Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/January 1893/The Problems of Anthropology



INTERNATIONAL prehistoric congresses have for a whole generation exercised a great influence upon the researches and the ideas of our contemporaries. This institution was founded at the time when the discoveries of Boucher de Perthes of the existence of man in the Drift period; the observations of Ferdinand Keller on pile constructions; those of Cristi and Lartet on the troglodytes of the Dordogne, and of Vorso on the kitchen-middens; and the theory of Darwin and his disciples, were producing a revolution in scientific traditions. As a result of that revolution, the Congress found itself confronting a great problem. It was incumbent on it to study all the countries of Europe in order to collect prehistorical traces of man, to attract general attention to the origin and course of human civilization; and it proposed to itself to remove the veil of mystery from before the primitive cradle of man.

Many of the questions which were raised at this time have now been definitively resolved. We know that man existed in the Quaternary epoch, that he lived through long ages miserable and depressed, while stone, wood, horn, and bone constituted the material of his arms and of his only instruments; we are convinced that a long interval separated the age of stone from the age of metals, and that only in particular places was the use of stone immediately replaced by that of metals. These are the data which now make part of the general knowledge acquired by civilized nations since the foundation of the Congress. But further studies respecting the origin and the regions whence the different branches of civilization have sprung have advanced relatively but very little.

First, the question of Tertiary man especially occupied the Congress, and reached its culminating point at the meeting in Lisbon. We were taken there to the plain of Otta to look in the strata for his remains. We found there flint chips that might in an extreme case be regarded as having been cut by man; but we discovered no human bones or potteries or worked objects; and the majority of the Congress, on leaving the place, were far from being convinced that these flint chips were distinguished, in any respect, from the débris which is found in the ground everywhere, and which results from the disintegration of a siliceous soil. Nobody has ever found in virgin Tertiary strata any piece of flint that has been recognized by the learned world as an unquestionable relic of the existence of man. We have likewise reached the same result in our search for human skulls and bones. We have to recognize that students can not assume that man existed in the Tertiary, or that there is any probability that the human race had its beginning in that epoch; on the contrary, we find a great void which we try to fill with fantastic imaginings, but which furnishes us with no real specimen.

After the Congress of Lisbon, students were more moderate and confined themselves to the search for known objects. Among these objects, archaeological finds predominated, and it is easy to understand why archæology has more and more taken the place of anthropology. Palæanthropological objects are so rare, and for the most part so liable to suspicion, that even till the present time the attempt to describe the most ancient race of Quaternary men is beyond the power of science. We have had two examples in Europe that afforded little encouragement: the attempts based on the Canstadt and on the Neanderthal skulls, which, as two eminent students once supposed, belonged to the extinct aborigines of the primitive European race. We discussed the question raised over these two skulls fifteen years ago, at the Congress of German Anthropologists in Ulm, and found that the Canstadt skull did not belong to the Quaternary, while the Neanderthal skull was at least very far from having a typical form.

I shall not examine the whole series of similar discoveries, most of which have only furnished us single exceptional skulls. But I must declare that even if these skulls had been what they were described as being and their geological position had been exactly defined, they could not have constituted proof of the existence of an inferior primitive race that could be regarded as a step between animals and existing man. Many of these skulls appear to be very ancient; but they resemble in all respects the skulls of modern races, and some of them even those of civilized races. We seek in vain for the "missing link" connecting man with the monkey or any other animal species.

We must, however, understand ourselves on a preliminary question. There exists a tradition common to all peoples, or we might say a dogma common to all religions, recognized by all students, ancient and modern, that the human body has an animal organization; that the same physiological and pathological laws rule human and animal life alike. Notwithstanding this uniformity, there exists a definite barrier separating man from the animal, which has not yet been effaced—heredity, which transmits to children the faculties of their parents. We have never seen a monkey bring a man into the world, nor a man produce a monkey. All men having a simian appearance are simply pathological variants. The opinion of Carl Vogt that microcephalous men, resembling simian animals, are produced by atavism, has been wholly abandoned since students have reached the conviction that the skulls of microcephals have indexes of pathological formation, with deficiencies arising from degeneracy.

