Researches into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization/Chapter 13



It has been intimated that the present series of Essays affords no sufficient foundation for a definite theory of the Rise and Progress of Human Civilization in early times. Nor, indeed, will any such foundation be ready for building upon, until a great deal of preparatory work has been done. Still, the evidence which has here been brought together seems to tell distinctly for or against some widely circulated Ethnological theories, and also to justify a certain amount of independent generalization, and the results of the foregoing chapters in this way may now be briefly summed up, with a few additional remarks.

In the first place, the facts collected seem to favour the view that the wide differences in the civilization and mental state of the various races of mankind are rather differences of development than of origin, rather of degree than of kind. Thus the Gesture-Language is the same in principle, and similar in its details, all over the world. The likeness in the formation both of pure myths and of those crude theories which have been described as "myths of observation," among races so dissimilar in the colour of their skins and the shape of their skulls, tells in the same direction. And wherever the occurrence of any art or knowledge in two places can be confidently ascribed to independent invention, as, for instance, when we find the dwellers in the ancient lake-habitations of Switzerland, and the Modern New Zealanders, adopting a like construction in their curious fabrics of tied bundles of fibre, the similar step thus made in different times and places tends to prove the similarity of the minds that made it. Moreover, to take a somewhat weaker line of argument, the uniformity with which like stages in the development of art and science are found among the most unlike races, may be adduced as evidence on the same side, in spite of the constant difficulty in deciding whether any particular development is due to independent invention, or to transmission from some other people to those among whom it is found. For if the similar thing has been produced in two places by independent invention, then, as has just been said, it is direct evidence of similarity of mind. And on the other hand, if it was carried from the one place to the other, or from a third to both, by mere transmission from people to people, then the smallness of the change it has suffered in transplanting is still evidence of the like nature of the soil wherever it is found.

Considered both from this and other points of view, this uniform development of the lower civilization is a matter of great interest. The state of things which is found is not indeed that one race does or knows exactly what another race does or knows, but that similar stages of development recur in different times and places. There is reason to suppose that our ancestors in remote times made fire with a machine much like that of the modern Esquimaux, and at a far later date they used the bow and arrow, as so many savage tribes do still. The foregoing chapters treating of the history of some early arts, of the practice of sorcery, of curious customs and superstitions, are indeed full of instances of the recurrence of like phenomena in the remotest regions of the world. We might reasonably expect that men of like minds, when placed under widely different circumstances of country, climate, vegetable and animal life, and so forth, should develop very various phenomena of civilization, and we even know by evidence that they actually do so; but nevertheless it strikingly illustrates the extent of mental uniformity among mankind to notice that it is really difficult to find, among a list of twenty items of art or knowledge, custom or superstition, taken at random from a description of any uncivilized race, a single one to which something closely analogous may not be found elsewhere among some other race, unlike the first in physical characters, and living thousands of miles off. It is taking a somewhat extreme case to put the Australians to such a test, for they are perhaps the most peculiar of the lower varieties of Man, yet among the arts, beliefs, and customs, found among their tribes, there are comparatively few that cannot be matched elsewhere. They raise scars on their bodies like African tribes; they circumcise like the Jews and Arabs; they bar marriage in the female line like the Iroquois; they drop out of their language the names of plants and animals which have been used as the personal names of dead men, and make new words to serve instead, like the Abipones of South America; they bewitch their enemies with locks of hair, and pretend to cure the sick by sucking out stones through their skin, as is done in so many other regions. It is true that among their weapons they have one of very marked, perhaps even specific peculiarity, boomerang, but the rest of their armoury, the spear, the spear-thrower, the club, the throwing-cudgel, are but varieties of instruments common elsewhere, and the same is true of their fire-drill, their stone hatchet, their nets and baskets, their bark canoes and rafts. And while among the Australians there are only a very few exceptions to modify the general rule that whatever is found in one place in the world may be matched more or less closely elsewhere, piecemeal or as a whole, the proportion of such exceptions is smaller, and consequently the uniformity of development more strikingly marked, among most of the other races of the world who have not risen above the lower levels of culture.

