Popular Science Monthly/Volume 83/July 1913/Ancient Man, his Environment and his Art

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1579998Popular Science Monthly Volume 83 July 1913 — Ancient Man, his Environment and his Art1913George Grant Maccurdy




JULY, 1913




THE relation of culture to the environment is always a fruitful theme for discussion. To minimize the difficulties in the way of reconstructing the environment of the earliest races of man would be to deny the all-pervasive influence of environment as a factor in human development. We are so accustomed to think in terms of our own surroundings that any other set strikes us at once as strange and unreal. This is particularly true when we attempt at one fell swoop to divest

Fig. 1. A Great Mousterian Rock Shelter, where a female skeleton of the Neanderthal type was recently found. Photographed by G. G. MacCurdy.
Fig. 2. Great Cave of Placard (Charente), where drinking cups made of the top of the human cranium were found. Photographed by G. G. MacCurdy.

ourselves of the heritage of all the ages and assume the primitive rôle of Eoanthropus for example.

Environment presupposes mind, matter, space and time. With these combined in workable proportions it is conceivable how the resultant might be that thing we call human culture. Mind, with its power to register and to profit by its own experiences, is that which has leavened the lump. As long, however, as those accumulated experiences remained individual, there was no real progress. Means had to be devised to translate individual experience into racial experience. The one who discovered this secret, who first deposited that little bank account on which the race has ever since drawn, is entitled to be called the first man.

There were from the beginning as there are to-day individuals with exceptional minds, who contrived to live up to the full measure of the light that was given them, thus contributing little by little to racial experience, which at first could help them very little in return; but which as it grew and as ways were found to make it more generally available became a dominant factor in the racial uplift.

From the start then we must think of man as an inventor. What was his first invention? Aside from air and water, food-getting and defense are the primeval needs. These are met precariously without artificial aids. Something to supplement the teeth, the nails, the fist must be found; and to be found must be at hand and appeal readily to the senses. The most omnipresent and tangible of all raw materials are stone and wood. Both of these are especially abundant along water courses. In fact, man and wood and game the latter primitive man's chief food supply, are all there for the same purpose—in search of water. The stones are there because the streams carried them or laid them bare. The problem is therefore one of. utilization. The most utilizable of all stones is flint because of its hardness and mode of fracture, leaving a sharp, comparatively straight edge. Moreover, flint flakes can be produced by purely natural means. The accidental stepping on one of these would suffice, after repetition at least, to prove their efficiency. Thus the oldest and most primitive implements that have come down to us are utilized flint chips. Once the flint-using habit was formed, it spread; and when the natural supply became scarce it was supplemented by artificially produced chips.

Fig. 3. Mas d'Azil (Ariège), which gave Its names to Azilian epoch: transition from paleolithic to neolithic. Photographed by G. G. MacCurdy.

The chief sources of flint are the chalk deposits of Cretaceous age that occur so plentifully in western Europe, as seen, for example, in the white cliffs along the southern coast of England. Approaching one of these cliffs, you will find it studded with parallel beds of flint nodules. Wherever flint occurs stone-age relics are apt to be abundant. The chalk of England, Belgium and northern France is the same age as the flint-bearing calcareous deposits of Spain and southern France; but the latter have not the white chalky appearance and are much harder;

Fig. 4. Tellier Quarry, St. Acheul. Third terrace.

hence are full of caverns and rock shelters about which we shall speak later.

One great difficulty that confronts the student of human origins is the paucity and fragmentary character of the evidence. This evidence is limited to two kinds: skeletal and cultural remains. The first of these is the rarest and at the same time the most incontrovertible. Not one complete skeleton has as yet been found. The less durable parts are missing. The cranial cap, the lower jaw, a few teeth, bones of the extremities, are the somatologist's chief sources of information. Except in rare instances, the face bones and the base of the skull are missing. Of Pithecanthropus we have only the cranial cap, a few teeth, and a femur; of Heidelberg man, only the lower jaw; of the Piltdown skull, the greater part of the brain case, including a portion of the brow ridge, and the right half of the lower jaw. Osseous remains of Neandertal man and the later paleolithic races are more abundant. Of Homo neandertalensis alone there are now at least twenty authentic examples.

