The Antiquity of Man/Introduction
The "Antiquity of Man" was published in 1863, and ran into a third edition in the course of that year. The cause of this is not far to seek. Darwin's "Origin of Species" appeared in 1859, only four years earlier, and rapidly had its effect in drawing attention to the great problem of the origin of living beings. The theories of Darwin and Wallace brought to a head and presented in a concrete shape the somewhat vague speculations as to development and evolution which had long been floating in the minds of naturalists. In the actual working out of Darwin's great theory it is impossible to overestimate the influence of Lyell. This is made abundantly clear in Darwin's letters, and it must never be forgotten that Darwin himself was a geologist. His training in this science enabled him to grasp the import of the facts so ably marshalled by Lyell in the "Principles of Geology," a work which, as Professor Judd has clearly shown, contributed greatly to the advancement of evolutionary theory in general.
From a study of the evolution of plants and of the lower animals it was an easy and obvious transition to man, and this step was soon taken. Since in his physical structure man shows so close a resemblance to the higher animals it was a natural conclusion that the laws governing the development of the one should apply also to the other, in spite of preconceived opinions derived from authority. Unfortunately the times were then hardly ripe for a calm and logical treatment of this question: prejudice in many cases took the place of argument, and the result was too often an undignified squabble instead of a scientific discussion. However, the dogmatism was not by any means all on one side. The disciples as usual went farther than the master, and their teaching when pushed to extremities resulted in a peculiarly dreary kind of materialism, a mental attitude which still survives to a certain extent among scientific and pseudo-scientific men of the old school. In more Recent times this dogmatic agnosticism of the middle Victorian period has been gradually replaced by speculations of a more positive type, such as those of the Mendelian school in biology and the doctrines of Bergson on the philosophical side. With these later developments we are not here concerned.
In dealing with the evolution and history of man as with that of any other animal, the first step is undoubtedly to collect the facts, and this is precisely what Lyell set out to do in the "Antiquity of Man." The first nineteen chapters of the book are purely an empirical statement of the evidence then available as to the existence of man in pre-historic times: the rest of the book is devoted to a consideration of the connection between the facts previously stated and Darwin's theory of the origin of species by variation and natural selection. The keynote of Lyell's work, throughout his life, was observation. Lyell was no cabinet geologist; he went to nature and studied phenomena at first hand. Possessed of abundant leisure and ample means he travelled far and wide, patiently collecting material and building up the modern science of physical geology, whose foundations had been laid by Hutton and Playfair. From the facts thus collected he drew his inferences, and if later researches showed these inferences to be wrong, unlike some of his contemporaries, he never hesitated to say so. Thus and thus only is true progress in science attained.
Lyell is universally recognised as the leader of the Uniformitarian school of geologists, and it will be well to consider briefly what is implied in this term. The principles of Uniformitarianism may be summed up thus: THE PRESENT IS THE KEY TO THE PAST. That is to say, the processes which have gone on in the past were the same in general character as those now seen in operation, though probably differing in degree. This theory is in direct opposition to the ideas of the CATASTROPHIC school, which were dominant at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The catastrophists attributed all past changes to sudden and violent convulsions of nature, by which all living beings were destroyed, to be replaced by a fresh creation. At least such were the tenets of the extremists. In opposition to these views the school of Hutton and Lyell introduced the principle of continuity and development. There is no discrepancy between Uniformitarianism and evolution. The idea of Uniformitarianism does not imply that things have always been the same; only that they were similar, and between these two terms there is a wide distinction. Evolution of any kind whatever naturally implies continuity, and this is the fundamental idea of Lyellian geology.
In spite, however, of this clear and definite conception of natural and organic evolution, in all those parts of his works dealing with earth-history, with the stratified rocks and with the organisms entombed in them, Lyell adopted a plan which has now been universally abandoned. He began with the most Recent formations and worked backwards from the known to the unknown. To modern readers this is perhaps the greatest drawback to his work, since it renders difficult the study of events in their actual sequence. However, it must be admitted that, taking into account the state of geological knowledge before his time, this course was almost inevitable. The succession of the later rocks was fairly well known, thanks to the labours of William Smith and others, but in the lower part of the sequence of stratified rocks there were many gaps, and more important still, there was no definite base. Although this want of a starting point has been largely supplied by the labours of Sedgwick, Murchison, De la Beche, Ramsay, and a host of followers, still considerable doubt prevails as to which constitutes the oldest truly stratified series, and the difficulty has only been partially circumvented by the adoption of an arbitrary base-line, from which the succession is worked out both upwards and downwards. So the problem is only removed a stage further back. In the study of human origins a similar difficulty is felt with special acuteness; the beginnings must of necessity be vague and uncertain, and the farther back we go the fainter will naturally be the traces of human handiwork and the more primitive and doubtful those traces when discovered.
