A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 3, chapter III
The new science of paleontology
Fossil man
Indeed, at the moment of Darwin's writing a new and very instructive chapter of the geologic record was being presented to the public - a chapter which for the first time brought man into the story. In 1859 Dr. Falconer, the distinguished British paleontologist, made a visit to Abbeville, in the valley of the Somme, incited by reports that for a decade before bad been sent out from there by M. Boucher de Perthes. These reports had to do with the alleged finding of flint implements, clearly the work of man, in undisturbed gravel- beds, in the midst of fossil remains of the mammoth and other extinct animals. What Falconer saw there and what came of his visit may best be told in his own words:

"In September of 1856 I made the acquaintance of my distinguished friend M. Boucher de Perthes," wrote Dr. Falconer, "on the introduction of M. Desnoyers at Paris, when he presented to me the earlier volume of his Antiquites celtiques, etc., with which I thus became acquainted for the first time. I was then fresh from the examination of the Indian fossil remains of the valley of the Jumna; and the antiquity of the human race being a subject of interest to both, we conversed freely about it, each from a different point of view. M. de Perthes invited me to visit Abbeville, in order to examine his antediluvian collection, fossil and geological, gleaned from the valley of the Somme. This I was unable to accomplish then, but I reserved it for a future occasion.

"In October, 1856, having determined to proceed to Sicily, I arranged by correspondence with M. Boucher de Perthes to visit Abbeville on my journey through France. I was at the time in constant communication with Mr. Prestwich about the proofs of the antiquity of the human race yielded by the Broxham Cave, in which he took a lively interest; and I engaged to communicate to him the opinions at which I should arrive, after my examination of the Abbeville collection. M. de Perthes gave me the freest access to his materials, with unreserved explanations of all the facts of the case that had come under his observation; and having considered his Menchecourt Section, taken with such scrupulous care, and identified the molars of elephas primigenius, which he had exhumed with his own hands deep in that section, along with flint weapons, presenting the same character as some of those found in the Broxham Cave, I arrived at the conviction that they were of contemporaneous age, although I was not prepared to go along with M. de Perthes in all his inferences regarding the hieroglyphics and in an industrial interpretation of the various other objects which he had met with."[4]

 That Dr. Falconer was much impressed by the collection of M. de Perthes is shown in a communication which he sent at once to his friend Prestwich:

"I have been richly rewarded," he exclaims. "His collection of wrought flint implements, and of the objects of every description associated with them, far exceeds everything I expected to have seen, especially from a single locality. He has made great additions, since the publication of his first volume, in the second, which I now have by me. He showed me flint hatchets which HE HAD DUG UP with his own hands, mixed INDISCRIMINATELY with molars of elephas primigenius. I examined and identified plates of the molars and the flint objects which were got along with them. Abbeville is an out-of-the-way place, very little visited; and the French savants who meet him in Paris laugh at Monsieur de Perthes and his researches. But after devoting the greater part of a day to his vast collection, I am perfectly satisfied that there is a great deal of fair presumptive evidence in favor of many of his speculations regarding the remote antiquity of these industrial objects and their association with animals now extinct. M. Boucher's hotel is, from the ground floor to garret, a continued museum, filled with pictures, mediaeval art, and Gaulish antiquities, including antediluvian flint-knives, fossil-bones, etc. If, during next summer, you should happen to be paying a visit to France, let me strongly recommend you to come to Abbeville. I am sure you would be richly rewarded."[5]

This letter aroused the interest of the English geologists, and in the spring of 1859 Prestwich and Mr. (afterwards Sir John) Evans made a visit to Abbeville to see the specimens and examine at first hand the evidences as pointed out by Dr. Falconer. "The evidence yielded by the valley of the Somme," continues Falconer, in speaking of this visit, "was gone into with the scrupulous care and severe and exhaustive analysis which are characteristic of Mr. Prestwich's researches. The conclusions to which he was conducted were communicated to the Royal Society on May 12, 1859, in his celebrated memoir, read on May 26th and published in the Philosophical Transactions of 1860, which, in addition to researches made in the valley of the Somme, contained an account of similar phenomena presented by the valley of the Waveney, near Hoxne, in Suffolk. Mr. Evans communicated to the Society of Antiquaries a memoir on the character and geological position of the 'Flint Implements in the Drift,' which appeared in the Archaeologia for 1860. The results arrived at by Mr. Prestwich were expressed as follows:

"First. That the flint implements are the result of design and the work of man.

"Second. That they are found in beds of gravel, sand, and clay, which have never been artificially disturbed.

"Third. That they occur associated with the remains of land, fresh-water, and marine testacea, of species now living, and most of them still common in the same neighborhood, and also with the remains of various mammalia - a few species now living, but more of extinct forms.

