Popular Science Monthly/Volume 1/May 1872/Prehistoric Times

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By Dr. T. M. COAN.

Ethnology is passing at present through a phase from which older sciences have safely emerged. The new views with reference to the antiquity of man are still looked upon by some persons with distrust and apprehension. Yet, says the distinguished author, of whose researches we are about to give some account, these new views "will, I doubt not, in a few years, be regarded with as little disquietude as are now those discoveries in astronomy and geology which at one time excited even greater opposition." It is now pretty generally admitted that the first appearance of Man in Europe dates from a period so remote, that neither history, nor even tradition, can throw any light on his origin, or mode of life. Under these circumstances, some have supposed that the past is hidden from the present by a veil, which time will probably thicken, but never can remove. Thus our prehistoric antiquities have been valued as monuments of ancient skill and perseverance, not regarded as pages of ancient history; recognized as interesting vignettes, not as historical pictures. Some writers have assured us that, in the words of Palgrave, "we must give it up, that speechless past; whether fact or chronology, doctrine or mythology; whether in Europe, Asia, Africa, or America; at Thebes or Palenque, on Lycian shore or Salisbury Plain: lost is lost; gone is gone forever."

Of late years, however, a new Science has been born among us which deals with times and events far more ancient than any which have yet fallen within the province of the archæologist. The geologist reckons not by days or by years; the whole six thousand years, which were until lately looked on as the sum of the world's existence, are to him but one unit of measurement in the long succession of past ages.

Our knowledge of geology is, of course, very incomplete; on some questions we shall, no doubt, see reason to change our opinion, but, on the whole, the conclusions to which it points are as definite as those of zoology, chemistry, or any of the kindred sciences. Nor does there appear to be any reason why those methods of examination which have proved so successful in geology, should not also be used to throw light on the history of man in prehistoric times. Archæology forms, in fact, the link between geology and history. But, while other animals leave only teeth and bones behind them, the men of the earliest ages are to be studied principally by their works; they have left behind them houses, tombs, fortifications, temples, implements for use, and ornaments for decoration.

From the careful study of these remains, it would appear that prehistoric archæology may be divided into four great epochs:

1. That of the Drift; where man shared the possession of Europe with the Mammoth, the Cave bear, the woolly haired rhinoceros, and other extinct animals. This we may call the "Palæolithic" period.

2. The later or polished Stone Age; a period characterized by beautiful weapons and instruments made of flint and other kinds of stone; in which, however, we find no trace of the knowledge of any metal, excepting gold, which seems to have been sometimes used for ornaments. This we may call the "Neolithic" period.

3. The Bronze Age, in which bronze was used for arms and cutting instruments of all kinds.

4. The Iron Age, in which that metal had superseded bronze for arms, axes, knives, etc.; bronze, however, still being in common use for ornaments, and frequently also for the handles of swords and other arms, though never for the blades.

PSM V01 D112 Celtic hatchets.jpg
The three different types of Celts, and the manner in which they are supposed to have been handled.

Without attempting a laborious classification of the records of these epochs, we will speak first of some of the records of the "Bronze Age". The commonest and, perhaps, the most characteristic objects belonging to this age are the so called "celts," which were probably used for chisels, hoes, war axes, and a variety of other purposes.

Bronze celts are generally plain, but sometimes ornamented with ridges, dots, or lines, as in the accompanying figures. More than two thousand specimens of them are known to exist in the different Irish collections, of which the great Museum belonging to the Royal Irish Academy at Dublin contained in the year 1860 no less than six hundred and eighty eight, no two of which were cast in the same mould. They vary in size from an inch to a foot in length. That they were made in the countries where they are found, is proved by the presence of moulds. It is difficult to understand why the celt makers never cast their axes as we do ours, with a transverse hole, through which the handle might pass. No bronze implements of this description have been yet found in Great Britain, though a few have occurred in Denmark, where they are of great beauty and highly decorated.

