1902 Encyclopedia > Anthropology > Antiquity of Man

(Part 4)

IV. Antiquity of Man. -- It was until of late years commonly held among the educated classes, that man's first appearance on earth might be treated on a historical basis as matter of record. It is true that the schemes drawn up by chronologists differed widely, as was naturally the case, considering the variety and inconsistency of their documentary data. On the whole, the scheme of Archbishop Usher, who computed that the earth and man were created in 4004 B.C., was the most popular. (See early editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica, art. "Creation.") It is no longer necessary, however, to discuss these chronologies, inasmuch as new evidence has so changed the aspect of the subject, that the quasi-historical schemes of the last century would now hardly be maintained by any competent authority any school. Geology, notwithstanding the imperfection of its results, has made it manifest that our earth must have been the seat of vegetable and animal life for an immense period of time; while the first appearance of man, though comparatively recent, is positively so remote, that an estimate between twenty and a hundred thousand years may fairly be taken as a minimum. This geological claim for a vast antiquity of the human race is supported by the similar claims of prehistoric archaeology and the science of culture, the evidence of all three departments of inquiry being intimately connected, and in perfect harmony.

During the last half century, the fact has been established that human bones and objects of human manufacture occur in such geological relation to the remains of fossil species of elephant, rhinoceros, hyaena, bear, &c., as to lead to the distinct inference that man already existed during the ancient period of these now extinct mammalia. The not quite conclusive researches of MM. Tournal and Christol in limestone caverns of the south of France date back to 1828. About the same time Dr. Schmerling of Liege was exploring the ossiferous caverns of the valley of the Meuse, and satisfied himself that the men who bones he found beneath the stalagmite floors, together with bones cut and flints shaped by human workmanship, had inhabited this Belgian district at the same time with the cave-bear and several other extinct animals whose bones were imbedded with them (Recherches sur les Ossements fossils decouverts dans les Cavernes de la Province de Liege, Liege, 1833-4. This evidence, however, met with little acceptance among scientific men. Nor, at first, was more credit given to the discovery by M. Boucher de Perthes, about 1841, of rude flint hatchets in a sand-bed containing remains of mammoth and rhinoceros at Menchecourt near Abbeville, which first find was followed by othrs in the same district (see Boucher de Perthes, De l'Industrie Primitive, ou les Arts a leur Origine, 1846; Antiquites Celtiques et Antediluviennes, Paris, 1847, &c.); between 1850 and 1860 competent French and English geologists, among them Rigollot, Falconer, Prestwich, and Evans, were induced to examine into the facts, and found the evidence irresistible that man existed and used rude implements of chipped flint during the Quaternary or Drift period. Further investigations were now made, and overlooked results of older ones reviewed. In describing Kent's Hole, near torquay, Mr. Godwin-Austen had maintained, as early as 1840 (Proc. Geo. Soc. London, vol. iii. p. 286), that the human bones and worked flints had been deposited indiscriminately together with the remains of fossil elephant, rhinoceros, &c., a minute exploration of this cavern has since been carriedon under the superintendence of Messrs Vivian, Pengelly, and others, fully justifying Mr. Godwin-Austen's early remark, that "there is no a priori reason why man and the several animals whose remains occur in caves and in gravel should not have lived here at some remote time" (see Pengelly, "Literature of Kent's Cavern," in Trans. Devonshire Association, 1868). Especially certain caves and rock-shelters in the province of Dordogne, in central France, were examined by a French and an English archaeologist, Mons. Edouard Lartet and Mr. Henry Christy, the remains discovered showing the former prevalence of the rein-deer in this region, at that time inhabited by savages, whose bone and stone implements indicate a habit of life similar to that of the Esquimaux. Moreover, the coexistence of man with a fauna now extinct or confined to other districts was brought to yet clearer demonstration, by the discovery in these caves of certain drawing and carvings of the animals done by the ancient inhabitants themselves, such as a group of rein-deer on a piece of rein-deer horn, and a sketch of a mammoth, showing this elephant's long hair, on a piece of a mammoth's tusk from La Madeleine (Lartet and Christy, Reliquice Aquintanice, ed. By T.R. Jones, London, 1865, &c.) These are among the earliest and principal of a series of discoveries of human relics belonging to what may be termed geological antiquity, with which should be mentioned Mr. Boyd Dawkins' examination of the hyaena den of Wokey, Hole, Dr. Lund's researches in the caves of Brazil, those in the south of France by the Marquis de Vibraye and MM. Garrigou and Filhol, those in Sicily by Dr. Falconer, and Mr. Bruce Foote's discovery of rude quartzite implements in the lateite of India. Fuller details of the general subject will be found in Sir C. Lyell's Antiquity of Man, 4th ed., London, 1873; Sir John Lubbock's Prehistoric Times, 3d ed., London, 1873; Dr. H Falconer's Palaeontological Memoirs, London, 1868; the volumes of Procedings of the International Congress of Prehistoric Archaeology; and the periodical Materiaux pour l'Histoire Primitive et Naturelle de l'Homme, edited at first by de Mortillet, and since by Trutat and Cartailhac.