The reprinting of the "Antiquity of Man" is particularly appropriate at the present time, owing to the increased attention drawn to the subject by recent discoveries. Ever since the publication of the "Origin of Species" and the discussions that resulted from that publication, the popular imagination has been much exercised by the possible existence of forms intermediate between the apes and man; the so-called "Missing Link." Much has been written on this subject, some of it well-founded and some very much the reverse. The discovery of the Neanderthal skull is fully described in this volume, and this skull is certainly of a low type, but it is more human than ape-like. The same remark applies still more strongly to the Engis skull, the man of Spy, the recently discovered Sussex skull, and other well-known examples of early human remains. The Pithecanthropus of Java alone shows perhaps more affinity to the apes. The whole subject has been most ably discussed by Professor Sollas in his recent book entitled "Ancient Hunters."
The study of Palaeolithic flint implements has been raised to a fine art. Both in England and France a regular succession of primitive types has been established and correlated with the gravel terraces of existing rivers, and even with the deposits of rivers no longer existing and with certain glacial deposits. But with all of these the actual bodily remains of man are comparatively scanty. From this it may be concluded that primitive methods of burial were such as to be unfavourable to the actual preservation of human remains. Attempts have also been made to prove the existence of man in pre-glacial times, but hitherto none of these have met with general acceptance, since in no case is the evidence beyond doubt.
One of the most important results of recent research in the subject has been the establishment of the existence of man in interglacial times. When Lyell wrote, it was not fully recognised that the glaciation of Europe was not one continuous process, but that it could be divided into several episodes, glaciations, or advances of the ice, separated by a warm interglacial period. The monumental researches of Penck and Bruckner in the Alps have there established four glaciations with mild interglacial periods, but all of these cannot be clearly traced in Britain. One very important point also is the recognition of the affinities of certain types of Palaeolithic man to the Eskimo, the Australians, and the Bushmen of South Africa. However, it is impossible to give here a review of the whole subject. Full details of recent researches will be found in the works mentioned in the notes at the end of the book.
Another point of great interest and importance, arising directly from the study of early man is the nature of the events constituting the glacial period in Britain and elsewhere. This has been for many years a fertile subject of controversy, and is likely to continue such. Lyell, in common with most of the geologists of his day, assumes that during the glacial period the British Isles were submerged under the sea to a depth of many hundreds of feet, at any rate as regards the region north of a line drawn from London to Bristol. Later authors, however, explained the observed phenomena on the hypothesis of a vast ice-sheet of the Greenland type, descending from the mountains of Scotland and Scandinavia, filling up the North Sea and spreading over eastern England. This explanation is now accepted by the majority, but it must be recognised that it involves enormous mechanical difficulties. It is impossible to pursue the subject here; for a full discussion reference may be made to Professor Bonney's presidential address to the British Association at Sheffield in 1910.
It will be seen, therefore, that the "Antiquity of Man" opens up a wide field of speculation into a variety of difficult and obscure though interesting subjects. In the light of modern research it would be an easy task to pile up a mountain of criticism on points of detail. But, though easy, it would be a thankless task. It is scarcely too much to say that the dominant impression of most readers after perusing this book will be one of astonishment and admiration at the insight and breadth of view displayed by the author. When it was written the subject was a particularly thorny one to handle, and it undoubtedly required much courage to tackle the origin and development of the human race from a purely critical and scientific standpoint. It must be admitted on all hands that the result was eminently successful, taking into account the paucity of the available material, and the "Antiquity of Man" must ever remain one of the classics of prehistoric archaeology.
This edition of the "Antiquity of Man" has been undertaken in order to place before the public in an easily accessible form one of the best known works of the great geologist Sir Charles Lyell; the book had an immense influence in its own day, and it still remains one of the best general accounts of an increasingly important branch of knowledge.
In order to avoid a multiplicity of notes and thus to save space, the nomenclature has been to a certain extent modernised: a new general table of strata has been inserted in the first chapter, in place of the one originally there printed, which was cumbrous and included many minor subdivisions of unnecessary minuteness.
The notes have been kept as short as possible, and they frequently contain little more than references to recent literature elucidating the points under discussion in the text.
- Judd "The Coming of Evolution" ("Cambridge Manuals of Science and Literature") Cambridge 1910 chapters 6 and 7.