The swords of the Bronze Age are always more or less leaf like in shape, double edged, sharp pointed, and intended for stabbing and thrusting, rather than for cutting.

PSM V01 D113 Bracelets and hairpins.jpg
Bracelets and Bronze Hair-pins from Switzerland.

Fish hooks, knives, bracelets, pins, and rings, of the same era, are also discovered in great numbers in various parts of Europe. They are well cast, and show considerable skill in metallurgy; and the beauty of their form and ornamentation indicates no little development of the artistic faculties.

We should hardly have hoped to ascertain much of the manner in which the people of the Bronze Age were dressed. Considering how perishable are the materials out of which clothes are formed, it is wonderful that any fragments of them should have remained to the present day; yet, in addition to traces of linen tissue, and of the skins of animals used in this period, we possess the whole dress of a chief belonging to the Bronze Age. On a farm occupied by M. Dahls, near Elbe in Jutland, are four tumuli, known as Great Kongehoi, Little Kongehoi, Guldhoi, and Treenhoi. This last was examined in 1861. Near its centre were found three wooden coffins, two of full size, and one evidently intended for a child. The contents of the larger were partially preserved, and very interesting: caps, a comb, two woollen shawls, traces of leather, some black hair, and the brain, remained, when all of the bones had changed into a kind of blue powder. Implements of bronze accompanied these remains, and there seems no doubt that they dated from a prehistoric antiquity.

PSM V01 D114 Caps and combs.jpg
Woolen Caps and Comb from Tumulus

Many of the dwellings in use during the Bronze Age were no doubt subterranean or semi subterranean. On almost all large tracts of uncultivated land, ancient villages of this character may still be traced. A pit was dug, and the earth which was thrown out formed a circular wall, the whole being then probably covered over with boughs. The "Penpits," near Gillingham, in Wiltshire, are of this character, and indicate a populous settlement. In Anglesea, similar hut circles exist. On Dartmoor and elsewhere, where large blocks of stone abounded, the natives saved themselves the trouble of excavating, and simply built up circular walls of stone. In other cases, probably when concealment was an object, the dwellings were entirely subterranean. Such ancient dwellings are in Scotland known as "weems," from "Uamha," a cave. In one of these at Monzie, in Perthshire, a bronze sword was discovered. Such underground chambers, however, appear to have been used in Scotland as dwellings, or at least as places of concealment, down to the time of the Romans; for a weem described by Lord Rosehill was constructed partly of stones showing the diagonal and diamond markings peculiar to Roman workmanship. Sir John Lubbock believes that Stonehenge also belongs to the Bronze Age.

From the independent statements of Homer and in the book of Kings (where the word is mistranslated brass) we find that bronze was abundant in the East no less than three thousand years ago. Bronze is composed of about nine parts of copper to one of tin: and copper is found in so many countries that we cannot as yet tell whence the Phoenicians obtained it. But, unless the ancients had some source of tin with which we are unacquainted, it seems to be well established that the Phoenician tin was mainly derived from Cornwall, and consequently that even at this early period a considerable commerce had been organized, and very distant countries brought into connection with one another. We are justified in concluding that, between b. c. 1500 and b. c. 1200, the Phoenicians were already acquainted with the mineral fields of Spain and of Britain.

Of the still earlier Age of Stone no less than 30,000 relics, mainly in the shape of implements, are preserved in the Danish museums alone. There is enough evidence to justify us in believing that there was a period when society was in so barbarous a state that sticks or stones (to which we must add horns and bones) were the only implements with which men knew how to furnish themselves.

Our knowledge of this ancient period is derived principally from four sources: namely, the tumuli, or ancient burial mounds; the Lake habitations of Switzerland; shell mounds of Denmark; and the Bone caves. There are, indeed, many other remains of great interest, such, for example, as the ancient fortifications, the "castles" and "camps" which crown so many English hill-tops, and the great lines of embankment; there are the so called Druidical circles and the vestiges of ancient habitations. The majority of these belong, however, in all probability, to a later period; and at any rate, in the present state of our knowledge, we cannot say which, or how many of them, are referable to the Stone Age.

