Researches into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization/Chapter 1






In studying the phenomena of knowledge and art, religion and mythology, law and custom, and the rest of the complex whole which we call Civilization, it is not enough to have in view the more advanced races, and to know their history so far as direct records have preserved it for us. The explanation of the state of things in which we live has often to be sought in the condition of rude and early tribes; and without a knowledge of this to guide us, we may miss the meaning even of familiar thoughts and practices. To take a trivial instance, the statement is true enough as it stands, that the women of modern Europe mutilate their ears to hang jewels in them, but the reason of their doing so is not to be fully found in the circumstances among which we are living now. The student who takes a wider view thinks of the rings and bones and feathers thrust through the cartilage of the nose; the weights that pull the slit ears in long nooses to the shoulder; the ivory studs let in at the corners of the mouth; the wooden plugs as big as table-spoons put through slits in the under lip; the teeth of animals stuck point outwards through holes in the cheek; all familiar things among the lower races up and down in the world. The modern earring of the higher nations stands not as a product of our own times, but as a relic of a ruder mental condition, one of the many cases in which the result of progress has been not positive in adding something new, but negative in taking away something belonging to an earlier state of things.

It is indeed hardly too much to say that Civilization, being a process of long and complex growth, can only be thoroughly understood when studied through its entire range; that the past is continually needed to explain the present, and the whole to explain the part. A feeling of this may account in some measure for the eager curiosity which is felt for descriptions of the life and habits of strange and ancient races, in Cook's Voyages, Catlin's 'North American Indians,' Prescott's 'Mexico' and 'Peru,' even in the meagre details which antiquaries have succeeded in recovering of the lives of the Lake-dwellers of Switzerland and the Reindeer Tribes of Central France. For matters of practical life these people may be nothing to us; but in reading of them we are consciously or unconsciously completing the picture, and tracing out the course of life, of what has been so well said to be, after all, our most interesting object of study, mankind.

Though, however, the Early History of Man is felt to be an attractive subject, and great masses of the materials needed for working it out have long been forthcoming, they have as yet been turned to but little account. The opinion that the use of facts is to illustrate theories, the confusion between History and Mythology, which is only now being partly cleared up, an undue confidence in the statements of ancient writers, whose means of information about times and places remote from themselves were often much narrower than those which are, ages later, at our own command, have been among the hindrances to the growth of sound knowledge in this direction. The time for writing a systematic treatise on the subject does not seem yet to have come; certainly nothing of the kind is attempted in the present series of essays, whose contents, somewhat miscellaneous as they are, scarcely come into contact with great part of the most important problems involved, such as the relation of the bodily characters of the various races, the question of their origin and descent, the development of morals, religion, law, and many others. The matters discussed have been chosen, not so much for their absolute importance, as because, while they are among the easiest and most inviting parts of the subject, it is possible so to work them as to bring into view certain general lines of argument, which apply not only to them, but also to the more complex and difficult problems involved in a complete treatise on the History of Civilization. These lines of argument, and their relation to the different essays, may be briefly stated at the outset.

In the first place, when a general law can be inferred from a group of facts, the use of detailed history is very much superseded. When we see a magnet attract a piece of iron, having come by experience to the general law that magnets attract iron, we do not take the trouble to go into the history of the particular magnet in question. To some extent this direct reference to general laws may be made in the study of Civilization. The four next chapters of the present book treat of the various ways in which man utters his thoughts, in Gestures, Words, Pictures, and Writing. Here, though Speech and Writing must be investigated historically, depending as they do in so great measure on the words and characters which were current in the world thousands of years ago, on the other hand the Gesture-Language and Picture-Writing may be mostly explained without the aid of history, as direct products of the human mind. In the following chapter on "Images and Names," an attempt is made to refer a great part of the beliefs and practices included under the general name of magic, to one very simple mental law, as resulting from a condition of mind which we of the more advanced races have almost outgrown, and in doing so have undergone one of the most notable changes which we can trace as having happened to mankind. And lastly, a particular habit of mind accounts for a class of stories which are here grouped together as "Myths of Observation," as distinguished from the tales which make up the great bulk of the folk-lore of the world, many of which latter are now being shown by the new school of Comparative Mythologists in Germany and England to have come into existence also by virtue of a general law, but a very different one.

