Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/November 1882/The British Lion

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


THE British Lion to be dealt with in the following pages is not that of the heralds, nor is it the amiable, shy, rather tame animal just now crouching down behind "the silver streak," pretending to fear lest the foreigner should get at him unawares through a tunnel, nor yet is it the ephemeral much-to-be-pitied creature of the drawing-room. It is a lion, indeed, the king of beasts, the story of whose coming into Britain is a part of the greater story of his sojourn in Europe, that can not be told properly without discussing the ancient geography and climate, or without dealing with some vexed points in historical criticism. It is a story which begins in the remote geological past, revealed by pickaxe and shovel, and ends, well within the frontier of history, in the works of ancient Greek writers.

The first view which we get of the lion in Britain in the geological record is in the valley of the lower Thames, at Grays Thurrock and Ilford in Essex, and at Crayford and Erith in Kent. The strata in those places consist of loams, sands, and gravels swept down by the Thames when it flowed at a height of at least seventy feet above its present level, and swung in a series of bold curves from side to side in the broad valley in which London stands, with a swifter current than at the present time. They are all of the same general character, and the brick-field at Crayford presents us with a most convenient point for surveying the conditions of life in Southern Britain while they were being accumulated. The visitor in Stoneham's Pit at that place sees a brick-pit several hundred yards in extent, composed of sand, shingle, and mud-banks, containing land and fresh-water shells and numerous fossil bones resting where they happen to have been dropped by the current, and these strata he can follow until they abut on the chalk forming the ancient side of the river. The land-shells have evidently been swept down by the ancient Thames from its higher reaches, and the fresh-water species have for the most part lived where they are now found, in the old river-bottom. These last are now living in our streams and lakes, with the three following exceptions. A small bivalve (Cyrena fluminalis), there very abundant, has long ago forsaken the rivers of Europe. It still, however, lives in the Nile and in the streams of Cashmere, and probably also in the rivers and freshwater lakes of Siberia, and is also used as food by the poorer people inhabiting the banks of the rivers of the great plain of China. A fresh-water mussel (the Unio littoralis) still thrives in the rivers of France, in the Seine and Loire; and a tiny fresh-water snail (Paludina marginata) abounds in the streams of Southern France. Thus in the ancient Thames at this time fresh-water mollusca now living in Britain were to be found side by side with species now to be sought in the rivers of France or of Asia. The fossil remains of the mammalia scattered through the brick-earths as they were dropped by the current have been discovered in astonishing numbers, and most of them consist of isolated fragments, such, for example, as a broken skull of the musk-sheep. Huge tusks of elephants lie side by side with antlers of stags and skulls and bones of bisons and horses. Sometimes entire limbs have been preserved with bones in place, and in one case the entire skeletons of a family of marmots surprised in the attitude of hibernation, with paws over their noses, young and old together, stand out from a block of hardened loam. Such as these are the materials for working into a picture the conditions of life in the valley of the Thames while these fluviatile deposits were being formed.

The distinct was then haunted by many extinct wild animals, and by living species no longer found together in any part of the world. Stags and roe-deer lived in the forest side by side with the gigantic and extinct Irish elk, the woolly rhinoceros, and the straight-tusked elephant. Three kinds of rhinoceros, one of them covered with wool and hair, fed on the branches and the undergrowth; wild-boars plowed up the ground in search of food, and the glades afforded pasture to innumerable horses, bisons, and large horned uri; and, when forest and glade were alike covered with a snowy mantle, a few musk-sheep, now the most arctic of all the herbivores, were to be seen on the banks of the Thames in Kent. Among; the smaller animals we may note the pouched marmot and the water-rat. These animals were kept in check by numerous beasts of prey; the smaller of them by stealthy foxes and wild-cats, and the larger by grizzly and brown bears and packs of wolves. The stillness of night was from time to time broken by the weird laughter of the spotted hyena and by the roar that proclaimed the presence of the king of beasts. Otters pursued their finny prey in the Thames at Grays Thurrock, and at Ilford beavers were to be seen disporting themselves round their wonderful habitations, and vanishing beneath the surface as if by magic at the splash caused by the bulky form of the hippopotamus as he plunged into the water.