Flint appears to have been the stone most frequently used in Europe, and it has had a much more important influence on our civilization than is generally supposed. Savages value it on account of its hardness and mode of fracture, which is such that, with practice, a good sound block can be chipped into almost any form that may be required.

In many cases block and pebbles of flint, picked up on the surface of the ground, were used in the manufacture of implements; but in other cases much labor was spent to obtain flint of good quality. A good illustration of this is afforded by the so called Grime's Graves, near Brandon, one of which has recently been explored by Mr. Greenwell. These turned out to be excavations made for the purpose of obtaining flint. The end of an ancient gallery was exposed to view. The flint had been hollowed out in three places, and in front of two of these recesses, pointing toward the half excavated stone, were two deer horn picks, lying just as they had been left, still coated with chalk dust, on which was in one place plainly visible the print of the workman's hand. They had evidently been left at the close of a day's work; during the night the gallery had fallen in, and they had never been recovered.

The flint knives, or "flakes," simple as their forms appear, are always the work of man. To make one, the flint must he held firmly, and then a considerable force must he applied, either by pressure or by blows, repeated three or four times, but at least three, and given in certain slightly different directions, with a certain definite force; these conditions could scarcely occur by accident, so that, simple as it may seem to the untrained eye, a flint flake is to the antiquary as sure a trace of man as the footprint in the sand was to Robinson Crusoe.

To us, accustomed as we are to the use of metals, it seems difficult to believe that such things were ever made use of; we know, however, that many savages of the present day have no better tools. Yet, with axes such as these, and generally with the assistance of fire, they will cut down large trees, and hollow them out into canoes. The piles used in the Swiss Stone Age Lake habitations were evidently, from the marks of the cuts on them, prepared with the help of stone axes. The great similarity of arrow heads, even from the most distant localities, may be seen in the accompanying figures, which represent specimens from France, North America, and Tierra del Fuego, respectively.

PSM V01 D116 Prehistoric arrowheads.jpg
France, North America, Tierra del Fuego

Of monuments and tumuli belonging to this epoch, there is no lack; throughout the world, they are scattered—camps, dikes, fortifications, cromlechs, or stone circles. In the Orkneys, more than 2,000 of the smaller tumuli still remain. In Denmark, they are still more abundant. They are found all over Europe, from the shores of the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains; in Asia, they are scattered over the great steppes, from the borders of Russia to the Pacific Ocean, and from the plains of Siberia to those of Hindostan; the entire plain of Jelalabad, says Masson, "is literally covered with tumuli and mounds." In America, they are to be numbered by thousands and tens of thousands; nor are they wanting in Africa, where the Pyramids themselves exhibit the most magnificent development of the same idea; indeed, the whole world is studded with the burial places of the dead. Tumuli or barrows are much more numerous and more widely distributed than stone circles. No doubt the great majority of them are burial mounds, but some also were erected as memorials, like the "heap of witness" erected by Laban and Jacob, or the mound heaped up by the ten thousand in their celebrated retreat, when they obtained their first view of the sea.

PSM V01 D117 Danish dolmens.jpg
Danish Dolmen.

One of the most curious habits of the prehistoric European was that of constructing his dwellings upon piles above the surface of the water. The vestiges of many Swiss buildings of this sort are not unlike those of the Pæonians, described by Herodotus.

PSM V01 D117 Sepulchar stone circle.jpg
Sepulchral Stone Circle.

"Their dwellings," he says, "are contrived after this manner planks fitted on lofty piles are placed in the middle of the lake, with a narrow entrance from the mainland by a single bridge. These piles, that support the planks, all the citizens anciently placed there at the public charge; but afterward they established a law to the following effect: whenever a man marries, for each wife he sinks three piles, bringing wood from a mountain called Orbelus: but every man has several wives. They live in the following manner: on the planks every man has a hut, in which he dwells, with a trap door closely fitted in the planks, and leading down to the lake. They tie the young children with a cord round the foot, fearing lest they should fall into the lake beneath. To their horses and beasts of burden they give fish for fodder; of which there is such an abundance, that, when a man has opened his trap door, he lets down an empty basket by a cord into the lake, and, after waiting a short time, draws it up full of fish."