But it is only in particular parts of Human Culture, where the facts have not, so to speak, travelled far from their causes, that this direct method is practicable. Most of its phenomena have grown into shape out of such a complication of events, that the laborious piecing together of their previous history is the only safe way of studying them. It is easy to see how far a theologian or a lawyer would go wrong who should throw history aside, and attempt to explain, on abstract principles, the existence of the Protestant Church or the Code Napoleon. A Romanesque or an Early English cathedral is not to be studied as though all that the architect had to do was to take stone and mortar and set up a building for a given purpose. The development of the architecture of Greece, its passage into the architecture of Rome, the growth of Christian ceremony and symbolism, are only part of the elements which went to form the state of things in which the genius of the builder had to work out the requirements of the moment. The late Mr. Buckle did good service in urging students to look through the details of history to the great laws of Human Development which lie behind; but his attempt to explain, by a few rash generalizations, the complex phases of European history, is a warning of the danger of too hasty an appeal to first principles.

As, however, the earlier civilization lies very much out of the beaten track of history, the place of direct records has to be supplied in great measure by indirect evidence, such as Antiquities, Language, and Mythology. This makes it generally difficult to get a sound historical basis to work on, but there happens to be a quantity of material easily obtainable, which bears on the development of some of the more common and useful arts. Thus in the eighth and ninth chapters, the transition from implements of stone to those of metal is demonstrated to have taken place in almost every district of the habitable globe, and a progress from ruder to more perfect modes of making fire and boiling food is traced in many different countries; while in the seventh, evidence is collected on the important problem of the relation which Progress has borne to Decline in art and knowledge in the history of the world.

In the remote times and places where direct history is at fault, the study of Civilization, Culture-History as it is conveniently called in Germany, becomes itself an important aid to the historian, as a means of re-constructing the lost records of early or barbarous times. But its use as contributing to the early history of mankind depends mainly on the answering of the following question, which runs through all the present essays, and binds them together as various cases of a single problem.

When similar arts, customs, beliefs, or legends are found in several distant regions, among peoples not known to be of the same stock, how is this similarity to be accounted for? Some- times it may be ascribed to the like working of men's minds under like conditions, and sometimes it is a proof of blood relationship or of intercourse, direct or indirect, between the races among whom it is found. In the one case it has no historical value whatever, while in the other it has this value in a high degree, and the ever-recurring problem is how to distinguish between the two. An example on each side may serve to bring the matter into a clearer light.

The general prevalence of a belief in the continuance of the soul's existence after death, does not prove that all mankind have inherited such a belief from a common source. It may have been so, but the historical argument is made valueless by the fact that certain natural phenomena may have suggested to the mind of man, while in a certain stage of development, the idea of a future state, and this not once only, but again and again in different regions and at different times. These phenomena may prove nothing of the kind to us, but that is not the question. The reasoning of the savage is not to be judged by the rules which belong to a higher education; and what the ethnologist requires in such a case, is not to know what the facts prove to his own mind, but what inference the very differently trained mind of the savage may draw from them.

The belief that man has a soul capable of existing apart from the body it belongs to, and continuing to live, for a time at least, after the body is dead and buried, fits perfectly in such a mind with the fact that the shadowy forms of men and women do appear to others, when the men and women themselves are at a distance, and after they are dead. We call these apparitions dreams or phantasms, according as the person to whom they appear is asleep or awake, and when we hear of their occurrence in ordinary life, set them down as subjective processes of the mind. We do not think that the phantom of the dark Brazilian who used to haunt Spinoza was a real person; that the head which stood before a late distinguished English peer, whenever he was out of health, was a material object; that the fiends which torment the victim of delirium tremens, are what and where they seem to him to be; that any real occurrence corresponds to the dreams of the old men who tell us they were flogged last night at school. It is only a part of mankind, however, who thus disconnect dreams and visions from the objects whose forms they bear. Among the less civilized races, the separation of subjective and objective impressions, which in this, as in several other matters, makes the most important difference between the educated man and the savage, is much less fully carried out. This is indeed true to some extent among the higher nations, for no Greenlander or Kaffir ever mixed up his subjectivity with the evidence of his senses into a more hopeless confusion than the modern spiritualist. As the subject is only brought forward here as an illustration, it is not necessary to go at length into its details. A few picked examples will bring into view the two great theories of dreams and visions, current among the lower races. One is, that when a man is asleep or seeing visions, the figures which appear to him come from their places and stand over against him; the other, that the soul of the dreamer or seer goes out on its travels, and comes home with a remembrance of what it has seen.