The mentality of early man is reflected in the size and structure of

Fig. 5. Fourth or Youngest Terrace at Amiens. Photographed by G. G. MacCurdy.

the brain. Casts of the cranial cavity have been studied with great care. The cranial capacity of Pithecanthropus is estimated at 850 c.c, placing it in this respect nearer to the minimum in man than to the maximum in anthropoids. The cranial capacity of the Piltdown skull (Eoanthropus dawsoni) is given by Dr. A. Smith Woodward as not less than 1,070 c.c. The Piltdown skull apparently belonged to a female, and according to Professor Elliott Smith its brain case, though smaller and more primitive in form, is not unlike those of Gibraltar and La Quina, both paleolithic and supposedly feminine. The most striking feature

PI. I. Great Band of Frescoes Six Meters Long; the basis of engraving is seen in the upper half of the picture. Cavern of Fonte de Gamme (Dordogne). After Capitan, Breull and Peyrony. La cavern de Font-de-Gamme aux Eyzles (Dordogne).

is the "pronounced gorilla-like drooping of the temporal region, due to the extreme narrowing of its posterior part, which causes a deep excavation of its under surface." This feeble development of that portion of the brain which is known to control the power of articulate speech is most significant. To Professor Smith the association of a simian jaw with a cranium more distinctly human is not surprising. The evolution of the human brain from the simian type involves a tripling of the superficial area of the cerebral cortex; and "this expansion was not like the mere growth of a muscle with exercise, but the gradual building-up of the most complex mechanism in existence. The growth of the brain preceded the refinement of the features and the somatic characters in general." The Piltdown skull with its primitive brain and simian lower jaw, but with a frontal profile suggesting the modern rather than the Neandertal type, tends to prove that in the lower Quaternary the differentiation among Hominidæ had already progressed much farther than has been generally supposed; and that we shall have to go a long way back in the past to find the parting of the ways between the ancestor of man and that of his nearest of kin among the apes. The capacity of some of the male skulls of the Neandertal type is unusually large, but the brain still lacks the superior organization that characterizes the modern human brain. The Neandertal race seems to have disappeared rather suddenly at the close of the Mousterian epoch. Art-loving Aurignacian man was of a different type both physically and mentally.

Cultural remains, although much more abundant, are confined wholly to durable materials such as stone, bone, horn, and ivory. Pottery and metals are durable, but the fact that they do not occur is very good negative evidence that they were unknown. We are justified in assuming that wood, bark, roots, plant stems, skins, etc., were used, but not one trace of these has been preserved. It is also fairly safe to assume that fire-making was a very early invention of man, for unmistakable traces of it are found as far back as Mousterian times (and have been reported by one author in the Acheulian and Chellean).

The hearth suggests a roof and these the family and possibly the tribe. At Torralba, Province of Soria, Spain, the Marquis of Cerralbo has recently uncovered a large camp site, which has yielded an association of rude eolithic and Chellean industry with the remains of a very old fauna: Elephas antiquus (and possibly also the Pliocene elephant), Rhinoceros etruscus, Equus stenonis, and a large and small deer. Some sort of tribal organization would naturally develop under such conditions.

Man very early sought shelter under overhanging rocks and in caverns, but these are limited geographically while man's range was practically unlimited. La Quina (Charente) was in Mousterian times a magnificent

Pl. II. Bas Relief from the Rock Shelter of Laussel (Dordogne). representing a nude female holding a bison horn; Aurignacian age. After Lalanne. "L'anthropologie," XXIII., 131, 1912.

rock shelter facing the northwest, but the overhanging rock weathered away long ago, leaving a thick talus slope over the relic-bearing deposits (Fig. 1). Here Dr. Henri Martin found a nearly complete female skull of the Neandertal type and a portion of the skeleton. Placard (Charente), occupied in Mousterian, Solutréan, and Magdalenian times, is a great shallow dry cave, a comfortable and picturesque home for early man (Fig. 2). Equally picturesque is Mas d'Azil (Ariège), a subterranean stream bed with connecting caverns occupied by man in so-called Azilian times, that is to say at the very close of the paleolithic period (Fig. 3). Shelters were evidently produced artificially at an early date, and no doubt varied according to locality just as they do among primitive peoples of to-day. The ancestral hairy coat was not discarded all at once, and before it ceased to be functional, some exceptional mind had set a new fashion in garb. In more favored climes this might well have been nothing more than the proverbial fig leaf. In colder regions recourse would be had to skins of animals.

