Popular Science Monthly/Volume 65/October 1904/The Ethnological Work of Lane Fox

1419153Popular Science Monthly Volume 65 October 1904 — The Ethnological Work of Lane Fox1904Henry Balfour




THE earth, as we know, is peopled with races of the most heterogeneous description, races in all stages of culture. Colonel Lane Fox argued that, making due allowance for possible instances of degradation from a higher condition, this heterogeneity could readily be explained by assuming that, while the progress of some races has received relatively little check, the culture development of other races has been retarded to a greater or less extent, and that we may see represented conditions of at least partially arrested development. In other words, he considered that in the various manifestations of culture among the less civilized peoples were to be seen more or less direct survivals from the earlier stages or strata of human evolution; vestiges of ancient conditions which have fallen out at different points and have been left behind in the general march of progress.

Taken together, the various living races of man seem almost to form a kind of living genealogical tree, as it were, and it is as an epiphyte upon this tree that the comparative ethnologist largely thrives; while to the archeologist it may also prove a tree of knowledge the fruit of which may be eaten with benefit rather than risk.

This certainly seems to be a legitimate assumption in a general way; but there are numerous factors which should be borne in mind when we endeavor to elucidate the past by means of the present. If the various gradations of culture exhibited by the condition of living races—the savage, semi-civilized, or barbaric, and the civilized races—could be regarded as accurately typifying the successive stages through which the higher forms of culture have been evolved in the course of the ages; if, in fact, the different modern races of mankind might be accepted as so many sections of the human race whose intellectual development has been arrested or retarded at various definite stages in the general progression, then we should have, to all intents and purposes, our genealogical tree in a very perfect state, and by its means we could reconstruct the past and study with ease the steady growth of culture and handicrafts from the earliest simple germs, reflecting the mental condition of primeval man up to the highest manifestations of the most cultured races.

These ideal conditions are, however, far from being realized. Intellectual progress has not advanced along a single line, but, in its development, it has branched off in various directions, in accordance with varying environment; and the tracing of lines of connection between different forms of culture, as is the case with the physical variations, is a matter of intricate complexity. Migrations with the attendant climatic changes, change of food, and, in fact, of general environment, to say nothing of the crossing of different stocks, transmission of ideas from one people to another, and other factors, all tend to increase the tangle.

Although in certain instances savage tribes or races show obvious signs of having degenerated to some extent from conditions of a higher culturedom, this can not be regarded as the general rule, and we must always bear in mind the seemingly paradoxical truth that degradation in the culture of the lower races is often, if not usually, the direct result of contact with peoples in a far higher state of civilization.

There can, I think, be little doubt that Colonel Lane Fox was well justified in urging the view that most savage races are in large measure strictly primitive, survivals from early conditions, the development of their ideas having from various causes remained practically stationary during a very considerable period of time. In the lower, though not degenerate, races signs of this are not wanting, and while few, possibly none, can be said to be absolutely in a condition of arrested development, their normal progress is at a slow, in most cases at a very slow, rate.

Perhaps the best example of a truly primitive race existing in recent times, of which we have any knowledge, was afforded by the native inhabitants of Tasmania. This race was still existing fifty years ago, and a few pure-blooded survivors remained as late as about the year 1870, when the race became extinct, the benign civilizing influence of enlightened Europeans having wiped this extremely interesting people off the face of the earth. The Australians, whom Colonel Lane Fox referred to as being 'the lowest amongst the existing races of the world of whom we have any accurate knowledge' are very far in advance of the Tasmanians, whose lowly state of culture conformed thoroughly with the characteristics of a truly primitive race, a survival not only from the stone age in general, but from almost the earliest beginnings of the stone age. The difference between the culture of the Tasmanians and that of the Australians was far greater than that which exists between man of the 'river drift' period and his Neolithic successors. The objects of every-day use were but slight modifications of forms suggested by nature, involving the exercise of merely the simplest mental processes. The stone implements were of the rudest manufacture, far inferior in workmanship to those made by Paleolithic man; they were never ground or polished, never even fitted with handles, but were merely grasped in the hand. The varieties of implements were very few in number, each, no doubt, serving a number of purposes, the function varying with the requirements of the moment. They had no bows or other appliances for accelerating the flight of missiles, no pottery, no permanent dwellings; nor is there any evidence of a previous knowledge of such products of higher culture. They seem to represent a race which was isolated very early from contact with higher races; in fact, before they had developed more than the merest rudiments of culture—a race continuing to live under the most primitive conditions, from which they were never destined to emerge.

