Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/April 1873/The Troglodytes, or Cave-Dwellers of France

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1. Their Manner of Life.

IN the southwest of France, at no great distance from the river Vézère, are situated the caves which were inhabited by a race of Troglodytes toward the close of the Quaternary geological period. The openings of these caves faced all points of the compass, except the north. They were inhabited throughout the entire year, as is shown by the remnants still found there of young reindeer, in every stage of development. From the teeth, bones, and budding horns of these animals, we can determine their age, and the season of the year when they were killed; and the evidence of this kind furnished us by the contents of the caves shows that the Troglodytes had a fixed abode; or, in other words, that they were not nomadic in their habits.

Fig. 1.
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Pestle and Mortar.

When the inhabitants of the caves went fishing or hunting, they closed up the door-ways to exclude beasts of prey. Only one bone has been found, and that at La Madelaine, which bears any tokens of having been gnawed by a wild beast. It shows the marks of a hyena's teeth, the animal having in some way gained admittance to the cave. Hyenas were scarce in the time of our Troglodytes, but wolves and foxes abounded; and we should find the marks of their teeth upon the bones strewed about in the caves, were it not that the inhabitants kept their dwellings carefully shut against such intruders. But what were the means employed to keep them out? In sepulchral caves we find the entrance closed by a stone slab; but a dwelling-place would require a door more easily opened and shut than that. Besides, we find no trace whatsoever of stone doors, and therefore it is supposed that the Troglodytes barricaded their door-ways with hurdles.

They lived by the chase, and by fishing. But, did they use vegetable food? We cannot find any evidence that they did. There have been discovered, it is true, in the caves of Les Eyzies, Laugerie-Basse, and La Madelaine, a number of stones—granite, freestone and quartzite—worn round and smooth by rubbing, which exhibit on one side a pretty regular depression, in the form of a cupule, and not unlike a small mortar (Fig. 1). Some have supposed that this cupule might have been intended to receive the end of a piece of dry wood, which would then be whirled between the hands to produce fire, according to the well-known process in use among the ancient Aryans, and among some savage tribes of the present day. But the depression is too shallow, considering its diameter, to have served such a purpose, and hence we take these stones to have been mortars, while other round stones, of dimensions answering to the cupules, would serve as pestles. Hence came the supposition that the Troglodytes brayed grain for food: but every thing goes to show that they were unacquainted with agriculture. It is far more probable that they used the mortars to pound fish, or to grind pigments.

Their chief occupation and their principal resource was the chase. The remnants of bones accumulated in the soil forming the floor of the caves, show that they hunted animals of every size, from the little bird to the mammoth. That old giant of the early Quaternary period still survived, but had now become rare. For a long time it was supposed that the mammoth became extinct about the middle of that period; and when it was announced that several teeth of that animal and sundry pieces of wrought ivory had been discovered in the most recent Troglodytic stations of the Vézère, many persons were of opinion that these remains must have come down from an earlier period, and been gathered by our Troglodytes, just as the inhabitants of Siberia do at present. But it must be remembered that the carcasses of mammoths found in Siberia have been preserved by the extreme cold, and consequently their flesh and ivory are still fresh, whereas, fossil ivory is so cracked and foliated as to be useless for the purposes of art. Now, the climate of France in the Reindeer Age, though still frigid, had long ceased to be glacial; and, even though the men of that period had been accustomed to dig the earth—and they were not—the fossil ivory they might have found would have been unserviceable. Therefore, the mammoths, whose ivory they wrought, must have been contemporary with themselves. Of this conclusion we have a decisive proof in the plate of ivory discovered at the La Madelaine, in 1864, by E. Lartet, De Verneuil, and Falconer. It will be seen to contain an engraved design of the mammoth, as his carcass is to this day found on the banks of the Lena. (See vol. i. of The Popular Science Monthly, p. 215.)

The Troglodytes of the Reindeer Age had but rarely the opportunity of measuring strength with the mammoth. Their game was more commonly the aurochs, the horse, the ox; and doubtless it was in the pursuit of these great animals that they used their long spears tipped with flint. Still, nearly all their weapons were light, and mostly tipped with reindeer-horn. The bow became their principal weapon, in proportion as the animals they hunted grew more timid and wary. Their arrows were of two kinds: a small one, with pointed tip, without a barb, for small game and birds; and a large one, with two rows of barbs, for hunting the reindeer. The rest of their equipment consisted of light lances with blunt heads, darts with conical points, and long, sharp daggers, for close quarters. They had also a whistle to summon their companions in the chase; this was made of reindeer-bone.