"Fourth. That the period at which their entombment took place was subsequent to the bowlder-clay period, and to that extent post-glacial; and also that it was among the latest in geological time - one apparently anterior to the surface assuming its present form, so far as it regards some of the minor features."[6]

 These reports brought the subject of the very significant human fossils at Abbeville prominently before the public; whereas the publications of the original discoverer, Boucher de Perthes, bearing date of 1847, had been altogether ignored. A new aspect was thus given to the current controversy.

As Dr. Falconer remarked, geology was now passing through the same ordeal that astronomy passed in the age of Galileo. But the times were changed since the day when the author of the Dialogues was humbled before the Congregation of the Index, and now no Index Librorum Prohibitorum could avail to hide from eager human eyes such pages of the geologic story as Nature herself had spared. Eager searchers were turning the leaves with renewed zeal everywhere, and with no small measure of success. In particular, interest attached just at this time to a human skull which Dr. Fuhlrott had discovered in a cave at Neanderthal two or three years before - a cranium which has ever since been famous as the Neanderthal skull, the type specimen of what modern zoologists are disposed to regard as a distinct species of man, Homo neanderthalensis. Like others of the same type since discovered at Spy, it is singularly simian in character - low-arched, with receding forehead and enormous, protuberant eyebrows. When it was first exhibited to the scientists at Berlin by Dr. Fuhlrott, in 1857, its human character was doubted by some of the witnesses; of that, however, there is no present question.

This interesting find served to recall with fresh significance some observations that had been made in France and Belgium a long generation earlier, but whose bearings had hitherto been ignored. In 1826 MM. Tournal and Christol had made independent discoveries of what they believed to be human fossils in the caves of the south of France; and in 1827 Dr. Schmerling had found in the cave of Engis, in Westphalia, fossil bones of even greater significance. Schmerling's explorations had been made with the utmost care, and patience. At Engis he had found human bones, including skulls, intermingled with those of extinct mammals of the mammoth period in a way that left no doubt in his mind that all dated from the same geological epoch. He bad published a full account of his discoveries in an elaborate monograph issued in 1833.

But at that time, as it chanced, human fossils were under a ban as effectual as any ever pronounced by canonical index, though of far different origin. The oracular voice of Cuvier had declared against the authenticity of all human fossils. Some of the bones brought him for examination the great anatomist had pettishly pitched out of the window, declaring them fit only for a cemetery, and that had settled the matter for a generation: the evidence gathered by lesser workers could avail nothing against the decision rendered at the Delphi of Science. But no ban, scientific or canonical, can longer resist the germinative power of a fact, and so now, after three decades of suppression, the truth which Cuvier had buried beneath the weight of his ridicule burst its bonds, and fossil man stood revealed, if not as a flesh-and-blood, at least as a skeletal entity.

The reception now accorded our prehistoric ancestor by the progressive portion of the scientific world amounted to an ovation; but the unscientific masses, on the other hand, notwithstanding their usual fondness for tracing remote genealogies, still gave the men of Engis and Neanderthal the cold shoulder. Nor were all of the geologists quite agreed that the contemporaneity of these human fossils with the animals whose remains had been mingled with them had been fully established. The bare possibility that the bones of man and of animals that long preceded him had been swept together into the eaves in successive ages, and in some mysterious way intermingled there, was clung to by the conservatives as a last refuge. But even this small measure of security was soon to be denied them, for in 1865 two associated workers, M. Edouard Lartet and Mr. Henry Christy, in exploring the caves of Dordogne, unearthed a bit of evidence against which no such objection could be urged. This momentous exhibit was a bit of ivory, a fragment of the tusk of a mammoth, on which was scratched a rude but unmistakable outline portrait of the mammoth itself. If all the evidence as to man's antiquity before presented was suggestive merely, here at last was demonstration; for the cave-dwelling man could not well have drawn the picture of the mammoth unless he had seen that animal, and to admit that man and the mammoth had been contemporaries was to concede the entire case. So soon, therefore, as the full import of this most instructive work of art came to be realized, scepticism as to man's antiquity was silenced for all time to come.

In the generation that has elapsed since the first drawing of the cave-dweller artist was discovered, evidences of the wide-spread existence of man in an early epoch have multiplied indefinitely, and to-day the paleontologist traces the history of our race back beyond the iron and bronze ages, through a neolithic or polished-stone age, to a paleolithic or rough-stone age, with confidence born of unequivocal knowledge. And he looks confidently to the future explorer of the earth's fossil records to extend the history back into vastly more remote epochs, for it is little doubted that paleolithic man, the most ancient of our recognized progenitors, is a modern compared to those generations that represented the real childhood of our race.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.