Nor are we without a clew as to the vegetation then covering the district, since the present flora of this country arrived here at a geological period long before the time under discussion. We may therefore complete our ideal by picturing to ourselves oaks, ashes, and yews among the important trees in the forest, while the thickets that sheltered such a strange assemblage of animals did not differ in any important particular from those in Britain at the present time. Then, as now, dark Scotch firs clustered on the sands and gravels covering the heights of Kent, and alders and willows marked the water-courses of the low-lying district of Essex, until the view was closed northward by the black pines covering the answering heights of Havering and of Brentwood. We should alone miss the elms now so marked a feature in the landscape.

Such as these were the surroundings of the lion when he first appeared in Britain, huge in size and without a rival among the lower animals. The central figure, however, in the picture is proved by recent discoveries to have been man. Not only have flint implements of the ordinary river-drift type been obtained from the brick-earths of Crayford along with remains of the animals above mentioned, but Mr. Flaxman Spurrell has been able to fix the place where the hunter sat on the ancient bank of the Thames and fashioned the blocks of flint to his various needs. The river-drift hunter, armed with his roughly chipped stone implements, doubtless had great difficulty in making good his place in the struggle for existence among the beasts of prey then in the valley of the Thames, and sometimes, when he had the chance, he would be likely to eat the lion, and at other times the lion would certainly eat him. They must often have come into contact when engaged in the pursuit of the same animals.

The climate at this time in Southern Britain is proved to have been in the main temperate, by the presence of animals such as the horse, bison, and rhinoceros. A temperate fauna was then in possession of the land, although a few Arctic stragglers, such as the musk-sheep, were also present. The hippopotamus still haunted the banks of the Thames, and can hardly be supposed to have been able to endure the winter cold of the region now inhabited by the musk-sheep, any more than that animal could be expected to enjoy the heat of the summers in the present home of the hippopotamus.

The next question which presents itself is the geography of Northwestern Europe, while the above strange group of animals lived in Southern Britain. It is obvious from the fact of the above animals finding their way here that our island must then have formed part of the Continent. The fluviatile strata of Crayford have been met with at a depth of forty feet below high-water mark near Erith, so that then the whole lower portion of the Thames Valley was higher above the sea than it is now. The land, however, must have stood at a considerably higher level than that, since the soundings in the shallowest part of the Channel reveal a depth of about two hundred feet, and therefore an elevation of land of more than two hundred feet is necessary to allow of the migration of the lion and the other animals. The area now covered by the "silver streak" was then composed of forest-clad undulations, extending from the line of the chalk downs then reaching from Dover to Sangatte, in the Pas de Calais, on the one hand, northward into the fertile pastures now sunk beneath the North Sea, and on the other, to the southwest along the whole length of the Channel. Nor are we able to find evidence of the western sea-margin at this time till the hundred-fathom line is reached, which sweeps far to the west of Ireland, southward close into the shores of the Bay of Biscay, and northward so as to include the Hebrides and the Orkneys, forming a narrow fiord close to the present coast of Norway, that reaches as far as Denmark. The view of De la Bêche and Lyell, that all within this boundary was dry land, only broken by the rivers and the lakes, is most probably true. In this manner alone can we account for the presence of some of the above animals, such as the spotted hyena, in Ireland.

But when, it will be asked, were these things so? The answer is found in the fact of the presence of the living species of higher mammalia along with certain extinct species such as the mammoth, which points to one, and one only, stage in the evolution of animal life—that which is termed Pleistocene or Quaternary by the geologists, and further, to the middle stage of it, when temperate animals abounded and Arctic animals were rare in Southern Britain. The question is unanswerable if asked from the historical and not the geological point of view, because, outside the records in which the intervals between events are written down, we have merely a series of events which occurred in a certain order, without reference to lapse of time. An attempt to ascertain an historical date outside history is obviously idle, and is not furthered by an appeal to the present rate of the retrocession of waterfalls, or by speculations as to ancient changes in climate having been produced by changes in the relation of the earth to the sun. The events with which we are dealing—the conditions of life when the lion first appeared in Britain—are so far removed from the earliest records that we can not form an idea of the interval separating them from our own time. It must, however, have been very great to allow of the changes in climate and geography, and in the wild animals of Europe, as well as of the succession of the various races and the development of civilization, which, so far as our experience goes, could not have been swift.

