have described. The bones of the animal and the bones and weapons of the man lie side by side, deep down in the gravels deposited by the floods from the melting ice-sheet. In February, 1885, I walked to and fro over the frozen Delaware, where it reaches a full mile in width, and saw at the time many horses and sleighs passing from shore to shore. I recalled, as I walked, what the geologists have recorded of the river's history, and it was no wild whim of the unchecked imagination to picture the Delaware as a still more firmly frozen stream; so firmly ice-bound, indeed, that the mastodon might pass in safety over it—not cautiously, even, but with the quick trot of the angry elephant—and picture still further a terror-stricken Stone-age hunter fleeing for his life.

Just as our brief yearly winter gives way to milder spring, so, as the centuries rolled by, the mighty winter of the Ice age yielded to changes that were slowly wrought. Century by century, the sun's power was exerted with more telling effect; constantly increasing areas of northward-lying land were laid bare, and the forest followed the retreating glaciers' steps. This great but gradual change had, of course, its influence upon animal life, and many of the large mammals that have been named appear to have preferred the cooler to the warmer climate and followed the ice-sheet on its northward march.

In the unnumbered centuries during which these changes came about, man increased in wisdom, if not in stature, and the rude implements that characterize the lowest known form of humanity—palæolithic man of prehistoric archæology—were gradually discarded for smaller and more specialized ones. This change was doubtless the result of faunal changes that required a compound instead of a simple implement, as an effective weapon—a small spear-head attached to a shaft, instead of a sharpened stone held in the hand; and we find now, as characteristic of conditions geologically later than the gravel beds, a well-designed spear-point, larger than Indian arrow-heads, of a remarkably uniform pattern, and which might readily be supposed to be the handiwork of the historic Indians. But let us examine into the history of these objects a little closely. In the first place, the conditions under which these rude spear-points are found, as a rule, are very significant. In certain upland fields, never far from water-courses, and which were the high, dry, habitable localities when the later gravel areas were yet comparatively low and swampy, these objects are found in great abundance, and very often not associated with the familiar forms of Indian implements. Again, they also occur in the alluvial mud which has been for centuries, and is still, accumulating over the tide-water meadows that skirt the banks of the Delaware River from Trenton to the sea. Now, it may be maintained that we are without warrant in assuming that the age or object of any given form of stone implement can be determined by the character of the locality where it happens usually to be found—exception, of course, being made to the palæolithic implements of an earlier geological period. To a certain extent this is true. A bead is none the less an ornament, whether dredged from the river-bottom or found in an upland field; and yet how very seldom does any implement or other relic of the Indians occur, except where we should expect to find them! In basing any conclusions upon the characteristic features of a locality where implements are found, it is necessary to determine if there has been any recent general disturbance of the spot. This is readily done usually, and the principal barrier to a logical conclusion is removed. Long experience in archæological field-work has fully convinced me that, in the vast majority of instances, stone implements are practically in the same position that they were when buried, lost, or discarded. A single specimen or even a hundred might mislead; but it becomes safe to base a conclusion upon the locality, when we have the material in such abundance as in this instance of these rude spear-points, and find that fully eighty per cent are from the alluvial mud of the river meadows, or such isolated upland areas as have been described. But more significant than all else is the fact that these simply designed spear-points are all of argillite, the same material of which are made the rude implements found in the gravel. There is, therefore, no break, as it were, in the sequence of events in the occupation of the region by man—no change of race, no evidence of an abrupt transition from one method of tool-making to that of another, but merely an improvement that was doubtless as gradual as the change from the epoch of glacial cold to that of our moderate climate of to-day. What at first sight appears fatal to the views here expressed is that a people so far advanced as to make these spear-points should have made many other forms of stone implements; but only the former are found deeply buried in the mud of the river. If, as is believed, the spears were used in fishing more than for any other purpose, they alone would be likely to be lost. Other objects in use upon their village sites would seldom, if ever, be taken to the fishing-grounds; and, as a matter of fact, there are found numbers of stone objects of a rude character, usually considered of Indian origin, but which are identical with those used, for instance, by the boreal Chukches. In Nordenskiöld's "Voyage of the Vega" is described a series of stone hammers and a stone anvil which are in use today for crushing bones. Every considerable collection of "Indian relics" gathered along our seaboard, from Maine to Maryland, contains examples of identical objects. Of course, the Indians might have used—indeed, did use—such hammers and anvils, but, considering all the evidence, and not merely a part of it, it does not follow that all hammers and anvils are of Indian origin. I have only made incidental mention of the historic Indian, and nothing further is necessary. He plays an important part in our early history, but his origin is yet to be deciphered from many sources. His arrival in the river's valley dates, as we reckon years, long, long ago; but no evidence is as yet forthcoming that it was prior to the valley's practically present physical aspect.

