Popular Science Monthly/Volume 14/April 1879/Early Traces of Man

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617546Popular Science Monthly Volume 14 April 1879 — Early Traces of Man1879Louis Laurent Gabriel de Mortillet



QUATERNARY MAN.—The man of geological time—fossil man—is now a fact so clearly demonstrated that it is no longer called in question. The recent exposition of anthropological sciences showed us his works plentifully scattered throughout France, England, Spain, and Italy.

But, though the existence of quaternary man in the southwest of Europe is no longer denied, there is a school which, walking with fear and hesitation in the path of progress, has its mind made up to contest his existence in the Orient. What the leaders of this school maintain is this: In the East, say they, civilization, and consequently historic records, date back to a very remote time. Is it not, then, possible that geological time still persisted in Europe, and especially in western Europe, while in Egypt the historic dynasties were being founded?

To put forth such a proposition as this, one must be ignorant of the data of geology. The remarkable collections exhibited at the Anthropological Exposition have shown that man was contemporary not only with the reindeer, the saiga, the chamois, and the marmot on our plains; not only with the mammoth, and the Rhinoceros tichorhinus—that is, with the fauna of the glacial period—but also with the great hippopotamus, the Elephas primigenius, and the rhinoceros of Merk. All geologists are agreed that the duration of the period in which we live is as nothing compared with that of the Quaternary period. It is as a day compared to ages, as a drop of water in a stream. All paleontologists understand what a length of time is requisite for the rise and decline of animal species—species which, while they have been upon the earth, have been lavishly distributed over an enormous area.

But we have no need of the general data of geology and paleontology in order to meet the objection. The Exposition of the Anthropological Sciences furnished materials which reduce it to a nullity. There were exhibited perfectly characterized quaternary instruments of silex from the East—from the most ancient seats of civilization, Egypt and Syria. In those countries then, no less than in France and England, quaternary man preceded all the historic civilizations.

The earliest Quaternary epoch, the preglacial, is characterized, so far as man's works are concerned, by a stone implement of peculiar form. It is dressed on its two sides, usually rather roughly chipped; it is rounded at the base, pointed at the top, and its edges are pretty sharp. In general form it is more or less almond-shaped. This implement, in past times called by workmen in quarries "langue de chat" (cat's tongue), is now called "hache de St. Acheul," or "hache acheulienne" (hatchet of St. Acheul), terms derived from the locality in which it has been oftenest found. They have been found in abundance in the quaternary alluviums of France, England, and Spain. Nay, within a few years they have been found in the valley of the Delaware near Trenton, New Jersey, by Dr. Charles C. Abbott. The figures which he has published, and his descriptions, tally exactly with the St. Acheul hatchets of France and England.

Nor is it in the New World only that the existence of man in the earliest portion of the Quaternary period has been proved; the same thing is true of the Old World. M. Place, the explorer of Assyria, has brought to light a St. Acheul hatchet of silex which he found under the ruins of the palace of Khorsabad. At the exposition, the Abbé Richard showed a St. Acheul hatchet, also of silex, from the lake of Tiberias.

A still more conclusive proof is furnished by Professor Henry W. Haynes, of Boston, who reports a number of wrought flints from Egypt, among them several clearly characterized St. Acheul hatchets.

In the February number (1869) of the "Matériaux pour l'Histoire de l'Homme," M. Adrien Arcelin first made the announcement that the grand Egyptian civilization, like all other civilizations, was preceded by an age of stone. He had just collected in Upper Egypt several chipped flints. Toward the close of the same year this discovery was confirmed by Messrs. Lenormant and Hamy. All the specimens brought home by these earliest explorers might be regarded as belonging to the Robenhausen epoch, or age of polished stone—only one specimen, presented to the museum of St. Germain, came anywhere near the St. Acheul type.

After Arcelin's discovery, collections of dressed flints were multiplied in Egypt, though without throwing much light upon the question. But Sir John Lubbock, in an essay illustrated with fine plates, gave figures of three flint implements found at Luxor and at Abydos, which are undoubtedly St. Acheul hatchets.

Among the wrought flints brought from Egypt and exhibited by Mr. Haynes are several which incontestably are of the quaternary type. Among them we see scrapers and arrow-heads, the latter belonging to a type which in France occurs only in glacial formations. The collection also embraces more ancient forms, preglacial forms, referable to the early portion of the Quaternary period, viz., St. Acheul hatchets of flint.

These St. Acheul hatchets come from two very distinct localities: one lot is from the neighborhood of Luxor, in Upper Egypt, the other from the environs of Cairo, in Lower Egypt. The flint used, as is clearly proved by Delanoue, comes from the nummulitic formations. These formations are found in situ in Upper Egypt; and the St. Acheul hatchets of that region are as a rule heavier and better wrought, above all, more completely wrought. In the environs of Cairo there are no rocks in situ; and, as for flint, only rounded nodules are found. These nodules have been wrought into the forms of implements. This is easily seen, for all the St. Acheul hatchets of that locality still bear at their base traces of the original rounded surface of the nodules.

From these archæological data, i. e., from the nature and the form of the objects, we may conclude that the man of the earliest Quaternary times lived in Egypt simultaneously with his existence in Europe, and that in both of these regions his industrial development was about the same, extremely primitive.

And geological observation confirms these deductions. It was not on the surface of plateaus that Mr. Haynes found these St. Acheul implements. On the contrary, most of them, at least those from the neighborhood of Luxor (forming the greater number), were found in the bottom of the ravines of Bab-el-Moluk. These ravines are cut deep into the quaternary deposits by the torrents which, in seasons of heavy rainfall, carry to the Nile the waters from the mountains of Libya.