Much has been written concerning man and the glacial period, or perhaps more correctly the glacial epochs; for there seem to have been about four of these, all (or at least three) of which belong to the Quaternary. The phenomena of fourfold terraces in the valleys of Europe are widespread. To what extent these may be correlated with the four glacial epochs is still an open question.

At Amiens in the valley of the Somme, flint implements have been found in all four terraces. Of the oldest two terraces at a height of 75 and 55 meters, respectively, above the sea, very little remains. A typical pre-Chellean or eolithic industry has been found in the old gravel of the second terrace. The third terrace about 42 meters above the sea is made up of gravel at the bottom and two loess deposits, an old loess and a recent loess (Fig. 4). Chellean industry occurs in the gravel, Acheulian industry in the old loess, and Mousterian and Solutréan industry in the recent loess. That a considerable period elapsed between the deposition of these two loess deposits is proved by the presence of the so-called limon rouge at the top of the old loess, representing an old land surface, just as the brick earth at the top of the recent loess represents a decalcified land surface—the present one. The fourth terrace, the one last to be formed, is only 20 to 28 meters above the sea, the 8 meters representing the thickness of the terrace (Fig. 5). Beginning at the bottom, it is composed of coarse gravel with Chellean industry; a whitish layer of sand and gravel containing an ancient Mousterian industry associated with a warm fauna (Elephas antiquus, Rhinoceros merckii, Hippopotamus): a sterile layer of fine gravels; and lastly a thick deposit of recent loess with two horizons of later Mousterian industry.

Pl. III. Male Figure in Bas Relief, Aurignacian age; rock shelter of Laussel. (Dordogne). After Lalanne, "L'Anthropologie," XXIII.. 147. 1912.

Across the Channel in the Ouse valley, at Piltdown, Fletching (Sussex), there has recently come to light a flint-bearing gravel with a remarkable association of human osseous and cultural remains with those of a Pliocene and Quaternary fauna (Pliocene elephant, Mastodon, Hippopotamus, Cervus elaphus, beaver, horse). The gravel bed is 80 feet above and a mile removed from the present bed of the Ouse. The physiographic features of this region have suffered no appreciable change since Roman times, hence the relation of the present Ouse bed to the one that existed when the Piltdown gravels were deposited indicates a great antiquity for the latter. All the relics in it are certainly

Fig. 6. Eoanthropus dawsoni. (1/3 nat. size.) After Dawson and Woodward. Q. J. G. S., LXIX., 141, 1913.

as old as the deposit. All or some may be older. The somatic characters of the human skull (Fig. 6), especially the lower jaw, postulate great antiquity, as does the nature of the rude flint implements. That the latter were found in association with a very primitive human type would seem to give such implements a standing hitherto denied them by some authorities; unless it can be proved that they were derived from a deposit antedating the one which originally contained the human remains. Their pedigree was needed in order to make industrial genealogy complete, just as the skull itself was needed to fill a gap in man's physical evolution. It remains for the geologists to determine whether in Piltdown the prehistorian's "Rosetta stone" has at last been found. Perhaps they will be able to tell us also whether a channel separated the man of Piltdown from his contemporaries in the near-by valley of the Somme. The present channel dates from the very close of the paleolithic period. That there was a channel in early paleolithic times is

Pl. IV. A Bison on a Column of Stalagmite; the artist completed a figure already blocked out fortuitously by nature. Cavern of Castillo, Puente Viesgo, Spain. After Alcalde del Rio, Breuil and Sierra. Les caverues de la région Cantibrique (Espagne).

raised beaches near Calais and on the south coast of England.

All things considered, it looks as if pre-neolithic man had to contend with more than one glacial epoch, which means an environmental disturbance of the first magnitude. Think, for example, of a great continental ice-sheet creeping slowly but inevitably down upon New York City. What an overturning of unearned increments! What a succession of Titanic disasters at sea! But unearned increments and floating palaces were happily non-existent in past glacial times. Pre-neolithic man simply abandoned his wind-break or folded his tent of skins and carried it with him. Besides the European continental ice-sheet never reached quite so far south even as London; it never covered the spots where the Piltdown skull and the Heidelberg jaw were found. There was, to be sure, a considerable extension of the Alpine and Pyrenean glaciers, but there was always enough room for safety and the survival of those best adapted to the environment.