This evidence is now generally accepted by geological as carrying back the existence of man into the period of the post-glacial drift, in what is now called the Quaternary period. That this indicates an antiquity at least of tens of thousands of years may be judged in several ways. The very position in which these rude instruments were found showed that they belonged to a time quite separate from that of history. Thus, at St, Acheul flint hatchets occur in a gravel-bed immediately overlying the chalk, which bed is covered by some 12 feet of sand and marl, capped by a layer of soil, which is shown by graves of the Gallo-Roman period to have been hardly altered during the last 1500 years. This distinction between the drift deposits and those containing relics of historic ages is, as a general rule, evident at a glance. Next, the succession of ages to which different classes of remains belong is well marked; the drift implements belongs to the palaeolithic or old stone age, when as yet the implements were extremely rude, and not ground or polished; above these in deposit, and therefore later in time, come the artistically shaped and polished celts of the Neolithic or new stone age; above these, again, relics of the bronze and early iron ages, with which historical antiquity in Europe begins. Again, the animals of the Quaternary period, whose bones are found with the rude stone implements, comprise several species of mammalia which have since become extinct, such as the mammoth, the hairy rhinoceros, and the Irish elk, while others, such as the rein-deer and musk-ox, now only inhabit remote districts. It is generally considered that such a fauna indicates, at any rate during part of the Quaternary period, a severer climate than now prevails in France and England. This difference from the present conditions seems to confirm the view, that the twenty centuries of French and English history form but a fraction of the time which has elapsed since the stone implements of prehistoric tribes were first buried under beds of gravel and sand by the rivers now represented by the Thames or the Somme. Still vaster, however, is the idea of antiquity suggested by the geographical conformation of such valleys as those in which these rivers flow. The drift-beds lie on their sides often 100 to 200 feet, and even more, above the present flood levels. As such highest deposits seem to mark the time when the rivers flowed at heights so far above the present channels, it follows that the drift-beds, and the men whose works they enclose, must have existed during a great part of the time occupied by the rivers in excavating their valleys down to their present beds. Granting it as possible that the rivers by which this enormous operation was performed were of greater volume and proportionately still greater power in flood-time than the present streams, which seem so utterly inadequate to their valleys, and granting also, that under different conditions of climate the causing of debacles by ground-ice may have been a powerful excavating agent, nevertheless, with all such allowances the reckoning of ages seems vastly out of proportion to historical chronology. It is not convenient to discuss here Mr. Prestwich's division of the drift gravels into high and low level beds, nor Mr. A Tylor's argument against this division, nor he latter's theory of a Pluvial period (see Quart Journ Geol. Soc., vol. xxiv. Part , vol. xxv. Part 1). The geology of the Quaternary or Post-tertiary gravels, on which the geological argument for the high antiquity of man mainly rests, has been especially treated by Prestwich in the Philos. Trans. 1860, p. 277, and 1864, p. 247; see also J. Evans, Ancients Stone Impts., ch. 25; references to the writings of other geologists will be found in the already mentioned works of Lyell and Lubbock.

Beside these arguments, which suggest high antiquity rather than offer means of calculation, certain inferences (accounts of which are also given in the last-named works) have been tentatively made from the depth of mud, earth, peat, &c. which has accumulated above relics of human art imbedded in ancient times. Among these is Mr. Horner's argument from the numerous borings made in the alluvium of the Nile valley to a depth of 60 feet, where down to the lowest level fragments of burnt brick and pottery were, always found, showing that people advanced enough in the arts to bake brick and pottery have inhabited the valley during the long period required for the Nile inundations to deposit 60 feet of mud, at a rate probably not averaging more than a few inches in a century. Another argument is that of Professor von Morlot, based on a railway section through a conical accumulation of gravel and alluvium, which the torrent of the Tiniere has gradually built up where it enters the Lake of Geneva near Villeneuve. Here three layers of vegetable soil appear, proved by the objects imbedded in them to have been the successive surface-soils in two prehistoric periods and in the Roman period, and which now lie 4, 10 and 19 feet underground; on this it is computed that if 4 feet of soil were formed in the 1500 years since the Roman period, we must go 5000 years farther back for the date of the earliest human inhabitants. Calculations of this kind, loose as they are, deserve attention.