The discoveries cited above prove that the lion and the river-drift hunter lived in the valley of the lower Thames, along with many animals now only to be found in temperate climates, with some which are now to be sought in warm climates, and with others that are extinct. We have noted also the presence of a few Arctic stragglers. In the long course of ages the climate gradually became colder in the valley of the Thames, and vast numbers of reindeer wandered over the area which had formerly been occupied by stags, uri, and the other animals already mentioned. Their remains lie scattered through the river gravels and loams at various heights above the level of the Thames, from Oxford and Abingdon down to London. The numerous remains, for example, found in digging the new cavalry barracks at Windsor, belonged one half to the reindeer and the rest to bisons, horses, bears, and wolves. They had evidently been washed down from a ford higher up stream, which these animals were in the habit of using year by year. The vast herds of migrating reindeer in Siberia and of bisons in North America cross the rivers very generally at the same points year after year, and are followed by the same kinds of beasts of prey, which bring up the rear and prey upon the stragglers. The lion, too, is proved, by the discovery of his remains in the gravel-beds of London along with reindeer, to have shared in the attack on the reindeer, horses, and bisons, as it is now to be seen among the antelopes in tropical Africa. Could we follow it to its haunts in the woodlands then occupying the site of London we should see it springing upon other animals, such as the Irish elk or the young of the woolly rhinoceros, mammoth, or hippopotamus. And could we penetrate to the banks of the streams, guided by a thin column of smoke rising above the tops of the trees at Hackney or Gray's Inn, we should come upon the rude shelters of the river-drift hunters—the men selecting blocks of flint and chipping implements out of them, the women preparing the meal of flesh, and the children looking on and breaking the silence of the evening with their shouts, on those very spots where now is to be heard day and night the voice of our great city. Man is here, as before, the rival of the lion in the chase.

The lion, along with the above-mentioned group of animals, has been discovered in the river deposits over the whole of Southern England, and as far to the north as Bielbecks in the North Riding of Yorkshire. It lived in the areas of Cambridge, Bedford, and Salisbury. It is, however, far more abundant in the caves, into which, in most cases, it has been dragged by the hyenas. The pack of hyenas inhabiting the Cave of Kirkdale, in the Vale of Pickering, fed upon reindeer in the winter, and at other times on horses and bisons, and were able to master the hippopotamus, the lion, the slender-nosed rhinoceros, or the straight-tusked elephant, and to carry their bones to their den, where they were found by Dr. Buckland. The hyenas also inhabiting "the Dukeries" dragged back to the dens fragments of lion. Here, too, our researches at Creswell revealed the presence of man. In the lower deposits in the caves were the characteristic implements of the river-drift hunter, while in the upper were the more highly finished stone weapons of the cave-man, along with articles made of bone and antler, such as a needle, and the earliest trace of artistic design in the figure of a horse incised on a polished fragment of bone. Here the wild animals were for the most part of the same species as those living in the area of London, and the same remark holds good of those found in the hyena-dens in the vale of Clwyd or on the banks of the Wye. The headquarters, however, of the lion in Britain were the Mendip Hills in Somersetshire, which overlooked the fertile tract which then extended from their foot under the present estuary of the Severn, and joined the great prairie sweeping up the English Channel, and far to the west of Ireland, and as far south as the mouth of the Garonne. Over this vast feeding-ground the lions followed the migrating herbivores, and Banwell, Bleadon, and Weston-super-Mare were their favorite haunts. They lay in wait in the passes of Cheddar and Burrington, and from time to time were surprised and overmastered by the hyaenas on the banks of the Axe as it flowed through the picturesque ravine of Wookey.

On the Continent the lion ranged over France, Belgium, and Germany along with the above-described animals, and having the river drift man first of all, and then the cave-man for its rivals. Evidence of this rivalry we have in a remarkable necklace found in the cave of Duruthy, in the district of the Adour in the western Pyrenees, consisting of forty canine teeth of bear and three of lion, adorned with incised figures—a harpoon, glove, fish, or seal. It is a magnificent trophy of the chase, buried along with the hunter in the floor of his dwelling, which proves that human art was more than a master for the claws and teeth of the most formidable beasts of prey—the lion and the cave-bear—then living in the southwest of France. The broken and burned bones on the floor point to the fact that reindeer, horses, bisons, and stags were then abundant in the neighborhood.