In the next place, the collections of facts relating to various useful arts seem to justify the opinion that, in such practical matters at least, the history of mankind has been on the whole a history of progress. Over almost the whole world are found traces of the former use of stone implements, now superseded by metal; rude and laborious means of making fire have been supplanted by easier and better processes; over large regions of the earth the art of boiling in earthen or metal pots over the fire has succeeded the ruder art of stone-boiling; in three distant countries the art of writing sounds is found developing itself out of mere picture-writing, and this phonetic writing has superseded in several districts the use of quipus, or knotted cords, as a means of record and communication. In the chapter particularly devoted to evidence of progress, a number of facts are stated which seem to be records of a forward development in other arts, in times and places beyond the range of history. On the other hand, though arts which flourish in times of great refinement or luxury, and complex processes which require a combination of skill or labour hard to get together, and liable to be easily disarranged, may often degenerate, yet the more homely and useful the art, and the less difficult the conditions for its exercise, the less likely it is to disappear from the world, unless when superseded by some better device. Races may and do leave off building temples and monuments of sculptured stone, and fall off in the execution of masterpieces of metal-work and porcelain, but there is no evidence of any tribe giving up the use of the spindle to twist their thread by hand, or having been in the habit of working the fire-drill with a thong, and going back to the clumsier practice of working it without, and it is even hard to fancy such a thing happening. Since the Hottentots have learnt, within the last two centuries or so, to smelt the iron ore of their country, it is hard to imagine that anything short of extirpating them or driving them into a country destitute of iron, could make them go back to the Stone Age in which their ancestors lived. Some facts are quoted which bear on the possible degeneration of savage tribes when driven out into the desert, or otherwise reduced to destitution, or losing their old arts in the presence of a higher civilization, but there seems ground for thinking that such degeneration has been rather of a local than of a general character, and has rather affected the fortunes of particular tribes than the development of the world at large. I do not think I have ever met with a single fact which seems to me to justify the theory, of which Dr. von Martius is perhaps the leading advocate, that the ordinary condition of the savage is the result of degeneration from a far higher state.[1] The chapter on "Images and Names," which explains the arts of Magic as the effects of an early mental condition petrified into a series of mystic observances carried up into the midst of a higher culture, is indeed in the strongest opposition to the view strongly advocated by degenerationists, that these superstitious practices are mutilated remnants of a high system of belief which prevailed in former times. So far as may be judged from the scanty and defective evidence which has as yet been brought forward, I venture to think the most reasonable opinion to be that the course of development of the lower civilization has been on the whole in a forward direction, though interfered with occasionally and locally by the results of degrading and destroying influences.

Granting the existence of this onward movement in the lower levels of art and science, the question then arises, how any particular piece of skill or knowledge has come into any particular place where it is found. Three ways are open, independent invention, inheritance from ancestors in a distant region, trans- mission from one race to another; but between these three ways the choice is commonly a difficult one. Sometimes, indeed, the first is evidently to be preferred. Thus, though the floating gardens of Mexico and Cashmere are very similar devices, it seems more likely that the Mexican chinampa was invented on the spot than that the idea of it was imported from a distant region. Though the wattled cloth of the Swiss lake-dwellings is so similar in principle to that of New Zealand, it is much easier to suppose it the result of separate invention than of historical connexion. Though both the Egyptians and Chinese came upon the expedient of making the picture of an object stand for the sound which was the name of that object, there is no reason to doubt their having done so independently.

But the more difficult it is to account for observed facts in this way, and the more necessary it becomes to have recourse to theories of inheritance or transmission to explain them, the greater is their value in the eyes of the Ethnologist. Wherever he can judge that the existence of similar phenomena in the culture of distant peoples cannot be fairly accounted for, except by supposing that there has been a connexion by blood or by intercourse between them, then he has before him evidence bearing upon the history of civilization and on the history of mankind, evidence which shows that such movements as have introduced guns, axes, hooks, into America in historic times, have also taken place in unhistoric times among tribes whose ancestors have left them no chronicles of past ages. Thus the appearing of the Malay smelting-furnace in Madagascar, and of the outrigger canoe in East Australia and the Andaman Islands, may he appealed to as evidence of historical connexion. It is possible that the Ethnographer may some day feel himself justified in giving to this kind of argument a far wider range. He may not perhaps venture on extreme arguments, such, for instance, as to claim for the bow and arrow a common origin wherever it is found, that is, over the whole world with perhaps no exception but part of Polynesia, and part or the whole of Australia. Yet, noticing that the distribution of the potter's art in North America is not sporadic, as if a tribe here and a tribe there had wanted it and invented it, but that it rises northwards in a compact field from Mexico among the tribes East of the Rocky Mountains, he may more forcibly argue that it spread from a single source, and is at once a result and a proof of the transmission of civilization. Indeed, it seems as though the recurrence of similar groups in the inventories of instruments and works of the lower races, so remarkable both in the presence of like things and the comparative absence of unlike ones, might come to supply, in a more advanced state of Ethnography, the materials for an indefinite series of arguments bearing on the early history of man.