The Australians, says Sir George Grey, believe that the nightmare is caused by an evil spirit. To get rid of it they jump up, catch a lighted brand from the fire, and with various muttered imprecations fling it in the direction where they think the spirit is. He simply came for a light, and having got it, he will go away.[1] Others tell of the demon Koin, a creature who has the appearance of a native, and like them is painted with pipe-clay and carries a fire-stick. He comes sometimes when they are asleep and carries a man off as an eagle does his prey. The shout of the victim's companions makes the demon let him drop, or else he carries him off to his fire in the bush. The unfortunate black tries to cry out, but feels himself all but choked and cannot. At daylight Koin disappears, and the native finds himself brought safely back to his own fireside.[2] Even in Europe, such expressions as being ridden by a hag, or by the devil, preserve the recollection of a similar train of thought. In the evil demons who trouble people in their sleep, the Incubi and Succubi, the belief in this material and personal character of the figures seen in dreams comes strongly out, perhaps nowhere more strikingly than among the natives of the Tonga Islands.[3] "Whoso seeth me in his sleep," said Mohammed. "seeth me truly, for Satan cannot, assume the similitude of my form."

Mr. St. John says that the Dayaks regard dreams as actual occurrences. They think that in sleep the soul sometimes remains in the body, and sometimes leaves it and travels far away, and that both when in and out of the body it sees and hears and talks, and altogether has a prescience given to it, which, when the body is in its natural state, it does not enjoy. Fainting fits, or a state of coma, are thought to be caused by the departure or absence of the soul on some distant expedition of its own. When a European dreams of his distant country, the Dayaks think his soul has annihilated space, and paid a flying visit to Europe during the night.[4] Very many tribes believe in this way that dreams are incidents which happen to the spirit in its wanderings from the body, and the idea has even expressed itself in a superstitious objection to waking a sleeper, for fear of disturbing his body while his soul is out.[5] Father Charlevoix found both the theories in question current among the Indians of North America. A dream might either be a visit from the soul of the object dreamt of, or it might be one of the souls of the dreamer going about the world, while the other—for every man has two—stayed behind with the body. Dreams, they think, are of supernatural origin, and it is a religious duty to attend to them. That the white men should look upon a dream as a matter of no consequence is a thing they cannot understand.[6]

How like a dream is to the popular notion of a soul, a shade, a spirit, or a ghost, need not be said. But there are facts which bring the dream and the ghost into yet closer connection than follows from mere resemblance. Thus the belief is found among the Finnish races that the spirits of the dead can plague the living in their sleep, and bring sickness and harm upon them.[7] Herodotus relates that the Nasamones practise divination in the following manner: they resort to the tombs of their ancestors, and after offering prayers, go to sleep by them, and whatever dream appears to them they take for their answer.[8] In modern Africa, the missionary Casalis says of the Basuto, "Persons who are pursued in their sleep by the image of a deceased relation, are often known to sacrifice a victim on the tomb of the defunct, in order, as they say, to calm his disquietude."[9] Clearly, then, a man who thinks he sees in sleep the apparitions of his dead relatives and friends has a reason for believing that their spirits outlive their bodies, and this reason lies in no far-fetched induction, but in what seems to be the plain evidence of his senses. I have set the argument down as belonging especially to the lower stages of mental development, though indeed I have been startled by hearing it myself urged in sober earnest very far outside the range of savage life.

It is interesting to read how Lucretius, reasoning against the belief in a future life, takes notice of the argument from dreams as telling against him, and states, in opposition to it, the doctrine that not dreams only, but even ordinary appearances and imaginations, are caused by film-like images which fly off from the surfaces of real objects, and come in contact with our minds and senses,—

"Touching these matters, let me now explain,
How there are so-called images of things
Which, like films torn from bodies' outmost face
Hither and thither flutter through the air;
These scare us, meeting us in waking hours,
And in our dreams, when oftentimes we see
Marvellous shapes, and phantoms of the dead
Which oft have roused us horror-struck from sleep;
Lest we should judge perchance that souls escape
From Acheron, shades flit 'mid living men,
Or aught of us can after death endure."[10]

Never, perhaps, has the train of thought which the Epicurean poet so ingeniously combats been more clearly drawn out than in Madge Wildfire's rambling talk of her dead baby, "Whiles I think my puir bairn's dead—ye ken very weel it's buried—but that signifies naething. I have had it on my knee a hundred times, and a hundred till that, since it was buried—and how could that be were it dead, ye ken—it's merely impossible."

It appears then, from these considerations, that when we find dim notions of a future state current in the remotest regions of the world, we must not thence assume that they were all diffused from a single geographical centre. The case is one in which any one plausible explanation from natural causes is sufficient to bar the argument from historical connexion. On the other hand, there is nothing to hinder such an argument in the following case, which is taken as showing the opposite side of the problem.

