Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 21.djvu/41

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

those formed in lakes or in caverns. In the former the bodies of large numbers of terrestrial animals were annually deposited, owing to their having been caught by floods in the tributary streams, swallowed up in marginal bogs or quicksands, or drowned by the giving way of ice. Caverns were the haunts of hyenas, tigers, bears, and other beasts of prey, which dragged into them the bodies of their victims, and left many of their bones to become imbedded in stalagmite or in the muddy deposit left by floods, while herbivorous animals were often carried into them by these floods, or by falling down the swallow-holes which often open into caverns from above. But, owing to their arboreal habits, monkeys were to a great extent freed from all these dangers. Whether devoured by beasts or birds of prey, or dying a natural death, their bones would usually be left on dry land, where they would slowly decay under atmospheric influences. Only under very exceptional circumstances would they become imbedded in aqueous deposits; and, instead of being surprised at their rarity, we should rather wonder that so many have been discovered in a fossil state.

Monkeys, as a whole, form a very isolated group, having no near relations to any other mammalia. This is undoubtedly an indication of great antiquity. The peculiar type which has since reached so high a development must have branched off the great mammalian stock at a very remote epoch, certainly far back in the Secondary period, since in the Eocene we find lemurs and lemurine monkeys already specialized. At this remoter period they were probably not separable from the insectivora, or (perhaps) from the ancestral marsupials. Even now we have one living form, the curious Galeopithecus, or flying lemur, which has only recently been separated from the lemurs, with which it was formerly united, to be classed as one of the insectivora; and it is only among the opossums and some other marsupials that we again find hand-like feet with opposable thumbs, which are such a curious and constant feature of the monkey-tribe.

This relationship to the lowest of the mammalian tribes seems inconsistent with the place usually accorded to these animals at the head of the entire mammalian series, and opens up the question whether this is a real superiority or whether it depends merely on the obvious relationship to ourselves. If we could suppose a being gifted with high intelligence, but with a form totally unlike that of man, to have visited the earth before man existed in order to study the various forms of animal life that were found there, we can hardly think he would have placed the monkey-tribe so high as we do. He would ob-serve that their whole organization was specially adapted to an arboreal life, and this specialization would be rather against their claiming the first rank among terrestrial creatures. Neither in size, nor strength, nor beauty, would they compare with many other forms, while in intelligence they would not surpass, even if they equaled, the horse or the beaver. The carnivora, as a whole, would certainly be