The interval between the Quaternary or Drift period and the period of historical antiquity is to some extent bridged over by relics of various intermediate civilisations, mostly of the lower grades, and in some cases reaching back to remote dates. The lake dwellings of Switzerland are perhaps among the more recent of these. They were villages of huts on piles in the water at some distance from the shore, for security from attack-in fact, fortified water settlements of the same nature as those of Lake Prasias in the time of Herodotus, and as those still inhabited in New Guinea and West Africa. The remains of these Swiss villages are found with the stumps of the piles still standing, often imbedded in an accumulation of mud or growth of pear which has preserved a kind of illustrative museum of the arts and habits of the lake men. From examination of the sites, it appears that the settlements are of various dates, from the Neolithic or polished stone period, when instruments of metal were still unknown, to the time when bronze was introduced, and beyond this into the later age marked by the use of iron. A few of the lake villages lasted on till the roman dominion, as is proved by the presence of Roman coins and pottery, but they were soon afterwards abandoned, so that their very existence was forgotten, and their rediscovery only dates from 1853, when the workmen excavating a bed of mud on the shore of the Lake of Zurich found themselves standing among the piles of a lake settlement. In Germany, Italy, and other countries, similar remains of a long pre-Roman civilization have been found. (The special works on lake habitations are Dr. Keller's Lake Dwelling, translated by J.E. Lee, London, 1866; and Troyon's Habitations Lacustres.) Indications of man's antiquity, extending farther back into prehistoric times, are furnished by the Danish shell-heaps or "kjokkenmodding," which term, meaning "kitchen refuse-heap," has been anglicized in "kitchen midden" (the word "midden." A dung-heap, being still current in the north of England). Along the shores of nearly all the Danish islands extensive beds or low mounds, like raised beaches may be seen, consisting chiefly of innumerable cast-away shells, intermingled with bones, &c. Such shell- heaps are found in all quarters of the globe by the sea-shore, and may be sometimes seen in process of formation, they are simply the accumulations of shells and refuse thrown away near the huts of rude tribes subsisting principally on shell-fish. The Danish kitchen middens, however, are proved to belong to a very ancient time, by the remains of the quadrupeds, birds, and fish, which served as the food of these rude hunters and fishers; among these are bones of the wild bull, beaver, seal, and great auk, all now extinct or rare in this region. Moreover, a striking proof of the antiquity of these shell-heaps is, that the shells of the common oyster are found of full size, whereas it cannot live at present in the brackish waters of the Baltic except near its entrance, so that it is inferred that the shores where the oyster at that time flourished were open to the salt sea. Thus, also, the eatable cockle, mussel, and periwinkle abounding in the kitchen middens are of full ocean size, whereas those now living in the adjoining waters are dwarfed to a third of their natural size by the want of saltness. It thus appears that the connection between the ocean and the Baltic has notably changed since the time of these rude stone-age people. (See the reports by Forch-hammer, Steenstrup, and Worsaae on the kjokkenmoddings, made to the Copenhagen Academy of Sciences.) Various other evidence is adduced in this part of the argument, such as that from the Danish peat-mosses, which show the existence of man at a time when the Scotch fir was abundant; at a later period the firs were succeeded by oaks, which have again been almost superseded by beeches, a succession of changes which indicate a considerable lapse of time. For further references to special accounts, the reader may consult the already mentioned general works on the antiquity of prehistoric man.