Thus, then, thanks to the Exposition of the Anthropological Sciences, we are in a position to show that the oldest Egyptian civilization—that of the earliest dynasties—which dates back 4,000 years before our era, was preceded by an age of polished stone, and that before that period Egypt, like all the rest of the world, was occupied by quaternary man.

Tertiary Man.—Important as are the results of the Anthropological Exposition from the point of view of quaternary man, they are still more so from the point of view of tertiary man.

But first let us understand what is meant by the terms quaternary man and tertiary man.

The fauna of the mammals serves clearly to determine the limits of these later geological periods.

The Tertiary is characterized by terrestrial mammals entirely different from extant species; the Quaternary by the mingling of extant with extinct species; the present period by the extant fauna.

The man of the early Quaternary, he who made the St. Acheul hatchets and used them, is the man of Neanderthal, of Canstatt, of Enggisheim, of La Naulette, of Denise. He is indubitably a man, but differing more widely from the Australian and the Hottentot than the Australian and Hottentot differ from the European. Hence unquestionably he formed another human species, the word species being taken in the sense given to it by naturalists who do not accept the transformation doctrine.

Tertiary man, therefore, must have been still more distinct—of a species still less like the present human species—indeed, so different as to entitle it to be regarded as of distinct genus. For this reason I have given to this being the name of man's precursor. Or he might be called anthropopithecus—the man-monkey.

The question of tertiary man should therefore be expressed thus: Did there exist in the Tertiary age beings sufficiently intelligent to perform a part of the acts which are characteristic of man?

So stated, the question is settled most completely by the various series of objects sent to the Anthropological Exposition.

The first and oldest of these collections was that made by the late Abbé Bourgeois, at Thenay (Loir-et-Cher). At the International Congress of Prehistoric Archaeology and Anthropology, held in Paris in 1867, the Abbé Bourgeois exhibited tertiary flints which, he claimed, had been chipped intentionally. These early specimens were not very conclusive, lost as they were amid a multitude of other specimens which certainly had not been fashioned intentionally, unless one can suppose that they had been intentionally split by the action of fire. The result was, that the abbé's communication won to his side but few adherents. But, profoundly convinced of the reality of his discovery, the Abbé Bourgeois did not lose heart on suffering this partial repulse. He continued his researches with vigor, and again, in 1872, provided now with better specimens, he raised the question at the Brussels Congress. There he made some headway among the best experts. But on the commission which was specially appointed to examine the flints were several members who knew but very little directly about the manner of working on flint, and they either hesitated or passed an adverse judgment. Hence the question was not definitively settled. This result, half success, half failure, stimulated the ardor of the accomplished naturalist; he continued his investigations, and so succeeded in collecting for the Anthropological Exposition a remarkable series of flint implements which dispels all doubt.

This collection was made up of flints which beyond a doubt had undergone the action of fire. They are full of cracks, and even quite discolored. With these are other flints, far more numerous, which have simply been split by fire. Among them are some which unquestionably have been neatly and regularly retouched on one or both of their margins. Every one who has carefully and impartially examined them has admitted that the second dressing (les retailles) was certainly intentional, and consequently that it was the work of an intelligent creature.

It remains to determine the age to which these flints belong. They were collected at Thenay, in formations clearly in situ and intact, and belonging to the formation known among geologists as "calcaires de Beauce"; but now these calcaires de Beauce constitute the lower strata of the Middle Tertiary. This is shown by the fauna which the Abbé Bourgeois exhibited in connection with the flints. This fauna, which comes from the sands of the Orléanais, which directly overlie the calcaires de Beauce, comprises great mastodons and dinotheriums belonging to the Lower Miocene. Then there is the acerotherium, a genus akin to the rhinoceros, and which was found in the very same stratum as the fire-split and redressed flints.

It results, therefore, from the Abbé Bourgeois's researches, that during the Middle Tertiary there existed a creature, precursor of man, an anthropopithecus, which was acquainted with fire and could make use of it for splitting flints. It also knew how to trim the flint-flakes thus produced and to convert them into tools.

This curious and interesting discovery for a long time stood alone, and arguments were even drawn from this isolatedness to favor its rejection. Fortunately, another French observer, M, J. B. Rames, has found in the vicinity of Aurillac (Cantal) in the strata of the upper part of the Middle Tertiary—here, too, in company with mastodons and dinotheriums, though of more recent species than those of Thenay—flints which also have been redressed intentionally. Here, however, the flints are no longer split by fire, but by tapping. It is something more than a continuation, it is a development. Among the few specimens exhibited by M. Rames, whose discoveries are quite recent, is one which, had it been found on the surface of the ground, would never have been called in question.

The weighty facts developed by French investigators received striking confirmation in the Portuguese department of the Exposition. A distinguished savant of Lisbon, Senhor Ribeiro, director of the Geological Bureau of Portugal, sent a collection of flints and quartzites found in the strata of the Middle Tertiary or Miocene and in the Upper Tertiary or Pliocene of the valley of the Tagus. Among these specimens—ninety-five in number—are twenty-two which bear unquestionable traces of intentional chipping. Nine specimens, all of flint, are described as coming from the Miocene. Of the others, purporting to be Pliocene, seven are of flint and six of quartzite. All these specimens are roughly chipped, and nearly all are triangular in form, and not redressed, whether the material be flint or quartzite.

Thus, then, the Anthropological Exposition, important though it was from the point of view of quaternary man, is still more important from the point of view of tertiary man—man's precursor. His existence can no more be denied.

  1. Translated by J. Fitzgerald, A.M., from the "Revue d'Anthropologic."