The wide distribution in Europe of flint-bearing chalk deposits makes it almost an ideal place for the evolution of a stone-age culture. In many parts of Europe these flint-bearing deposits also afforded man ready-made shelter in the shape of caves and overhanging rocks. They are usually in proximity to water courses, and frequently so bunched as to invite a relatively dense population: those became centers of culture.

Such favored regions as the foothills of the Cantabrian Mountains in Spain, those of the French Pyrenees, the Italian Riviera, and Dordogne go a long way toward explaining the origin and evolution of paleolithic art. The great cave group of the Vézère valley became the Paris of the antique world. Here the arts flourished to a remarkable degree, beginning with the Aurignacian epoch. and continuing through to the close of the paleolithic.

It must be remembered that these early artists were limited in their choice of materials. Pebbles, pieces of schist or slate, fallen fragments from the overhanging calcareous rock, bone, reindeer horn, ivory were all utilized; but the most notable works were executed on the walls of caverns and rock shelters. Suitable wall space was at a premium; the result is that one often finds superposed figures two, three and even four deep covering the same wall space. One of the best examples of this is the great band of frescoes, five meters long, which shows interlocking of figures as well as superposition (PI. I.). Here as in practically all polychrome frescoes there is a basis of engraving which also prepares the field for the color. This foundation of engraving is seen in the upper half of the plate. The band is readily divided into four groups or sections. To the first group belong three figures all headed

Fig. 7. Male and Female Bison modeled in Clay, discovered October, 1912; from cavern of Tuc d'Audoubert (Ariège). Votive offering for multiplication of the bison.

in the same direction. The lines of the reindeer cut all others, hence it is the latest of this group. The bison comes next, its head being hidden in part by that of the reindeer. Underneath the bison are the imperfect outlines of a mammoth recognized by the contour of the head and back, and the feet. In section two the mammoth is on top. Beneath come

Fig. 8. Female Bison, front view; cavern of Tuc d'Audoubert (Ariège).

first a reindeer and lastly a bison with the head toward the right. The mammoth is again the latest of the figures in group three. It was incised over the figure of a great bison. Older than the bison is the reindeer; and oldest of all, the small figure of a horse, with the exception of the rump almost obliterated by subsequent drawings. The order for the fourth group beginning with the latest figure is: mammoth, bison, and horse. Below this ensemble is a finely engraved mammoth. That such superposition was in a large measure unconscious, unintentional,

Fig. 9. Engraved Figure of the Horse with Arrows Sticking in his Side. Cavern wall of Tuc d'Audoubert (Ariège). Votive offering for success in the chase.

there can be little question. This superposition sometimes marks a lapse of considerable time and may be of service in the dating of mural art in general.

Quite recently engraved slabs of stone have been found at La Madeleine, some of them from refuse worked over years ago by Lartet and Christy. These and similar specimens from Limeuil (Dordogne) are now the property of the Museum of National Antiquities at St. Germain. Monsieur L. Didon has found engraved slabs of Aurignacian age in the rock shelters at Sergeac (Dordogne), one of which representing a horse and found in 1912, now belongs to the American Museum of Natural History. Still more remarkable are the has reliefs of upper Aurignacian age from the rock shelter of Laussel (Dordogne) representing the human form. Four of these depict a female type already familiar through discoveries at Brassempouy (Landes), Mentone and

Fig. 10. Head of Reindeer engraved on Cavern Wall, at Tuc d'Audgobert (Ariège). A club-shaped figure across the head. Votive offering for success in the chase.

Willendorf (Austria). In all there is an evident exaggeration of certain female characters rather than a serious attempt to copy nature faithfully (Pl. II.). The lines of the male figure, who has apparently just let fly an arrow from his bow, are fairly true to the original (Pl. III.). The bas relief of the female holding the bison horn was painted red; traces of the color still persist not only on the body but also over all the cut portion of the rock. The practise of painting engraved and relief figures was no doubt quite general, examples having been reported lately from La Madeleine and Castillo (Spain).