The fossil remains of the lion are found also in Italy along with the remains of living and extinct animals, such as the stag, Irish elk, and mammoth in strata of the Pleistocene age. Nor is the range of the lion confined merely to Europe at this time. An accumulation of fossil remains was discovered many years ago in the United States, in the valley of the Ohio, a few miles southwest of Cincinnati, in Boone County, Kentucky, so great that it is known as Big Bone Lick. The animals to which they belonged had been attracted to the morass in which they perished by a deposit of salt, and present the same association of living and extinct forms as we have observed in Europe. Reindeer, musk-sheep, bisons, horses, elks, and bears were to be seen along with the mammoth, the great elephant-like mastodon, and the gigantic extinct sloth of South America. A lower jaw found in the same place, which I have examined in Philadelphia, leaves no doubt in my mind that the lion was among the carnivores of the United States, which lived on the above-mentioned animals. It is not more strange that the lion of the Old World should be found in the New, than that the musk-sheep, now only alive in the Arctic regions of North America and Greenland, should have ranged through Siberia into Europe as far to the southwest as the Pyrenees. Asia was then united to Northeastern America, and the Straits of Behring were then an elevated tract of land offering free passage to migrating animals.

Thus far in our inquiry into the British lion, we have been led to consider a condition of things in Britain quite different from that of the present day, and in tracing the animal to the Continent, and finally to the United States, we have seen that tracts of land, now sunk beneath the sea, connected our islands with the Continent, and joined North Asia to North America. It must also be remarked that the lion appears in the Old and New Worlds at the same hour, if I may use the metaphor, of the geological clock, when "the old order" was yielding "place unto the new," and the living species were becoming more abundant than the extinct among the higher mammalia—in other words, in the Pleistocene age.

We have now to direct our attention to the retreat of the lion from Europe. At the close of the Pleistocene age the great extension of Europe to the west sank beneath the Atlantic, and the North Sea and the English Channel flowed over the hunting-grounds of the lion, and formed "the silver streak" of which we have so much reason to be proud. A change in the wild animals accompanied, as it always does, the change in geography; some animals became extinct, such as the mammoth, while others retreated to more congenial districts, and among them the lion. Not a trace of that animal has been discovered in the peat-mosses and other superficial accumulations in Britain, France, Germany, or Italy, which took place in the prehistoric age, or the interval between the Pleistocene on the one hand and the frontier of history on the other. It was probably at this time retiring southward into the districts in which it lived in the time of the early Greek writers.

The first discovery on record of the fossil lion was made in Hungary. Strange to say, the earliest notice of the living lion relates to the adjacent region divided from the valley of the Danube by the Balkan Mountains. Herodotus (vii, c. 124-'6), in describing the march of Xerxes through Roumelia, before the battle of Thermopylæ, writes:

While Xerxes was on the march in this direction lions fell upon the baggage-camels. They came down by night and left their usual haunts, and touched nothing else, neither beast of burden nor man, but killed the camels only. I wonder why on earth they should have abstained from the other animals and attacked the camels only, beasts that they had never seen or tasted before. There are in this district many lions and wild oxen with large horns (uri), which the Greeks obtain from the inhabitants by barter. The boundary of the district inhabited by the lions is the river Nestus (Oarasu) that flows through Abdera, and the Achelöus, that flows through Acharnania: for neither to the east of the Nestus is there a lion anywhere in that part of Europe, nor to the west of the Achelöus in the rest of the continent, but it lives only in the district between those rivers.

It must be remarked that in this precise account Herodotus, with his usual accuracy, defines only the eastern and western boundaries, which he knew, and says nothing about the unknown region to the north. The story of the lions was still fresh in the memory of the hunters of Chalkidike when it was picked up by Herodotus in his travels some twenty-five years afterward, and used to light up his narrative. It is certain, then, that the lion lived in b. c. 480 in the forests south of the Balkans, between these two boundaries, and probably as far south as the Gulf of Lepanto and the Isthmus of Corinth. It probably ranged also northward into the valley of the Danube.