And certain savage or semi-savage tribes live in the same manner, even at the present day. The fishermen of Lake Prasias still inhabit wooden cottages built over the water, as in the time of Herodotus. In most of the large Swiss lakes these habitations have been discovered, numbering over 200 at the present date. M. Troyon has endeavored to make a retrospective census of those early times. The settlement at Morges, which is one of the largest in the Lake of Geneva, is 1,200 feet long and 150 broad, giving a surface of 180,000 square feet. Allowing the huts to have been fifteen feet in diameter, and supposing that they occupied half the surface, leaving the rest for gangways, he estimates the number of cabins at 311; and supposing again that, on an average, each was inhabited by four persons, he obtains for the whole a population of 1,244. Sixty eight villages belonging to the Bronze Age are supposed to have contained 42,500 persons; while for the preceding epoch, by the same process of reasoning, he estimates the population at 31,875.

Abundant animal remains are found in these lake dwellings, no less, indeed, than 70 species, of which 10 are fishes, four reptiles, 26 birds, and the remainder quadrupeds. The dog, pig, horse, goat, and sheep, are recognized, and at least two varieties of oxen. Remains of the horse are extremely rare. Three varieties of wheat were cultivated by the lake dwellers, who also possessed two kinds of barley, and two of millet. Of these the most ancient and most important were the small six rowed barley and small "lake dwellers'" wheat. The discovery of Egyptian wheat at Wangen and Robenhausen is particularly interesting. Oats were cultivated during the Bronze Age, but are absent from all the Stone Age villages. Rye also was unknown. Altogether 115 species of plants have been determined. It is evident that the nourishment of the dwellers in the pile works consisted of corn and wild fruits, of fish, and the flesh of wild and domestic animals. Doubtless, also, milk was an important article of their diet.

Much as still remains to be made out, respecting the men of the Stone period, the facts already ascertained, like a few strokes by a clever draughtsman, supply us with the elements of an outline sketch. Carrying our imagination back into the past, we see before us, on the low shores of the Danish Archipelago, a race of small men, with heavy, overhanging brows, round heads, and faces probably much like those of the present Laplanders. As they must evidently have had some protection from the weather, it is most probable that they lived in tents made of skins. The total absence of metal indicates that they had not yet any weapons except those made of wood, stone, horn, and bone. Their principal food must have consisted of shell fish, but they were able to catch fish, and often varied their diet by game caught in hunting. It is, perhaps, not uncharitable to conclude that, when their hunters were unusually successful, the whole community gorged itself with food, as is the case with many savage races at the present time. It is evident that marrow was considered a great delicacy, for every single bone which contained any was split open in the manner best adapted to extract the precious morsel. As to the date, however, of this remote savage life, it is as yet impossible to speak with confidence, except to say that it was, in all probability, thousands of years earlier than any historic record.

Our knowledge of North American archæology is derived mainly from the researches of Messrs. Atwater, Squier, Davis, Lapham, and Haven. These remains differ less in kind than in degree from others concerning which history has not been entirely silent. They are more numerous, more concentrated, and in some particulars on a larger scale of labor, than the works which approach them on their several borders, and with whose various characters they are blended. Their great numbers may be the result of frequent changes of residence by a comparatively limited population, in accordance with a superstitious trait of the Indian nature, leading to the abandonment of places where any great calamity has been suffered. The contents of the Indian mounds are very various and interesting. They show that the art of pottery had been brought to a considerable degree of perfection. Various ornamental articles abound in the tumuli, such as beads, shells, necklaces, bracelets, etc. Earthworks for defence are also numerous, especially in the central parts of the States, and the remains of ancient mud huts have occasionally been found.