The paleolithic artist was quick to detect in the configuration of the rock a resemblance to animal forms and to heighten the resemblance by judicious use of engraving or color. To illustrate this point the figure of a bison on a column of stalagmite in the cavern of Castillo near Puente Viesgo, Spain, is chosen (Pl. IV.). It took very little though well-directed effort on the part of the artist to complete a form already blocked out by nature. A few incised lines and the application of color (black) about the head and shoulders sufficed. A bison at Niaux (Ariège) and a horse at Font-de-Gaume (Dordogne) are also of this class, as is a bovine head in the newly discovered cavern of Tuc d'Audoubert (Ariège). Shortly after his discovery of the cavern Count Bégouen noted two red spots on the wall. The following day it was my good fortune to identify them as a pair of eyes, the animal's head being formed in bold relief by the projecting rock. Such fortuitous objects as these might have been that which originally sensitized the human imagination till it was able to catch and perpetuate a likeness to familiar or cherished forms. With the gradual perfection of the likeness both with and without fortuitous assistance the fine arts were born.

Nothing quite the equal of paleolithic cave art has since appeared among any people in the hunting and fishing stage of culture; for it must be remembered that domestication of animals and the arts of agriculture were neolithic innovations; so was the ceramic art.

It seems almost a pity that this artistically inclined old race was not familiar with the plastic possibilities of clay. What exquisite figures of their favorite game animals they might have left to us, both in the round and in painted forms. Perhaps they did model in clay. If so the objects were not properly tempered and either poorly fired or not fired at all and have since completely crumbled away. Only one

Fig. 11. Wounded Bison, in part engraved and in part painted (red); to the right, the head of a horse incomplete; below, six claviform figures. Pindal (Asturias). After Alcalde del Rio, Breuil and Sierra. Les cavernes de la région Cantabrique (Espagne).

instance of paleolithic modeling in clay has thus far come to light, the discovery being made only last October in the newly found (July 20) cavern of Tuc d'Audoubert. I visited this cavern only five days after its discovery by Count Bégouen and his sons, who in continuing their researches less than three months later came upon two clay figures of the bison, a female 61 centimeters long followed by a male 63 centimeters in length. These figures were never wholly separated from the matrix out of which they were so deftly fashioned. They seem to stand out of the sloping clay talus that flanks a fallen rock (Figs. 7 and 8). They are far removed from any known entrance to the cave and were discovered only after Count Bégouen had broken away huge stalagmite pillars that blocked the narrow corridor leading to that particular gallery, which was evidently a paleolithic shrine since mercifully guarded from unhallowed hands by Nature's own silent white sentinels. On the walls of another gallery of this same cavern are engravings of favorite game animals: a horse, with arrows sticking in his side (Fig. 9); a reindeer with a club-shaped figure across its head (Fig. 10).

In visiting a long series of paleolithic caverns with mural decorations one is struck not only by the number of figures of animals wounded by arrows or associated with claviform representations (Fig. 11), but also by the evident desire of the artist to leave his work in a secluded spot difficult of access. Among the most remarkable art works found in the floor deposits of caves and rock shelters are the spear throwers ornamented with gracefully carved figures in the round or in high relief of the animal to be hunted.

These facts would seem to point to one of the cogent reasons for the phenomenon of cave art. To be sure, many of the figures are so meritorious as to make their execution well worth while for the simple satisfaction they must have given to the artist or the chance beholder. Reading between the lines, one may detect other reasons. The art might well have served another purpose. It was called forth no doubt in a large measure to meet an economic need. As the population increased—and no one familiar with the Vézère valley, for example, can fail to be impressed by the evidences of a relatively dense population—as this increased, the food supply of game and fish decreased in inverse ratio. In order to adjust the supply to the ever-increasing demand, recourse was had to magic, to the aid of the spirit world. The female bison closely followed by the male (Fig. 7). the wounded horse and bison (Figs. 9 and 11), the clubbed reindeer (Fig. 10) are votive offerings for the multiplication of game and for success in the chase. In the end magic was bound to fail as it always will. Then passed away the picturesque paleolithic culture, superseded by the neolithic, capable of meeting the demands of an increased population, based as it was on the domestication of animals and plants as well as on the utilitarian potter's art.