Let us consider these rude argillite spear-points, and the circumstances under which they occur, a little more closely. In this magazine (January, 1883), I based the opinion that these objects were of an earlier and other than Indian origin, because of their occurrence in so many localities at a depth greater than that at which jasper and quartz arrow-heads are found. In other words, the plow unearths the Indian relics in great quantities; but, by digging deeper, objects of argillite are found in significant numbers. In this earlier communication to the magazine, reference was made only to scattered objects; but now I propose to call attention to strictly surface-found specimens, where they have been discovered in such abundance as to plainly indicate the former sites of camps or villages. If such localities are really pre-Indian in origin, then it remains but to consider the fate of this earlier people; but, before indulging in speculation, what of the facts? The results of my labors may be summed up in a brief account of a visit to one locality; for all subsequent and preceding visits to distant points resulted similarly.

In two instances, collections which I studied were of such magnitude, and had been brought together with such care, that they had a decided bearing upon the question. The particular fields from which the great bulk of the specimens had been taken were studied most carefully, and it soon became evident, in each case, that the reported commingling of all forms of stone implements was more apparent than real. The physical geography of each locality plainly showed that for a very protracted period these spots had been habitable and inhabited. It was evident, in each case, that a very undulating surface had existed, through which meandered a small stream that had long since disappeared. These areas of hillock and dale had been densely wooded, with here and there a little clearing; and now, for nearly two centuries, plowed over almost every year. What, then, should we expect, presuming that the relics of two peoples had been left upon a tract of some two hundred acres? First, the tract was deforested, which would lead to much disturbance of the surface soil; secondly, the stumps of the trees were uprooted, which would lead to a greater disturbance; and, lastly, constant plowing, exposure of a raw surface to winds and rain, and the erosion due to the flooding of the stream that drained the tract, would result inevitably in the moving of objects, as small as arrow-points, to considerable distances from where they were left in Indian or pre-Indian times. It would be strange indeed if any evidence of earlier and later occupancy had withstood such vicissitudes; and yet such was the case. The highest ground afforded ninety per cent of the specimens I was able to find, of argillite; while in the low-lying area of the one-time stream's tortuous bed the argillite and jasper implements were commingled, with a preponderance of jasper and quartz in the ratio of seven to two. It was evident that the washing down of the higher ground and partial obliteration of the valley had transported the argillite and mingled it with the jasper, and not generally commingled and brought to certain points the equally scattered objects made of these minerals. During the summer of 1887 a very careful and intelligent observer reported to me that, in a field not far from where I live, he had found a considerable deposit of argillite chips, rude arrow-heads, and bits of pottery; but that there was no trace of jasper or quartz, or indeed of any other mineral. As I had collected Indian relics by the hundreds, in this same field, I refrained from visiting the spot, but requested my friend to examine the locality again with great care, and report to Prof. Putnam, of the Peabody Museum at Cambridge, Massachusetts. What was the result? My friend reported, briefly, that the spot was one uncovered by heavy rains, and formed part of the bank of a brook that crossed the field (this brook, I would state, was a considerable creek in 1680); that the argillite chips, rude arrow-points, knives, scrapers, and bits of pottery were found at a common level, and about fifteen inches below the present surface of the field. Prof. Putnam, in acknowledging the receipt of the specimens and report as to their discovery, replied that the pottery was of unusual interest, as it was exceedingly rude and differed very greatly from any that Dr. Abbott had sent from the same general neighborhood. As the bits of pottery from this general neighborhood that I have collected amount to hundreds of thousands, it would seem that Prof. Putnam's remarks have a good deal of significance.

As having a most important bearing upon this general question, it is well to refer to the results of others' labors in the same general field. In an address before the American Association for the Advancement of Science, at its Cleveland (Ohio) meeting, August, 1888, I referred to the Lockwood collection, now at the Peabody Museum at Cambridge, Mass. This series of ancient stone implements is one of exceeding value, because the objects are nearly all from shell-heaps on the coast of New Jersey. When arranging this collection, I was much impressed with the fact that the argillite implements, of which there were many considerable lots, were all labeled by Prof. Lockwood as having been found alone—i.e., not associated with similar objects of jasper or quartz; and again, that with the argillite was much very rude pottery, that bore little resemblance to the fragments of earthenware found in other places associated with the jasper, quartz, and chert implements. Subsequently, Prof. Lockwood informed me that, while these various finds did not vary in depth, they were very marked otherwise, and he did not recall any special "find" where the commingling of the two forms indicated that they had been in use at the same time.

Taking a hint from little brooks and the surrounding fields, let us consider, in conclusion, the more pretentious rivers and their surrounding uplands. Will the same results be obtained? Can we venture to reach out from the particular to the general? These were the questions that I frequently asked of myself, and, after many a weary tramp and toilsome digging over a wide area, I am happy to state that I believe my efforts have been crowned with a full measure of success. What held good in a particular field holds good of a county, and what I now claim for the tide-water portion of the valley of the Delaware I believe is true of a much more extended area.