The so called "Sacrificial Mounds" are a class of ancient monuments altogether peculiar to the New World, and highly illustrative of the rites and customs of the ancient races of the mounds. These remarkable mounds have been very carefully explored. Their most noticeable characteristics are, their almost invariable occurrence within enclosures; their regular construction in uniform layers of gravel, earth, and sand, disposed alternately in strata, conformable to the shape of the mound; and their covering, a symmetrical altar of burnt clay or stone, on which are deposited numerous relics, in all instances exhibiting traces, more or less abundant, of their having been exposed to the action of fire. The so called "altar" is a basin, or table of burnt clay, carefully moulded into a symmetrical form, but varying much both in shape and size. Some are round, some elliptical, and others squares or parallelograms, while in size they vary from 2 feet to 50 feet, by 12 or 15. The usual dimensions, however, are from 5 to 8 feet.

Not the least remarkable of the American antiquities are the Animal Mounds, which are principally, though not exclusively, found in Wisconsin. In this district thousands of examples occur of gigantic basso rilievos of men, beasts, birds, and reptiles, all wrought with persevering labor on the surface of the soil, while enclosures and works of defence are almost entirely wanting, the ancient city of Azatlan being, as is supposed, the only example of the former class.

One remarkable group in Dale County, close to the Great Indian Warpath, consists of a man with extended arms, seven more or less elongated mounds, one tumulus, and six quadrupeds. The length of the human figure is 125 feet, and it is 140 feet from the extremity of one arm to that of the other. The quadrupeds vary from 90 to 126 feet in length.

"But," says Mr. Lapham, "the most remarkable collection of lizards and turtles yet discovered is on the school section about a mile and a half southeast from the village of Pewaukee. This consists of seven turtles, two lizards, four oblong mounds, and one of the remarkable excavations before alluded to. One of the turtle mounds, partially obliterated by the road, has a length of 450 feet, being nearly double the usual dimensions. Three of them are remarkable for their curved tails, a feature here first observed."

When, why, or by whom these remarkable works were erected, as yet we know not. The present Indians, though they look upon them with reverence, can throw no light upon their origin. Nor do the contents of the mounds themselves assist us in this inquiry. Several of them have been opened, and, in making the streets of Milwaukee, many of the mounds have been entirely removed; but the only result has been to show that they are not sepulchral, and that, excepting by accident, they contain no implements or ornaments.

Many computations have been made in respect to the actual antiquity of the various prehistoric remains that we have described. Sir Charles Lyell, one of the most cautious of geologists, thinks that 100,000 years is a moderate estimate of the time that has been required to form the alluvial delta of the Mississippi; and he considers that the alluvium of the Somme, containing flint implements and the remains of the mammoth and hyena, is no less ancient.

Many astronomical and climatic proofs are found of the extreme antiquity of the globe; and all geologists, indeed, are now prepared to admit that man has existed on our earth for a much longer period than was until recently supposed to have been the case.

But it may be doubted whether even geologists yet realize the great antiquity of our race. Sir Charles Lyell himself thinks that we may expect to find the remains of man in the pliocene strata, but there he draws the line, and says that in miocene time, "had some other rational being, representing man, then flourished, some signs of his existence could hardly have escaped unnoticed, in the shape of implements of stone or metal, more frequent and more durable than the osseous remains of any of the mammalia."

It is true that few of our existing species, or even genera, have as yet been found in miocene strata; but if man constitutes a separate family of mammalia, as he does in the opinion of the highest authorities, then, according to all paleontological analogies, he must have had representatives in miocene times. We need not, however, expect to find the proofs in Europe; our nearest relatives in the animal kingdom are confined to hot, almost to tropical climates, and it is in such countries that we are most likely to find the earliest traces of the human race.