The great class of stories known as Beast Fables have of late risen much in public estimation. In old times they were listened to by high and low with the keenest enjoyment for their own sake. Then they were wrested from their proper nature into means of teaching little moral lessons, and at last it came to be the most contemptuous thing that could be said of a silly, pointless tale, to call it a "cock and bull story." In our own day, however, a generation among whom there has sprung up a new knowledge of old times, and with it a new sympathy with old thoughts and feelings, not only appreciate the beast fables for themselves, but find in their diffusion over the world an important aid to early history. Thus Dr. Dasent has pointed out that popular stories found in the west and south of Africa must have come from the same source with old myths current in distant regions of Europe.[11] Still later, Dr. Bleek has published a collection of Hottentot Fables,[12] which shows that other mythic episodes, long familiar in remote countries, have found their way among these rude people, and established themselves as household tales.

A Dutchman found a Snake, who was lying under a great stone, and could not get away. He lifted up the stone, and set her free, but when he had done it she wanted to eat him. The Man objected to this, and appealed to the Hare and the Hyena, but both said it was right. Then they asked the Jackal, but he would not even believe the thing could have happened, unless he saw it with his two eyes. So the Snake lay down, and the Man put the stone upon her, just to show how it was. "Now let her lie there," said the Jackal. This is only a version of the story of the Ungrateful Crocodile, which the sage Dûbân in the Arabian Nights declined to tell the king while the executioner was standing ready to cut his head off. It is given by Mr. Lane in his Notes,[13] and I am not sure that the simpler Hottentot version is not the neater of the two. Again, the name of "Reynard in South Africa," given by Dr. Bleek to his Hottentot tales, is amply justified by their containing familiar episodes belonging to the mediæval "Reynard the Fox."[14] The Jackal shams death and lies in the road till the fish-waggon comes by, and the waggoner throws him in to make a kaross of his skin, but the cunning beast throws a lot of fish out into the road, and then jumps out himself. In another place, the Lion is sick, and all the beasts go to see him but the Jackal. His enemy the Hyena fetches him to give his advice, so he comes before the Lion, and says he has been to ask the witch what was to be done for his sick uncle, and the remedy is for the Lion to pull the Hyena's skin off over his ears, and put it on himself while it is warm. Again, the trick by which Chanticleer gets his head out of Reynard's mouth by making him answer the farmer, reminds one of the way in which, in the Hottentot tale, the Cock makes the Jackal say his prayers, and when the outwitted beast folds his hands and shuts his eyes, flies off and makes his escape. Of course these tales, though adapted to native circumstances and with very clever native turns, may be all of very recent introduction. Such a story as that which introduces a fish-waggon, would be naturally referred to the Dutch boers, from whom indeed all the Reynard stories are likely to have come. One curious passage tends to show that the stories are taken, not from the ancient versions of Reynard, but from some interpolated modern rendering. A proof that Jacob Grimm brings forward of the independent, secluded course of the old German Beast-Saga, is, that it did not take up into itself stories long current elsewhere, which would have fitted admirably into it,—thus, for instance, Æsop's story of the Fox who will not go into the Lion's den because he only sees the footsteps going in, but none coming out, is nowhere to be found in the mediæval Reynard. But we find in the Hottentot tales that this very episode has found its way in, and exactly into its fitting place. "The Lion, it is said, was ill, and they all went to see him in his suffering. But the Jackal did not go, because the traces of the people who went to see him did not turn back."

As it happens, we know from other sources enough to explain the appearance in South Africa of stories from Reynard and the Arabian Nights by referring them to European or Moslem influence. But even without such knowledge, the tales themselves prove an historical connexion, near or remote, between Europe, Egypt, and South Africa. To try to make such evidence stand alone is a more ambitious task. In a chapter on the Geographical Distribution of Myths, I have compared a series of stories collected on the American Continent with their analogues elsewhere, endeavouring thereby to show an historical connexion between the mythology of America and that of the rest of the world, but with what success the reader must decide. In another chapter, some remarkable customs, which are found spread over distant tracts of country, are examined in order to ascertain, if possible, whether any historical argument may be grounded upon them.