Between the Tasmanians, representing in their very low culture the one extreme, and the most civilized peoples at the other extreme, lie races exhibiting in a general way intermediate conditions of advancement or retardation. If we are justified, as I think we are, in regarding the various grades of culture observable among the more lowly of the still existing races of man as representing to a considerable extent those vanished cultures which in their succession formed the different stages by which civilization emerged gradually from a low state, it surely becomes a very important duty for us to study with energy these living illustrations of early human history in order that the archeological record may be supplemented and rendered more complete. The material for this study is vanishing so fast with the spread of civilization that opportunities lost now will never be regained, and already even it is practically impossible to find native tribes which are wholly uncontaminated with the products, good or bad, of higher cultures.

The arts of living races help to elucidate what is obscure in those of prehistoric times by the process of reasoning from the known to the unknown. It is the work of the zoologist which enables the paleontologist to reconstruct the forms of extinct animals from such fragmentary remains as have been preserved, and it is largely from the results of a comparative study of living forms and their habitats that he is able, in his descriptions, to equip the reconstructed types of a past fauna with environments suited to their structure, and to render more complete the picture of their mode of life.

In like manner, the work of the ethnologist can throw light upon the researches of the archeologist; through it broken sequences may be repaired, at least suggestively, and the interpretation of the true nature and use of objects of antiquity may frequently be rendered more sure. Colonel Lane Fox strongly advocated the application of the reasoning methods of biology to the study of the origin, phylogeny and etionomics of the arts of mankind, and his own collection demonstrated that the products of human intelligence can conveniently be classified into families, genera, species and varieties, and must be so grouped if their affinities and development are to be investigated.

It must not be supposed—although some people, through misapprehension of his methods, jumped at this erroneous conclusion—that he was unaware of the danger of possibly mistaking mere accidental resemblances for morphological affinities, and that he assumed that because two objects, perhaps from widely separated regions, appeared more or less identical in form, and possibly in use, they were necessarily to be considered as members of one phylogenetic group. On the contrary, in the grouping of his specimens according to their form and function, he was anxious to assist as far as possible in throwing light upon the question of the monogenesis or polygenesis of certain arts and appliances, and to discover whether they are exotic or indigenous in the regions in which they are now found, and, in fact, to distinguish between mere analogies and true homologies. If we accept the theory of the monogenesis of the human race, as most of us undoubtedly do, we must be prepared to admit that there prevails a condition of unity in the tendencies of the human mind to respond in a similar manner to similar stimuli. Like conditions beget like results; and thus instances of independent invention of similar objects are liable to arise. For this very reason, however, the arts and customs belonging to even widely separated peoples may, though apparently unrelated, help to elucidate some of the points in each other's history which remain obscure through lack of the evidence required to establish local continuity.

