Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 1/Man among the mammoths

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The question of the antiquity of the human race is one which, on many grounds, has excited a lively interest, and has been an infallible provocative of controversy. Theologians of a narrow and too literal school have refused to entertain a suspicion that our ancestors could have peopled the globe longer than the prescribed 6000 years; while the equally narrow and prejudiced ultra sceptics have eagerly seized upon the most trifling and insufficiently-authenticated statements as evidence of the vast antiquity of Man. In the meantime, Science, crying, “A plague on both your houses,” has taken her even course, and, with suspended judgment, waited for the decisive facts which time was sure to bring under her ken. Such facts have seemed to present themselves over and over again. To say nothing of the “Homo diluvii testis” of the Tertiary schists of Œningen, which turned out to be a great salamander; or of the fossil man of Guadaloupe, whom everybody has seen in the British Museum, and who is quite a modern petrifaction; we have had before us the woman of the Paviland Caves, made famous by Buckland, the Indian skull said by Nott and Gliddon to be found under the remains of twelve successive cypress forests near New Orleans, and a vast number of supposed discoveries of human bones and pottery and works of art associated with extinct animals, in Belgium, Germany, and France.

Few of these cases, however, have been able to withstand a searching investigation. Besides cooking and wearing pockets, man is distinguished by being a burying animal; and this peculiarity interferes a good deal with those geological reasonings which might otherwise be based upon the association of his remains with those of extinct animals, in caves and in superficial deposits suitable for sepulture. So long, in fact, as such instances of association were few and far between, it was the wiser course to admit the possibility of the mixture being accidental. But some recent discoveries have completely changed the face of the whole question, by proving that implements which, with our present knowledge, we can only suppose to be of human manufacture, are found inseparably mixed up with the remains of mammoths and other extinct animals over a wide geographical area, in great abundance, and under conditions which preclude the possibility of their having been buried where we find them.

These instruments are very similar to what are known to antiquaries as “Celts.” Those oldest and rudest races of men, who inhabited primæval Europe—those tribes of whom History and Tradition are alike silent, and the traces of whose works even have been almost obliterated by the waves of succeeding populations, resembled the savages of the South Sea, when visited by Cook, in their ignorance of the use of metals.

Even at the present day, the inhabitant of the islands in Torres Straits knows neither iron nor bronze. All his work, from the delicate carving of his canoe, to the cutting off of his enemy’s head, is done with one implement, an adze, whose blade is made of a sharpened stone. Our predecessors were in a similar condition, but instead of the jade of which the South Sea islander fabricates his tools and weapons, they used the handy flints, which can be so readily chipped into shape,and are found in so many parts of the country;and these flints, fashioned by chipping into sharp edged axe or adze heads, are the so-called “celts.” Such tools or weapons have long been known to occur in the burying-places of ancient men, but it is only of late years that a French antiquary, M. Boucher de Perthes,[1] made the remarkable discovery of their occurrence in certain deposits near Abbeville, in company with remains of mammoths and other extinct animals. It need hardly be said that the worthy savant was pooh-poohed, and his important investigations might have fallen out of sight again,except for the recent careful exploration of a bone cave near Brixham, where celts were found associated with similar remains, under circumstances which admit of no impeachment. His attention being thus awakened to M. Boucher de Perthes’ statements, an eminently competent English geologist, Mr. Prestwich, determined to examine into them for himself; and the results of his inquiries,which confirm the French antiquary’s statements in all essential respects, have recently been communicated to the Royal Society. More than this,Mr. Prestwich has pointed out that the same association of celts with remains of extinct animals had been observed at Oxney, in Suffolk,more than seventy years ago; and, as if to verify the old adage that “it never rains but it pours,” Dr. Falconer, so well known for his researches in the Palæontology of India, and who was actively engaged in the investigation of the Brixham cave, has quite lately observed a like association of flint and agate knives with extinct animals, in the Grotta di Maccagnone, near Naples.

That human implements and the remains of animals which are now extinct and which inhabited our globe at an enormously remote epoch, have been brought together into the same deposits by natural causes, or, in other words, that man is older than the last great physical changes which have altered the relative levels of sea and land, may be considered to be satisfactorily established by these discoveries. It must be further allowed, that if any other animal were in question, geologists would probably at once admit that there was sufficient evidence of the contemporaneity of all the remains thus associated; and it is quite fair for the advocates of this side of the question to throw the onus probandi on those who affirm that, although the human remains are certainly older than the last submergence of the districts in which they occur, they are of later date than the extinct beasts with which they are found.

It is not necessary, however, to be advocates of either side; on the other hand, it seems better to be content with what has been gained—the indubitable fact that man is older than the present distribution of land and water, hill and valley—and to wait for further evidence before admitting that his contemporaneity with the hairy giants of the pleistocene epoch, the mammoth, the rhinoceros, the bison, and the bear, which once roamed over the plains of England, is absolutely proven.

By the kindness of Mr. R. W. Mylne we are enabled to give a figure of one of the celts obtained from the deposits at St. Acheul near Abbeville, which are among those originally explored by M. Boucher de Perthes, and which have been recently re-examined by Mr. Prestwich, Mr. Mylne, and other geologists. Alpha.

  1. See his “Antiquités Celtiques et Antédiluviannes,” 1847.