Popular Science Monthly/Volume 5/October 1874/The Fossil Man of Mentone

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 5 October 1874  (1874) 
The Fossil Man of Mentone
By Theodore Gill
PSM V05 D660 The fossil man of menthone.jpg




OCTOBER, 1874.


THE attention of all the readers of The Popular Science Monthly has doubtless been attracted by the notices of the discovery, by M. Rivière, at several times within the last three years, of more or less complete fossil skeletons of man, deep in the floors of caverns near the town of Mentone. This town, formerly tolerably well known as a watering-place on the Mediterranean, in Italy, but near the present French boundary, bids fair to be best known to the readers of our own day in connection with the primitive history of our race, and as the sepulchre from which have been exhumed the oldest skeletal remains of representatives of the genus Homo. Of the first discovered and illustrated of these skeletons, as well as still the most complete, we now present an account, accompanied by a copy of the plate attached to the special monograph, by M. Rivière,[1] descriptive of it; the present account is almost confined to a critical analysis and résumé of the facts embodied in the monograph, the consideration of the more recent discoveries being best deferred to a future time, when the new facts will doubtless be detailed in a succeeding part of the monograph, and this course seems to be the most advisable, as no additional facts have been discovered which will essentially modify the conclusions and arguments herein urged.

The monograph referred to was anticipated, to some extent, by publication in the "Archives des Missions Scientifiques," published by the French Ministry of Public Instruction, and is itself issued as a first part of a work which the author hopes to be able to complete under the patronage of his government.

Nine caverns are now known to exist about Mentone; these are noticed by our author in inverse sequence to their numbers (i. e., the last, first, and so on). In the fourth (Caverne du Cavillon, or Barma du Cavillon) the skeleton was discovered, and in it the most complete explorations have been prosecuted; the entrance was blocked up till the commencement of this century; it is about 7 metres (23 feet) wide at the entrance, nearly 19 (62 feet) deep, and 15 or 16 (say 50 feet) high. The soil is composed in great part of ashes, the remains of a former cooking-place. For more than three months M. Rivière pushed his investigations, unearthing the remains of animals, shells, and bone or stone instruments, and, at last (on the 26th of March, 1872), was rewarded by uncovering a human foot, at a depth of between 6 and 7 metres (20 feet) below the original floor of the cave. Continuing uninterruptedly and with the greatest care, for eight days, his excavations, he finally exhumed almost the entire skeleton. The skeleton was recumbent on its left side, lengthwise in the cave, near the right wall, and about seven metres from the entrance; its attitude was that of repose—that of a man whom sudden and painless death might have surprised in sleep; so says M. Rivière.

The skeleton, when studied and compared with those of recent types of mankind, exhibited (so far as we can learn from the memoir) no differences other than of such kind as can be demonstrated in any large collection of skeletons of the various existing races; the height was above the average (and it is a pity that it was not compared with one that approximated it more in size than the one used in comparison); the arms, legs and feet furnished no unusual proportions, either in ratio to the body, or their own constituents—that is, forearm to humerus, lower leg to thigh etc.; the vertebral column and ribs were normal; the skull was equally normal, save as to the orbits, whose transverse diameter was somewhat greater, and vertical less than usual; in short, as far as we can asertain from our author, had the skeleton been found in an ordinary graveyard, no suspicion would have been entertained of its great antiquity.

But, in the superincumbent and surrounding earth (ashes) were found flint and bone instruments, and the remains of various animals which no longer exist in Europe, or are altogether extinct: among the latter (assuming the correctness of their determination) were remains of a panther (Felis antiqua, Gerv.), the tichorhine rhinoceros, a marmot (Arctomys primigenia, Gerv.), a deer (Cervus Corsicanus, Gerv.?), and a goat (Capra primigenia, Gerv). The tichorhine rhinoceros, as is well known, although now extinct, has been found embalmed skin and all—in the ice of Siberia, and must have survived long after man had originated. The other mammals cited require further study before their specific claims can be regarded as fully established. As to those species formerly existing in Europe, but which still live under somewhat modified forms, and restricted to other lands, are the lion, from which the Felis spelæa is scarcely distinguishable; the spotted hyena, with which the Hymna spelæa has been identified; and the bear of the ancient caverns, which differs (so far as has been shown) only in its larger size from the common bear of Europe, and for this reason (and this only, apparently) has it been identified with the grizzly of America; and on similar grounds only (i. e., superior size) have some remains of a stag, found in the cave of Mentone, been referred to the living wapiti, or elk (Cervus Canadensis) of America. With reference to these, it must be remembered that the progenitors of our living forms, both in America and Europe, were appreciably larger (as has been shown by Baird for the mammals of the Carlisle cave) than their modem descendants, and the American contemporary of the stag hunted by the Mentone man was considerably larger than its living representative, and consequently than the animal living in his own land.

So far, then, as yet appears from our knowledge of the skeleton, and the forms found in association with it, it can only be regarded as very ancient from an historical (and not a geological) point of view. Its possessor lived in the midst of a fauna most of whose representatives still live in forms no more modified than are the existing races of the genus Homo compared with himself.