Lastly, chronicles and documentary records, taken in connection with archaeological relics of the historical period, carry back into distant ages the starting-point of actual history, behind which lies the evidently vast period only known by inferences from the relations of languages and the stages of development of civilization. Thus, Egypt affords some basis for estimating a minimum date for its Ancient population. The hieroglyphic inscriptions, the most ancient written records of the world, preserve direct memorials of a time which can hardly be less, and may be much more, than 3000 years before the Christian era. With all the doubt which besets the attempt to extract a definite chronology from the Egyptian names of kings and lists of dynasties (see EGYPT), their salient points fit with the historical records of other nations. Thus, the great Ramesside dynasty, known among Egyptologists as the 19th dynasty, corresponds with the mention of the building of the city of Raamses in Exod. I. 11; Amenophis III., called by the Greeks Memnon, belongs to the previous 18th dynasty; while the three pyramid kings, whom Herodotus mentions as Cheops, Chephren, and Mykerinos, and whose actual Egyptian names are read in the hieroglyphic lists as Chufu, Chafra, and Menkaura, are set down in the 4th dynasty. Lepsius may not be over-estimating when he dates this dynasty back as far as 3124 B.C., and carries the more dubious previous dynasties back to 3892 B.C. before reaching what are known as the mythical dynasties, which probably have their bases rather in astronomical calculations than in history (Lepsius, Konigs-buch der alten Aegypter, Berlin 1858; compare the computations of Brugsch, Bunsen, Hinks, Wilkinson, &c.)

The Greeks of the classic period could discuss the Egyptian chronologies with priests and scribes who perpetuated the languages and records of their earliest dynasties; and as the Septuagint translation of the Bible was made at Alexandria, it is not impossible that its giving to man a considerably greater antiquity than that of the Hebrew text may have been due to the influence of the Egyptian chronology. Even if the lowest admissible calculations be taken, this will not invalidate the main fact, that above 4000 years ago the Egyptian nation already stood at a high level of industrial and social culture. The records of several other nations show that as early or not much later than this they had attained to a national civilization. The Bible, whose earliest books are among the earliest existing chronicles, shows an Israelite nation existing in a state of patriarchal civilization previous to the already mentioned time of contact with Egypt. In ancient Chaldaea, the inscribed bricks of Urukh's temples probably belong to a date beyond 2000 years B.C. (G. Rawlinson, Five Great Monarchies of the Ancient Eastern World, London, 1862, &c., vol. i. ch. 8).

The Chinese dynasties, like those of Egypt, begin with an obviously mythical portion, and continue into actual history; the difficulty is to draw the line where genuine record begins. Those who reckon authentic history only from, the dynasty of Chow, beginning about 1100 B.C. during which Confucius lived, will at any rate hardly deny the existence of the earlier dynasty of Shang, previous to which the yet earlier dynasty of Hea is recorded; so that, though much that is related of these periods may be fabulous, it seems certain that there was a Chinese nation and a Chinese civilization reaching back beyond 2000 B.C. (see Sir John Davis, The Chinese; Pauthier, Livres Sacres de l'Orient; Shu-King, &c.)

Till of late it was a commonly received opinion that the early state of society was one of comparatively high culture, and those who held this opinion felt no difficulty in assigning the origin of man to a time but little beyond the range of historical records and monuments. At present, however, the view has become paramount that the civilization of the world has been gradually developed from an original stone-age culture, such as characterizes modern savage life. To hold this opinion necessitates the adding to the 4000 or 5000 years to which the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Babylon, and China date back, a probably much greater length of time, during which the knowledge, arts, and institutions of these countries attained to their remarkably high level. The evidence of comparative philology corroborates this judgment. Thus, Hebrew and Arabic are closely related languages, neither of them the original of the other, but both sprung from some parent language more ancient than either. When, therefore, the Hebrew records have carried back to the most ancient admissible date the existence of the Hebrew language, this date must have been long preceded by that of the extinct parent language of the whole Semitic family; while this again was no doubt the descendant of languages slowly shaping themselves through ages into this peculiar type. Yet more striking is the evidence of the Aryan or Indo-European family of languages. The Hindus, Medes, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Germans, Kelts, and Slaves make their appearance at more or less remote dates as nations separate in language as in history. Nevertheless, it is now acknowledged that at some far remoter time, before these nations were divided from the parent stock, and distributed over Asia and Europe by the Aryan dispersion, a single barbaric people stood as physical and political representative of the nascent Ayran race, speaking a now extinct Aryan language, from which, by a series of modifications not to be estimated as possible within many thousands of years, there arose languages which have been mutually unintelligible since the dawn of history, and between which it was only possible for an age of advanced philology to trace the fundamental relationship.

From the combination of these considerations, it will be seen that the farthest date to which documentary record extends, is now generally regarded by anthropologists as but the earliest distinctly visible point of the historic period, beyond which stretches back a vast indefinite series of prehistoric ages.

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