For the errors which no doubt abound in the present essays, and for the superficial working of a great subject, a word may be said in apology. In discussing questions in which some- times the leading facts have never before been even roughly grouped, it is very difficult not only to reject the wrong evidence, but to reproduce the right with accuracy, and the way in which new information comes in, which quite alters the face of the old, does not tend to promote over-confidence in first results. For instance, after having followed other observers in setting down as peculiar to the South Sea Islands, in or near the Samoan group, an ingenious little drilling instrument which will be hereafter described, I found it kept in stock in the London tool shops; mistakes of this kind must be frequent till our knowledge of the lower civilization is much more thoroughly collected and sifted. More accuracy might indeed be obtained by keeping to a very small number of subjects, but our accounts of the culture of the lower races, being mostly unclassified, have to be gone through as a whole, and up to a certain point it is a question whether the student of a very limited field might not lose more in largeness of view than he gained by concentration. Whatever be the fate of my arguments, any one who collects and groups a mass of evidence, and makes an attempt to turn it to account which may lead to something better, has, I think, a claim to be exempt from any very harsh criticism of mistakes and omissions. As the Knight says in the beginning of his Tale:—

"I hare, God wot, a largë feeld to ere;
And waykë ben the oxen in my plough."

[Note to 2nd Edition, 1870. In renewing some special acknowledgments made in 1865 as to the composition of the present work, I cannot pass with a simple expression of obligation the name of the late Henry Christy. For the ten years during which I enjoyed his friendship, he gave me the benefit of his wide and minute knowledge, and I was able to follow all the details of his ethnological researches. He died in May, 1865, while carrying on investigations in the ossiferous caverns of Central France with Prof. Edouard Lartet. The "Reliquiæ Aquitanicæ," an elaborate account of these explorations, is the principal literary work bearing the name of Henry Christy. But his place in the history of Ethnology will be marked by the magnificent collection which he bequeathed to the nation, and which, belonging to the British Museum, but still kept at his residence, 103, Victoria Street, Westminster, under the name of the Christy Collection, has been developed into one of the most perfect Ethnological Museums in Europe.

I am indebted to Dr. W. R. Scott, Director of the Deaf and Dumb Institution at Exeter, for much of the assistance which has enabled me to write about the Gesture-Language with something of the confidence of an "expert;" and I have to thank Prof. Pott, of Halle, and Prof. Lazarus, of Berlin, for personal help in several difficult questions. Among books. I have drawn largely from the philological works of Prof. Steinthal, of Berlin, and from the invaluable collection of facts bearing on the history of civilization in the "Allgemeine Cultur-Geschichte der Menschheit," and "Allgemeine Culturwissenschaft," of the late Dr. Gustav Klemm, of Dresden.]

  1. Grey, 'Journals;' London, 1841, vol. ii. p. 339.
  2. Backhouse, 'Visit to the Australian Colonies;' London, 1843, p. 555.
  3. Mariner, 'Tonga Islands;' 2nd ed., London, 1818, vol. ii. p. 112.
  4. St. John, 'Forests of the Far East;' London, 1862, vol. i. p. 189.
  5. Bastian, 'Der Mensch in der Geschichte;' Leipzig, 1860, vol. ii. p. 318, etc.
  6. Charlevox, 'Hist. et Descr. Gén. de la Nouvelle-France; 'Paris, 1744, vol. vi. p. 78.
  7. Castrén, 'Vorlesungen über die Finnische Mythologie;' (Tr. and Ed. Schiefner;) St. Petersburgh, 1853, p. 120.
  8. Herod, iv. 172. Sec Mela, i. 8.
  9. Casalis, 'The Basutos;' London, 1861, p. 245.
  10. Lucret. 'De Rerum Natura,' iv. 29–39:—

    "Nunc agere incipiam tibi, quod vementer ad has res
    Attinet, esse ea quæ rerum simulacra vocamus;
    Quæ, quasi membranæ summo de corpore rerum
    Dereptæ, volitant ultroque citroque per auras,
    Atque eadem nobis vigilantibus obvia mentes
    Terrificant atque in somnis, cum sæpe figuras
    Contuimur miras simulacraque luce carentum,
    Quæ nos horrifice languentis sæpe sopore
    Excierunt; ne forte animas Acherunte reamur
    Effugere aut umbras inter vivos volitare,
    Neve aliquid nostri post mortem posse relinqui."

  11. Dasent, 'Popular Tales from the Norse,' 2nd ed., Edinburgh, 1859, p. 1.
  12. Bleek, 'Reynard the Fox in South Africa; 'London, 1864, pp. 11–13, 16, 19, 23.
  13. Lane, 'The Thousand and One Nights,' new edit, London, 1S59, vol. i. pp. 84, 114.
  14. Jacob Grimm, 'Reinhart Fuchs;' Berlin, 1834, pp. cxxii. 1. 30, cclxxii.