It is not to be denied, however, that there is usually a large element of uncertainty in inferences of this kind taken alone, and it is only in special cases that summary generalizations from such evidence can as yet be admitted. Indeed, its proper place is rather as accompanying the argument from language, mythology, and customs, than as standing by itself. Thus the appearance, just referred to, of the Malay blast-furnace in Madagascar has to be viewed in connexion with the affinity in language between Madagascar and the islands of the Eastern Archipelago. Putting the two things together, we may assume that the connexion with Madagascar dates from a time since the introduction of iron-smelting in a part of the great Malayo-Polynesian district, and belongs to that particular group of islands near the Eastern coast of Asia where this immense step in material civilization was made. Again, the philological re- searches of Buschmann, which have brought into view traces of the Aztec language up into the heart of North America, fifteen hundred miles and more north of the City of Mexico, join with several other lines of evidence in bringing far distant parts of the population of the continent into historical connexion, and in showing, at least, that such communication between its different peoples as may have spread the art of pottery from a single locality is not matter of mere speculation. It is in this way that it will probably be found most expedient to use fragmentary arguments from the distribution of the arts and sciences of savage tribes, in Ethnological districts where a way has been already opened by more certain methods.

In its bearing on the History of Mankind, the tendency of modern research in the region of Comparative Mythology is not to be mistaken. The number of myths recorded as found in different countries, where it is hardly conceivable that they should have grown independently, goes on steadily increasing from year to year, each one famishing a new clue by which common descent or intercourse is to be traced. Such evidence, as fast as it is brought before the public, is received with the most lively interest; and not only is its value fully admitted, but there may even be observed a tendency to use it with too much confidence in proof of common descent, without enough consideration of what we know of the way in which Mythology really travels from race to race. The cause of the occurrence of a myth, or of a whole family of myths, may be, and no doubt often is, mere intercourse, which has as little to do with common descent as the connexion which has planted the stories of the Arabian Nights among the Malays of Borneo, and the legends of Buddha among the Chinese. On the other hand, the argument from similar Customs has received, as a whole, comparatively little attention, but it is not without importance. Two or three, at least, of the customs remarked upon in the present volume, in the group including the cure by sucking, the couvade, and others, such as the wide-spread superstitions connected with sneezing, on which Mr. Haliburton gave a lecture, in 1863, at Halifax, Nova Scotia,[2] may be adduced as facts for the occurrence of which in so many distant times and places it is hard to account on any other hypothesis than that of deep-lying connexions by blood or intercourse, among races which history, and even philology, only know as isolated sections of the population of the world. Whether such customs had one or several original sources, their present diffusion seems in great measure due to propagation from district to district.

On the whole, it does not seem to be an unreasonable, or even an over-sanguine view, that the mass of analogies in Art and Knowledge, Mythology and Custom, confused and indistinct as they at present are, may already be taken to indicate that the civilizations of many races, whose history even the evidence of Language has not succeeded in bringing into connexion, have really grown up under one another's influences, or derived common material from a common source. But that such lines of argument should ever be found to converge in the last instance towards a single point, so as to enable the student to infer from reasoning on a basis of observed facts that the civilization of the whole world has its origin in one parent stock, is a state of things of which not even the most dim and distant view is to be obtained.