But, on the other hand, that his antiquity is great, and that he lived under conditions quite different from those which verbal history has preserved for us, appears to be indubitable; if many of his associates still live, it is under considerably modified forms, and other species coexistent with him (such especially as the tichorhine rhinoceros) ceased to exist before man had begun to record the existence of even the stranger forms of animal life; and how that man and his fellows ministered to their needs is, to some extent, made known to us by the objects of their handiwork preserved around the remains of the dead.

These were either of bone, or deer's-horns, or of stone; the former were relatively few, and are referred to by M. Rivière as arrow-heads, pins, needles, chisels, sleeking-tools, and a báton of command (sic!) made from the principal left metacarpal of a horse, perforated, and supposed to have been carried around the neck; the stone implements were much more numerous, and represented by scrapers or graters, pins, arrow or lance heads, disks, knife-blades, and hammers. The workmanship was quite rude. The great predominance of ruminant (deer, goat) bones suggests their favorite food: that they used fire is obvious; and the numerous long bones of animals split lengthwise (and only five out of more than ten thousand were not) plainly indicated that they used the marrow.

We may now pause, review the evidence thus briefly referred to, and inquire what gain has resulted from the discovery of the fossil man of Mentone.

On the one hand, we had the evidence, in the remains of man and his workmanship, associated with all the characteristic animal remains referred to, that man—man, thinking and capable of applying his conceptions to fabrications for his uses—was contemporary with the cave animals, the tichorhine rhinoceros, and the mammoth; and, if the evidence is perfectly authentic (and no doubt has been expressed), that he was even prone to embody his conceptions in rude pictorial art. Thus, man had for some time been generally acknowledged to have existed at least as far back as can be claimed for the man of Mentone.

On the other hand, the skeletal remains of the man of that period were altogether too fragmentary to allow of any definite opinion as to his structural characteristics. The data for such opinion have now been rendered available by M. Rivière's discovery; and, although he has not yet published positive details, the negative results afforded us indicate that the fossil man was, in all respects, a typical man, perhaps even differing less from his successors in Europe than do some other existing races. It is at least very certain that he had no decided apelike characteristics. Even more! He was man to excess! The proportions of the fore limb to the hind, and of the median and distal portions of each to the proximal, so far from proving a condition intermediate between man and the apes, or embryonic or juvenile humanity, or even affinity to the negro, indicate that he was more unlike the apes in such respects than are some of the existing races; nor is this evidence rebutted by any characteristics of the skull, the dentition or otherwise, so far as the testimony allows us to judge.

So much wild speculation is rife, and enthusiastic anthropologists are so much carried away by a vague idea of some startling discovery that may be at any moment made, that a counter-irritant may not be misplaced; and, where so much prophecy has been indulged, a little from ourselves may be pardoned.

With the evidences of the existence of man specialized as much as he is now, at a period so early as he is known to have lived, it is scarcely too rash to assert that it is useless to expect to find any evidence of his simian origin in any bones exhumed in the later formations in Europe, and much less in America. And, in view of the negative results of the extensive paleontological explorations made in Europe, it is almost as unlikely that any such remains will ever be found, even in the anterior formations. The anxious may therefore contemplate with a happy serenity the explorations made, for every skeleton found, in its perfect, man-like features, will not only disprove the existence of the dreaded intermediate link, but will add to the value of the negative evidence against the existence of such a link—that is, in Europe or America. And, on theoretical considerations, this is what might be expected.

But it would be altogether too rash to predict that, because no such evidence will, in all probability, be afforded by Europe or America, the evidence of the intermediate link will never be furnished. Let it be remembered that the present home of the anthropoid apes is almost entirely unknown in a paleontological point of view. When Africa or Asia shall have been half as well explored as Europe, or even America, it may then be time to predict that such evidence will never be forthcoming. But it is not likely, either, that the intermediate link will be of very recent origin; it may be found to have lived in the same epoch as did the Oreodonts and Titanotheres of America, or (exact synchronism is of no account here), as the antelopes and Helladotheres which ranged in miocene days the plains where now Athens stands; possibly even then the anthropoid Pithecoid had developed far into the pithecoid Anthropoid.

But, however this may be, the anthropologist who expects to find the evidences of man in a much less specialized condition than he now exhibits, in any very recent formation, in either Europe or America, must base his speculations on something else than known facts, and even in the face of zoological and paleontological evidence. Nor is it at all likely that the being who could fabricate tools and hunt with weapons the animals that were his contemporaries could have been very much less man-like than existing man. But we are now passing the border-line of induction from facts to speculation.

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  1. Découverte d'un squelette humain de l'époque paléolithique dans lea cavernes des Baoussé-Rousse, dites Grottes de Menton, par Emile Rivière, Avec deux photographies, par MM. Anfossi et Radiguet. Paris: J. B. Baillière et fils. Menton: chez l'auteur. 1873. The plate herewith given is a copy of one of those accompanying M. Rivière's memoir, and was engraved especially for the new edition of Prof. Dana's "Manual of Geology," to the publishers of which, Messrs. Ivison, Blakeman & Taylor, we are indebted for the use of it. 4to, 64 pp. Two plates.