We are indebted to Xenophon, about a hundred years later, for the next mention of the lion in Europe. In his "Treatise on Hunting" (xi, i), which he wrote on his banishment from Athens in his splendid retreat in Lacedæmon, after he had exchanged the court and the camp for the pleasures of gardening and hunting, he says: "Lions, pardaleis" (probably a leopard), "lynxes, panthers, bears, and such like beasts, are caught in foreign countries in the neighborhood of Mount Pangæum, and Mount Cissus, which is beyond Macedonia, and in the Mysian Olympus and in Pindus, and in Xyse that is above Syria, and in other mountains that can support such animals." Mount Pangæum is near the sources of the Nestus, and Cissus is close to Thessalonica, and therefore this passage strongly confirms the truth of the story told by Herodotus. It is, however, rejected by Baron Cuvier and Sir G. C. Lewis, on the grounds that all these animals are not likely to have lived in any one of the above localities, and that it is a general statement relating to Europe and Asia Minor. Taken along with the statement of Herodotus, and the further fact that the lynx and bear still live in the same region, it seems to me that Xenophon knew what he was writing about when he advised the hunters to capture the above animals by the use of poisoned meat in those districts. Whether Xenophon's advice was taken or not, we find in the pages of the next writer, some fifty years afterward, that the lions were becoming rare in Europe. Aristotle describes their range nearly in the same words as Herodotus, but in the interval of a hundred and fifty years the "many lions" (πολλοὶ λέοτες) of the one had become "the few" (σπάνιον λένος) of the other, and they had by that time been driven to their last foot-hold in Europe by the hunter and the husbandman. The exact date of the killing of the last lion is uncertain; but from the melancholy passage of Dio Chrysostom Rhetor (Oratio 21)—"the honorable have vanished away in the course of time, as they say the lions have done which formerly dwelt in Europe"—it must have happened before the close of the first century after Christ.

Sir G. C. Lewis, to whose papers in "Notes and Queries" we are indebted for many references used in this essay, points out that the mythology of Italy contains no allusion to the lion, while that of Greece extends the range of the lion into Peloponnese, and to the west of the Achelöus, or, in other words, proves that the lion had a wider range in Southern Europe before the time of Herodotus than it had afterward. According to Ælian, it had retired from Peloponnese before the time of Homer.

The memory of the lion was preserved in its ancient haunts long after it had become extinct. The scene of one of the prettiest stories told by Ælian[1] is laid in Mount Pangæum, which, from its mention by Xenophon, must have been a famous haunt of lions:

Eudemus tells the tale that in Pangæum in Thrace a bear attacked the lair of a lion, while it was unguarded, and killed the cubs that were too small and too weak to defend themselves. And when the father and the mother came home from hunting somewhere, and saw their children lying dead, they were much aggrieved, and attacked the bear; but she was afraid, and climbed up into a tree as fast as she could, and settled herself down, trying to avoid the attack. Now, when they saw that they could not avenge themselves on her, the lioness did not cease to watch the tree, but sat down in ambush at the foot, eying the bear, that was covered with blood. But the lion, as it were, without purpose and distraught with grief, after the manner of a man, rushed off to the mountains, and chanced to light on a wood-cutter, who, in terror, let fall his axe; but the lion fawned upon him, and reaching up saluted him as well as he could, and licked his face with his tongue. And the man took courage. Then the lion encircled him with his tail, and led him, and did not suffer him to leave his axe behind, but pointed with his foot for it to be taken up. And when the man did not understand he took it up in his mouth and reached it to him. Then he followed while the lion led him to his den. And when the lioness saw him, she came and made signs, looking at the pitiable spectacle, and then up at the bear. Then the man perceived and understood that the lion had suffered cruel wrong from the bear, and cut down the tree with might and main. And the tree fell, and the lions tore the bear in pieces; but the man the lion led back again, safe and sound, to the place where he lighted on him, and returned him to the very tree he had been cutting.

With this simple story, told probably by the wood-cutters of Pangæum to their children and handed down from generation to generation, we may conclude the history of the lion in Europe. In the remote Pleistocene age the lion ranged over nearly the whole of Europe, south of a line passing through Yorkshire and the Baltic, over the United States, and consequently also over the intervening continent of Northern Asia, when the climate and geography were different from what they are now. From the close of that age, marked in Britain by the development of "the silver streak," the animal has steadily been retreating southward in the direction of its present haunts through all the period recorded in history. This has probably been brought about by the rivalry of the hunter, the loss of cover, and the increasing scarcity of game. Its disappearance, however, from Northern Asia and North America must have been due to some other causes, as in the parallel case of the horse, which abounded in North America in the Pleistocene age, and afterward became extinct, although the conditions of life are now so favorable that the animals introduced by the Spaniards have run wild, and now form vast herds. It became extinct in Britain at the close of the Pleistocene age, and in Europe between the time of Aristotle (340 b. c.) and that of Dio Chrysostom Rhetor (80 to 100 a. d.).—Contemporary Review.


  1. "De Natura Animalium," iii, 21.