That our Troglodytes followed fishing also is shown by the number of fish-bones found in their caves; but, strange to say, salmon was their only fish. At the present day salmon does not go up the Vézère, nor is it found in the Dordogne as far up as the mouth of the Vézère. There is every reason for believing that these ancient fishers did not use a line, for with a line the fisherman takes fish of every kind. If they employed only the harpoon, we can well understand why they could take only large fish, and why among these they should select the salmon, whose flesh they prized most. But did they fish from boats? We have no evidence bearing on this point; but the Vézère was so closely confined by steep banks, that the salmon might easily be harpooned from the shore. The harpoon used by our Troglodytes was a small dart of reindeer-horn, with barbs on one side only, and having a projection at its base, to fasten it to the line.

Fig. 2.
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Bone Harpoon from Terra Del Fuego.

On returning from the chase or from fishing, the Troglodytes got ready the feast in their cave. The carcasses of reindeer and the smaller game were brought in whole, but large-sized animals, the horse or the ox, being too heavy to carry away whole, were cut up on the spot, the head and legs being carried off, and the rest of the skeleton left behind. Hence, among the leavings found in the caves, we scarcely ever meet with any bones from the trunk of large mammals, while every part of the skeleton of reindeer and smaller animals is to be found. The soil in the caverns, wherever it contains crushed bones, contains also an immense amount of charred wood. This mixture of bones and charcoal occurs so generally, so uniformly, that it is not easy to suppose that the Troglodytes lighted fires merely for the purpose of keeping themselves warm. They must have lighted fires daily at all seasons of the year, and hence it is likely that they cooked their food.

We are unable to say whether they got their fire from flint, or from wood by friction. They had no pottery, and could not boil their provisions over the fire. And yet they did not roast their meat either, for you will rarely find in their caves a calcined bone, or only such bones as were evidently burned by mere chance. They may have boiled their meats in wooden troughs, bringing the water to a boil by casting into it red-hot stones. But I think it more likely that they cooked their meat beneath the ashes, as is still the custom of many savage tribes.

A tid-bit for them was the brain of animals, or the marrow, as is evidenced by the fact that all the skulls are cracked and all the marrow-bones (and they only) broken. All savages have a special liking for marrow, and have a peculiar way of cracking the bones containing it. The chief is always the first to suck the marrow-bone. Our Troglodytes had little wedge-shaped pieces of flint, which they used as hatchets to break these bones. We find also in their caves an implement of reindeer-horn which was probably used for getting out the marrow, though archæologists are divided as to its purpose.

After a meal, the Troglodytes left the bones scattered about the floor. In a warm climate these remnants would have given out an insupportable stench; but in those early times the temperature was very low in France, and our Troglodytes were not paragons of cleanliness. To their uncleanly habits we are indebted for what we know about their food. Their chief staple was reindeer meat; but they also eat the flesh of the horse, the aurochs, several species of the ox, the chamois, the wild-goat, and even some carnivora. They used also fish, and, by means of the bow and arrow, they could take winged game. The caves contain the remains of birds of many different species. But, among all these bones, we find no human remains; and, hence, we know that our good Troglodytes were not cannibals. That supreme delight of the savage soul was all unknown to them—devouring a vanquished foeman. I record this with pleasure, albeit I attach no exceptional importance to the question of anthropophagy. In the eyes of the philosopher the crime is not in devouring, but in killing a human being. Judging from the style of weapons these Troglodytes employed, we should say that they were quiet folk, not given to war.

It has been supposed that they wore no clothing, as all the human figures portrayed by their artists are nude (Fig. 5). This, however, proves just nothing, because it proves too much. By parity of reasoning, the Greeks would have gone naked also. But we find in the caves all the necessary outfit of the (Troglodytic) tailor. There are needles of bone and of reindeer-horn, some of them being mere awls, but

Fig. 3.
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Drawing of a Fish on Reindeer-Horn.—(From La Madelaine.)

others having an eye to hold the thread. Some of these needles were very slender, and a needle-case, made of a bone from a bird, has been found, which might contain several of them. Lartet and Christy discovered the mode of manufacturing these needles. They give an engraving of the metacarpal of a horse, having a number of parallel cuttings lengthwise, all executed with a fine saw. The work was incomplete, but it is evident that here we have needles in process of manufacture.

Fig. 4.
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Drawing of an Ibex.—(La Madelaine.)

The threads they used were doubtless of various kinds. But did they employ for this purpose vegetable fibres, or fine strips of hide? It is possible, or even probable, that they used both; but this at least is certain, that they made threads, or, at all events, cords, out of tendons. They removed carefully from the members of animals the long tendons, as is shown by the scratches on the bone at the point of insertion.