The human organism, especially in the embryonic stage, is distinguished by many features that have been borrowed, not from the monkey only, but also from other animals. The living elements, the cells, present us the same types in man as in the mammals; sometimes these resemblances in the embryo continue to exist, and are even developed after birth. But this persistence or hyperplasy can not be made to serve as proof of the animal origin of man. Let us take this example of a hyperplasy of this kind: there is in the higher anthropoid apes a bony ramification that connects the jugular of the temporal with the frontal bone. It is sometimes developed in man, and is wanting in some individuals among the higher monkeys. I have shown, and M. Anoutchine has confirmed it, that this ramification occurs very frequently in the Australians, and we both regard the peculiarity as of simian origin. But we can not conclude from that that the Australians are simian-like, for the same peculiarity has been remarked, in some infrequent cases, in the skulls of Europeans; while there is not an example of men having such heads having furnished any other indication of simian organization or development. The bony ramification of the temporal jugular is nothing else than a special peculiarity, sometimes individual, sometimes racial, like curly hair, for example. When we look at a negro's head we might say that it resembles a sheep or a poodle; but, so far as we know, nobody has yet expressed the opinion that negroes are descended from sheep or from dogs. Still, the negroes are like sheep and poodle dogs in the hereditary transmission of a special peculiarity in their hair. In spite of that, their heads in no way resemble those of the animals we have mentioned. Bearing in mind these observations, we have become more circumspect now in our reasonings upon individual or racial analogies between man and animals; we certainly shall not forget that the human organization is in its essentials an animal organism, and that the monstrosities which occasionally appear may be regarded as results of atavism; but we shall require more convincing arguments before we assume a near relationship of man with any definite animal.

It was generally believed a few years ago that there yet existed a few human races which still remained in the primitive inferior condition of their organization. But all these races have been objects of minute investigation, and we know that they have an organization like ours, often indeed superior to that of supposed higher races; thus, the Eskimo head and the head of the Tierra del Fuegians belong to the perfected types. Some races have the same skulls very small, of about the same volume as the microcephalous skulls; for example, the inhabitants of the Andaman Islands and the Veddahs of Ceylon have been regarded as microcephalic. A more exact study has, however, shown a difference between them and the real microcephalic races. The head of an Andaman-islander or of a Veddah is very regular, only all its parts are a little smaller than among men of the ordinary races. Nanicephalic heads (dwarf), as I call them, have none of those characteristic anomalies that distinguish really microcephalic heads.

A single race, that of the Orang-Simaings and the Orang-Cekai of the peninsula of Malacca, still remains unstudied. The single traveler who has penetrated into the mountainous countries inhabited by them, the bold Russian, Miklukho Maklai, has ascertained that certain isolated individuals among Simaings are small and have curled hair. A new expedition has been sent into that country to study the anthropology of the Orang-Cekai, from which I have recently received a skull and a few locks of hair; the stock is really a black race with curly hair, the brachycephalous head of which is distinguished by very moderate interior volume, but it does not offer the most trifling sign of bestial development.

Thus we are repulsed at every line of the assault upon the human question. All the researches undertaken with the aim of finding continuity in progressive development have been without result. There exists no proanthropos, no man-monkey, and the "connecting link" remains a phantom.

Scientific anthropology begins with living races; and the first step in the construction of the doctrine of transformism will be the explanation of the way the human races have been formed, and of the means by which they have acquired their specific peculiarities while still preserving hereditary transmission. That is the future field of anthropological debate and investigation. But this field is outside of the limitations of our Congress. It is easy at first sight to suppose a dolichocephalous skull to be transformed into a brachycephalous skull, but still nobody has ever observed the transformation of a dolichocephalous race into a brachycephalous one, or vice versa, or of a negro race into an Aryan race.

Prehistoric anthropology should find methods of facilitating acquaintance with the types of ancient races and peoples, and of making possible the discovery of them among living men. It might add to that, if the occasion should present itself, data respecting strange individual cases, by the aid of which it is impossible to form a continuous line or constitute a genealogical tree, but which should be kept in the scientific lumber-room till the time when we can find the intermediate links that may unite them into a series.

And now let us continue faithful to the glorious traditions which our great masters have bequeathed to us. The majority of the students whose names are inscribed in the preceding congresses were archæologists. Lartet and Dessort, Vorso and Liche, Hozedine and Clericci, Ouvarov and Romer, who remain the protecting genius of our congress, have shown us how we must work. To select an example, questions like that of the discovery of copper, and of its value as a medium of exchange, ought to be problems of the greatest interest to us.—Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.

  1. Address at the opening of the International Congress of Prehistoric Archæology and Anthropology, at Moscow.