I think, moreover, that it will generally be allowed that cases of 'independent invention' of similar forms should be considered to have established their claim to be regarded as such only after exhaustive inquiry has been made into the possibilities of the resemblances being due to actual relationship. There is the alternative method of assuming that, because two like objects are widely separated geographically, and because a line of connection is not immediately obvious, therefore the resemblance existing between them is fortuitous, or merely the natural result of similar forms having been produced to meet similar needs. Premature conclusions in matters of this kind, though temptingly easy to form, are not in the true scientific spirit, and act as a check upon careful research, which, by investigating the case in its various possible aspects, is able either to prove or disprove what otherwise would be merely a hasty assumption. The association of similar forms into the same series has therefore a double significance. On the one hand, the sequence of related forms is brought out, and their geographical distribution illustrated, throwing light, not only upon the evolution of types, but also upon the interchange of ideas by transferrence from one people to another, and even upon the migration of races. On the other hand, instances in which two or more peoples have arrived independently at similar results are brought prominently forward, not merely as interesting coincidences, but also as evidence pointing to the phylogenetic unity of the human species, as exemplified by the tendency of human intelligence to evolve independently identical ideas where the conditions are themselves identical. Polygenesis in his inventions may probably be regarded as testimony in favor of the monogenesis of man.

I have endeavored in this address to dwell upon some of the main principles laid down by Colonel Lane Fox as a result of his special researches in the field of ethnology, and my object has been twofold. First, to bear witness to the very great importance of his contribution to the scientific study of the arts of mankind and the development of culture in general, and to remind students of anthropology of the debt which we owe to him, not only for the results of his very able investigations, but also for the stimulus which he imparted to research in some of the branches of this comprehensive science. Secondly, my object has been to reply to some criticisms offered in regard to points in the system of classification adopted in arranging his ethnographical collection. And, since such criticisms as have reached me have appeared to me to be founded mainly upon misinterpretation of this system, I have thought that I could meet them best by some sort of restatement of the principles involved.

It would be unreasonable to expect that his work should hold good in all details. The early illustrations of his theories were to be regarded as tentative rather than dogmatic, and in later life he recognized that many modifications in matters of detail were rendered necessary by new facts which had since come to light. The crystallization of solid facts out of a matrix which is necessarily partially volatile is a process requiring time. These minor errors and the fact of our not agreeing with all his details in no way invalidate the general principles which he urged, and we need but cast a cursory glance over recent ethnological literature to see how widely accepted these general principles are, and how they have formed the basis of, and furnished the inspiration for, a vast mass of research by ethnologists of all nations.

It appears more than probable that Cambridge will be much involved in the future advancement of anthropological studies in Great Britain, if we may judge from the evident signs of a growing interest in the science, not the least of which is the recent establishment of a board of anthropological studies, an important development upon which we may well congratulate the university. Within my own experience there have been many proofs of the existence in Cambridge of a keen sympathy with the principles of ethnological inquiry developed by Colonel Lane Fox, and I feel that, as regards my choice of a theme for the main topic of my address, no apology is needed. For my handling of this theme, on the other hand, I fear it must be otherwise. I would gladly have done fuller justice to the work of Colonel Lane Fox, but, while I claim to be among the keenest of his disciples, I must confess to being but an indifferent apostle.

I have been obliged, moreover, to pass over many interesting features in the work of this ingenious and versatile scientist. I have made no attempt to touch upon his archeological researches, since it has been necessary for me to restrict myself to a portion only of his scientific work. In this field, as in his ethnological work, his keen insight, ingenuity and versatility were manifested, while the close attention which he bestowed upon matters of minute detail has rendered classical his work as a field archeologist. While the greater part of his ethnological work is associated with the name Lane Fox, by which he was known until 1880, most of his researches into the remains of prehistoric times were conducted after he had in that year assumed the name of Pitt Rivers, on inheriting an important estate which, by the happiest of coincidences, included within its boundaries a considerable number of prehistoric sites of the highest importance. That he made full use of his opportunities is amply manifested in his published works. In his archeological work are repeated the characteristics of his ethnological researches, and one may with confidence say of his contributions to both fields of inquiry that, if he advanced science greatly through his results he furthered its progress even more through his methods. By his actual achievements as a researcher he pushed forward the base of operations; by his carefully-thought-out systems for directing research he developed a sound strategical policy upon which to base further organized attacks upon the unknown.