M. Morlot has made some interesting calculations respecting the age of geological formations in Switzerland. The torrent of the Tinière, at the point where it falls into the Lake of Geneva, near Villeneuve, has gradually built up a cone of gravel and alluvium. In the formation of the railway this cone has been bisected for a length of 1,000 feet, and to a depth, in the central part, of about 32 feet 6 inches above the level of the railway. The section of the cone thus obtained shows a very regular structure, which proves that its formation was gradual. It is composed of the same materials (sand, gravel, and large blocks) as those which are even now brought down by the stream. The amount of detritus does, indeed, differ considerably from year to year, but in the long run the differences compensate for one another, so that, when considering long periods, and the structure of the whole mass, the influences of the temporary variations, which arise from meteorological causes, altogether disappear, and need not, therefore, be taken into account. M. Morlot's estimates assign about 6,000 years for the formation of the lower layer of vegetable soil, and 10,000 years for that of the whole existing cone. But above this cone is another, which was formed when the lake stood at a higher level than at present, and which M. Morlot refers to the period of the river drift gravels. This drift age cone is about twelve times as large as that now forming, and would appear, therefore, on the same data, to indicate an antiquity of more than 100,000 years.

Again, it will be remembered that, side by side with the remains of Arctic animals, have been found others indicating a warm climate, such for instance as the hippopotamus. This fact, which has always hitherto been felt as a difficulty, is at once explained by the suggestion of a change every 10,000 or 11,000 years, from a high to a low temperature, and vice versa. But a period of 10,000 years, long as it may appear to us, is very little from a geological point of view. We can thus understand how the remains of the hippopotamus and the bones of the musk ox come to be found together in England and in France. The very same geological conditions which fitted our valleys for the one, would, at an interval of 10,000 years, render them suitable for the other. That man existed in Europe during the period of the mammoth, no longer, apparently, admits of a doubt. "When speculations on the long series of events which occurred in the glacial and post glacial periods are indulged in," says Sir C. Lyell, "the imagination is apt to take alarm at the immensity of the time required to interpret the monuments of these ages, all referable to the era of existing species. In order to abridge the number of centuries which would otherwise be indispensable, a disposition is shown by many to magnify the rate of change in prehistoric times, by investing the causes which have modified the animate and the inanimate world with extraordinary and excessive energy.... We of the living generation, when called upon to make grants of thousands of centuries in order to explain the events of what is called the modern period, shrink naturally at first from making what seems so lavish an expenditure of past time."

To the geologist, however, these large figures have no appearance of improbability. All the facts of geology tend to indicate an antiquity of which we are but beginning to form a dim idea. Take, for instance, one single formation—our well known chalk. This consists entirely of shells and fragments of shells deposited at the bottom of an ancient sea, far away from any continent. Such a progress as this must be very slow: probably we should be much above the mark if we were to assume a rate of deposition of ten inches in a century. Now the chalk is more than a thousand feet in thickness, and would have required, therefore, more than 120,000 years for its formation. The fossiliferous beds of Great Britain, as a whole, are more than 70,000 feet in thickness, and many which there measure only a few inches, on the Continent expand into strata of immense depth; while others, of great importance elsewhere, are wholly wanting there, for it is evident that, during all the different periods in which Great Britain has been dry land, strata have been forming (as is, for example, the case now) elsewhere, and not with us. Moreover, we must remember that many of the strata now existing have been formed at the expense of older ones; thus, all the flint gravels in the southeast of England have been produced by the destruction of chalk. This, again, is a very slow process. It has been estimated that a cliff 500 feet high will be worn away at the rate of an inch in a century. This may seem a low rate, but we must bear in mind that along any line of coast there are comparatively few points which are suffering at one time, and that even on those, when a fall of cliff has taken place, the fragments serve as a protection to the coast, until they have been gradually removed by the waves The Wealden Valley is 22 miles in breadth, and on these data it has been calculated that the denudation of the Weald must have required more than 150,000,000 of years.

  1. "Prehistoric Times as illustrated by Ancient Remains, and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages By Sir John Lubbock, Bart, M. P., Vice President of the Royal Society," etc., etc. 8vo, pp. 640. New York: D. Appleton & Co.