Needle-work implies clothing, not simply that primitive garment which consists of an animal's skin thrown over the shoulders, but a more complete vesture, made up of sundry skins. The quantity of needles and awls, and of scrapers for preparing skins for use, which we meet with in the caves, shows that the use of clothing was general among our Troglodytes.

But further, they wore ornaments, which perhaps served as marks of distinction. Thus, they had collars and bracelets made of pierced shells, hung on a string. Such shells have been found in most of the caves, and they occur in great numbers in the ancient place of sepulture at Cromagnon. Pieces of ivory, nicely fashioned, and bored with two holes, would appear to have been used to fasten the collar; and no doubt this is not the only outcropping of petty vanity of attire among our Troglodytes. Most savages have the habit of painting and tattooing their bodies; nor is the latter practice yet quite extinct among civilized races. In the caves are found several pieces of the bloodstone, showing signs of having been scraped. Hence we conclude that they prepared a red paint, and made constant use of it, probably in ornamenting their persons. Probably they also practised tattooing, for, when their artists picture, as they often do, the hand and forearm on a man on reindeer-horn, the lower part of the forearm bears a figure which may well be taken to represent a tattoo.

It has been already shown that our Troglodytes were not nomads; and, though individuals may have wandered abroad, the tribe never travelled to any distance away from their cave. Hence they must have acquired by barter objects coming from remote parts. The shells of their necklaces came from the Atlantic coast. They also used rock-crystal, which must have come from the Pyrenees, the Alps, or the mountains of Auvergne. Thus it is seen that the Troglodytes had relations with distant localities.

Fig. 5.
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Group of Figures—Snake or Eel, Man, and Two Horse-Heads.—(La Madelaine.)

If they had any religious belief, it has left no trace. They wore talismans or amulets, however, the incisor-teeth of wolves or reindeer, the ox, or the horse, with a hole in them, through which a string was passed. Similar talismans are still worn by savage huntsmen, to insure good luck in the pursuit of game. In Italy, down to the present day, a swine's tooth, set in silver, is attached to the swaddling-clothes of new-born infants, as a charm against the Evil Eye, and afterward serves as a hochet, when the child is cutting its teeth. If the wolves' and other animals' teeth we find in the caves were talismans, our Troglodytes had at least a superstition, and, though I am no theologian, I will say that it is difficult to decide just where superstition ends and religion begins. In burying their dead, the contemporaries of our Troglodytes in other localities practiced certain funeral rites; and consoled themselves for their loss by partaking of a feast on a little platform in front of the sepulchral cave—a kind of solace not yet quite out of vogue. Only one place of burial has as yet been discovered in the neighborhood of the Vézère, namely, at Cromagnon. This is a mere nook beneath an overhanging rock; and flints and shell ornaments are found buried with the bodies. We find here no remnants of any stone enclosure.

Society among the Troglodytes had its hierarchical organization, with dignitaries of various grades. The three caves at Les Eyzies, Laugerie-Basse and La Madelaine contain the proofs of this assertion, in the shape of large pieces of reindeer horn, artistically fashioned, and commonly known as bâtons de commandement, commanders' truncheons. Several of these instruments have been found; they are all of one common type, their surface being highly ornamented with figures of animals, or of hunting-scenes, and are pierced with large

Fig. 6.
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Group of Reindeer.

round holes, from one to four in number. The purpose of these remarkable objects is matter of much dispute. It is true they much resemble the pogamagan, or tomahawk of the Mackenzie River Esquimaux, but the pogamagan is both longer, thicker, and far more solid, than the bâtons de commandement. The latter are too frail to be used for any mechanical purpose, and therefore they were most probably only insignia of rank, like the king's or the chiefs sceptre, or the marshal's báton. But there are so many of them, that we cannot regard them as regal insignia, and hence they may have been marks of hierarchical dignity, the holes denoting the rank, like the bars or stars on a military officer's shoulder-straps. Thus the bâton without a hole would indicate the lowest grade of dignity, those with one or more holes indicating a higher and higher office, until we reach the fourth grade, indicated by four holes. The ornamentation commonly surrounds these holes, and this circumstance would seem to show that the bâton was made for some personage already clothed with official rank. But sometimes the hole is seen to have been pierced afterward, breaking up the lines and disfiguring the design. Thus we have a bâton bearing the figure of a horse, which is found broken in two by one of these perforations. The happy owner of the truncheon had gained promotion!