In no case have I been able to find stone implements significantly distributed over a considerable space—i.e., tracts of five hundred to a thousand acres—except where there was, or very recently had been, running water. The ground, then, to be examined was either the high land that shut in the valley, or the valley itself, limiting that term to the banks of the stream and the immediately adjacent meadow tracts; exception being made where the bank of the stream was and always had been very precipitous. In such a case the brow of the bluff would be equivalent to the meadow or low land of a gently sloping valley.

In every such instance—and I have made or have had made many careful examinations of river and creek valleys—the result was the same: a very marked preponderance of argillite implements on the crests of the uplands, and a very great excess of jasper and quartz on the bottom land, or that directly adjacent to the stream. From this condition I am led to infer that, when these higher points were occupied, the present streams maintained a uniform flow as high as the freshet stage of these watercourses; and the fact that an Indian village site near by will be much nearer the river or creek shows clearly, I hold, that on a small scale the same conditions were repeated that occurred in the gradual change from glacial to post-glacial times. The volume of water in all our streams, comparing century with century, is gradually lessening.

Comparing then the rude objects of argillite, specialized as they are, with the magnificent flint-work of the historic Indians, I would designate the former as fossil implements, the latter as relics.

To this point I feel that I have been handling facts only, and deducing from them only logical inferences; but now looms up the natural and ever-interesting question, Who were these people? The origin of any race is a difficult problem to solve, but none can compare with these misty vestiges of prehistoric humanity. It seems to me but one inference is permissible: they who fashioned these rude argillite implements were the descendants of palæolithic man, and his superior in so far as a knowledge of the bow and arrow and rude pottery indicates. Beyond this, perhaps, we can not safely venture. Prof. Haynes has recently observed, "The palæolithic man of the river gravels at Trenton and his argillite using posterity the writer believes to be completely extinct." While this at present seems to be the generally accepted conclusion, there is a phase of the subject that merits consideration. May not this "argillite-using" man have been a blood-relation of existing Eskimos? To accept the view of Prof. Haynes that "argillite" man became extinct infers an interval of indefinite length, when man did not exist on our central Atlantic seaboard; but if we may judge from the abundant traces of man that have been left and of the relation as to position that these three general forms, palæolithic, later argillite, and Indian, bear to each other, it would appear that, in the valley of the Delaware, at least, man has not for a day ceased to occupy the land since the first of his kind stood upon the shores of that beautiful river.

By referring these intermediate people to the existing Eskimos, I would not be understood as maintaining that these boreal people were directly descended from the argillite-using folk of the Delaware Valley, but that both were derived from palæolithic man; in other words, that with the disappearance of glacial conditions in the Delaware valley, and the retirement northward of the continental ice-sheet, if such there were, the people of that distant day followed in its tracks, and lived the same life their ancestors had lived when northern New Jersey was as bleak as is Greenland today; but that not all of this strange people were so enamored of an arctic life, and that many remained and, with the gradual amelioration of the climate, their descendants changed in their habits so far as to meet the requirements of a temperate climate. This explanation, it seems to me, best accords with known facts.

It is fitting, after a long tramp in search of human relics or remains, still so abundantly scattered over and through the superficial soil, to halt, at the day's close, upon the river's bank, and rest upon one of the huge ice-transported bowlders that reach above the sod. From such a point I can mark the boundary of the latest phenomenon of the valley's geological history, and seem to see what time the walrus and the seal sported in the river's icy waters; what time the mastodon, the reindeer, and the bison tenanted the pine forests that clad the river's banks, and what time an almost primitive man, stealing through the primeval forests, surprised and captured these mighty beasts what time, lingering by the blow-holes of the seal and walrus in the frozen river, surprised and killed these creatures with so simple a weapon as a sharply chipped fragment of flinty rock. And, as the centuries rolled by, and the river lessened in bulk, until it but little more than filled its present channel, there still remained along its shores the more cultured descendants of the primitive chipper of pebbles. As a savage, so like the modern Eskimo that he has been held to be the same, this pre-Indian people still wrought the argillite that their ancestors were forced to use for their palæolithic tools; and as these spear-points are being gathered from the alluvial deposits of the more modern river, I can recall to their accustomed haunts this long-gone people, who, ere they gave place to the fierce Algonkin, were the peaceful tenants of this river's valley. Then, as we gather the beautiful arrow-heads of jasper and quartz, and pick from superficial soils grooved axes, celts, chisels, curiously wrought pipes, strange ornaments, ceremonial objects, and fragments of pottery, literally without number, we marvel at the skill of those who wrought them, and faintly realize how long these comparatively recent comers must have dwelt in this same valley, to have accumulated such an endless store of these imperishable relics.

We rightly speak of the antiquity of the Indian, but, remote as is his arrival on the Atlantic coast, it is modern indeed, in comparison with the antiquity of man in the same region. We can think of it, and perhaps faintly realize it, as "time relative," but in no wise determine it as "time absolute."

Dr. Burdon Sanderson foresees another division in science. He observes, in a biological paper in the British Association, that morphology and physiology have now diverged so widely, as regards subject and method, that there seems to be danger of a complete separation of one from the other.