On another subject, on which it would not be prudent to offer a definite opinion, a few words may nevertheless be said. Every attempt to trace back the early history of civilization tends, however remotely, towards an ultimate limit—the primary condition of the human race, as regards their knowledge of the laws of nature and their power of modifying the outer world for their own ends. Such lines of investigation as go back from the Bronze or Iron Ages to the time of the use of implements of stone, from the higher to the lower methods of fire-making, from the boat to the raft, from the use of the spindle to the art of hand-twisting, and so on, seem to enable the student to see back through the history of human culture to a state of art and science somewhat resembling that of the savage tribes of modern times. It is useful to work back to this point, at least as a temporary resting-place in the argument, seeing that a state of things really known to exist is generally more convenient to reason upon than a purely theoretical one. But if we may judge that the present condition of savage tribes is the complex result of not only a long but an eventful history, in which development of culture may have been more or less interfered with by degradation caused by war, disease, oppression, and other mishaps, it does not seem likely that any tribe known to modern observers should be anything like a fair re- presentative of primary conditions. Still, positive evidence of anything lower than the known state of savages is scarce in the extreme. That the men whose tools and weapons are found in the Drift Beds, in the Bone Caves, and in the Shell-Heaps of Denmark, were not in the habit of grinding the edges of any of their stone implements, may be instanced as evidence of a singularly low condition of one of the useful arts. The general character of this lowest division of the Stone Age, as exemplified among tribes of remote præ-historic times, seems to place their state of civilization below that recorded among tribes known to travellers or historians.

To turn to a very different department of culture, some of the facts belonging to the history of custom and superstition may for the last time be referred to, as perhaps having their common root in a mental condition underlying anything to be met with now. We have seen prevalent among savages and barbarians a state of mind which helps us to account for the whole business of Magic, including the arts of omen-taking by astrology and other kinds of divination, and of bewitching by means of images and names of persons, with its counter-system of prevention and cure by sympathy, the last including the quaintly instructive custom of the couvade. But it looks as though even savages have but the remains of this magical state of mind inherited from ancestors of yet lower culture, and that they have begun to outgrow it, as the civilized world has more fully done. The early fusion of objective and subjective relations in the mind, of the effects of which in superstitious practices handed down from age to age so much has been said in this book, may perhaps not be fully or exactly represented in the mental state of any living tribe of men.

There have been indeed few more important movements in the course of the history of mankind, than this change of opinion as to the nature and relations of what is in the mind and what is out of it. To say nothing of its vast effects upon Ethics and Religion, the whole course of Science, and of Art, of which Science is a principal element, has been deeply influenced by this mental change. Man's views of the difference between imagination and reality, of the nature of cause and effect, of the connexion between himself and the external world, and of the parts of the external world among themselves, have been entirely altered by it. To the times before this movement had gone too far, belong the developments of Mythology, so puzzling to later ages which had risen to a higher mental state, and had then thrown down the ladder they had climbed by. The modern deciphering of ancient myths has been perhaps more valuable than any direct examination of savage races, in giving us the means of realizing that early state of mind in which there is scarcely any distinct barrier between fact and fancy,—to which whatever is similar is the same. If the clouds are driven across the sky like cows from their pasture, they are not merely compared to cows, but are thought and talked of as though they really were cows; if the sun travels along its course like a glittering chariot, forthwith the wheels and the driver and the horses are there; while by treating a name as though it necessarily represented a person, it becomes possible to evolve out of the contemplation of nature those wonderful stories in which even the earth, the sea, and the sky, combine with their natural attributes a kind of half-human personality. The opinion that dreams and phantasms have an objective existence out of the mind that perceives them, and that when two ideas are associated in a man's mind the objects to which those ideas belong must have a corresponding physical connexion, are views over which the long course of observation and study of nature has brought a vast change. These things belong to that early condition of the human mind, from which, to say nothing of the special views of metaphysicians and leaders in science, the ordinary ideas of Man and Nature held by educated men differ so widely. However far these ideas may in their turn be left behind, the growth which can be traced within the range of our own observation and inference, is one of no scant measure. It may bear comparison with one of the great changes in the mental life of the individual man, perhaps rather with the expansion and fixing of the mind which accompanies the passage from infancy into youth, than with the later steps from youth into manhood, or from manhood into old age.

  1. See above, p. 136. It appears, however, that the late Dr. Martins is no longer to lie reckoned among the supporters of the degeneration-theory, as in later years he saw cause to reverse his early views. Since the date of the first edition of the present work, he has published his opinion as to the Amazons tribes, that there is no ground for considering their barbarous condition a secondary one, nor that it was preceded by a higher state of morals, or a past civilization. See Martius, 'Beiträge zur Ethnographie Amerika's,' Leipzig, 1867, vol. i. p. 375; also Peschel, 'Völkerkunde,' Leipzig, 1874, p. 137. [Note to 3rd Edition.]
  2. R. G. Haliburton, 'New Materials for the History of Man,' Halifax. N. S. 1863.