This ascending scale of degrees and ranks (which is the sure evidence of a numerous society) may, no doubt, have been of service in war, but it is very likely that its chief object was the organization of hunting expeditions, as the chase was the great employment of the tribe. In a climate colder than ours, the game would keep for a considerable time, in winter especially. Hence the caves held a more or less abundant supply of victuals, and a manager in chief was needed, to prevent waste and to make equitable distribution of the store. We find rods of reindeer-horn with a number of notches cut in regular series, which would appear to have been the managers' day-books. These rods, commonly known as marques de chasse (tallies of the chase), much resemble the marques used by bakers in small country villages in France at the present day. There has been also found in one of the caves a broad plate of ivory, having on its sharp edges a series of notches, and on its flat sides several rows of points, which would also appear to have been tallies.

Owing to this social organization and administration of affairs, Troglodytic society, though it embraced a numerous membership, lived comfortably enough. They had such an abundance of food that they could choose the best pieces, rejecting what was of inferior quality. Thus, they threw away the feet of animals, though these contain a considerable amount of nutritive substance. Hence we see that they had plenty to eat: and, as thus the whole time of the tribe need not have been taken up with the business of making provision for the body's wants, they could enjoy repose now and then—could enjoy leisure—and leisure, when improved intelligently, gives rise to the arts.


2. The Arts among the Troglodytes.

To Egypt no longer pertains the glory of having been the originator of the arts. It was with profound astonishment that the world learned, some years since, that long, long before the artists of Egypt, the men of the Age of the Reindeer had cultivated design, engraving, and even sculpture. At first, their works were greeted only with plaudits of admiration; but now, recovered as we are from this first impression, we are forced to admit that in those ancient days, as in our own, there were not wanting bad artists; and, yet, amid a number of coarse designs, there are not a few which are truly worthy of note, and which betray an able hand, and an eye trained to observe Nature.

Designing undoubtedly preceded sculpture among the Troglodytes, and their figures in relief are much fewer in number and less perfect than their engraved sketches. These latter figures generally form the ornamentation of the bâton de commandement, or of the hafts of daggers; but sometimes they are found on stone slabs, or on plates of ivory or of reindeer-horn, which would appear to have been prepared

Fig. 7.
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Handle of a Poniard.

simply to receive the engravings. Nearly all the designs represent objects in Nature, though some of them are simply ornamental lines, zigzags, curves, etc. Three small brank-ursines, engraved on a piece of reindeer-horn, would appear to represent a polypetal flower; but all the other figures represent animals. The reindeer occurs most frequently, the ox and the aurochs being more rare. These various animals are readily distinguishable in the engraved figures, their respective gait and motion being oftentimes reproduced with considerable exactness and elegance. Sometimes they are isolated, being represented, without any order, over the entire surface of some instrument; but, again, they are found grouped together, engaged in combat, etc. (Fig. 6). The engraving of the mammoth was found, in 1864, in the cave of La Madelaine. The head of the animal is given with remarkable exactitude. The Marquis de Vibraye has since discovered a bâton de commandement, with a mammoth's head sculptured on it. These two pieces are the only ones representing the mammoth which have come down to our time from the hands of the Troglodytic artists, but they suffice to show that the animal was not yet extinct.

Figures of fish are not rare, and they all, with one exception, represent the salmon. Élie Massénat found at Laugerie-Basse the shoulder-blade of an ox, bearing a rude sketch of a fishing-scene—a man casting a harpoon at some aquatic animal, a porpoise, apparently. This design has a special interest, as going to show that our Troglodytes fished with the harpoon.

In sketching the human figure (which they did but rarely), these artists, who exhibited such skill in animal-sketching, do not show to much advantage. There is one study of a head, representing a grotesque profile. Two other figures represent the forearm and hand, four fingers being visible, and the thumb concealed. Add to these the fishing-scene and two hunting-scenes, and you have the complete list of figures relating to man in the Troglodytic Museum.

As I have already said, sculptures are of rarer occurrence here than engraved designs. Of the former we have not above half a dozen, all found at Laugerie-Basse. One of these, the property of the Marquis de Vibraye, represents a woman, and all the others represent animals, viz., a reindeer, head of the same animal, head of a mammoth (referred to already), and also one of some unknown animal. Finally, we have M. Massénat's latest discovery, known as the Bœufs Jumeaux (twin-oxen), which represents a pair of oxen, or, perhaps, of aurochsen.

These sculptures are sometimes incomplete, and always ill executed; but in the art of design the artists display surprising ability. They sketched the human figure badly, but they studied carefully the form and the gait of animals, which they sometimes reproduced with a degree of exactitude, elegance, and spirit, which evince the true artistic sentiment.


  1. This article is a part of the elaborate address before the French Association for the Advancement of Science, by M. Paul Broca, one of the most eminent anthropologists of Europe.