Ancient History & Civilisation

The Prehistoric Beginnings of Civilization


The purpose of prehistory—The romances of archeology

BUT we have spoken loosely; these primitive cultures that we have sketched as a means of studying the elements of civilization were not necessarily the ancestors of our own; for all that we know they may be the degenerate remnants of higher cultures that decayed when human leadership moved in the wake of the receding ice from the tropics to the north temperate zone. We have tried to understand how civilization in general arises and takes form; we have still to trace the prehistoric* origins of our own particular civilization. We wish now to inquire briefly—for this is a field that only borders upon our purpose—by what steps man, before history, prepared for the civilizations of history: how the man of the jungle or the cave became an Egyptian architect, a Babylonian astronomer, a Hebrew prophet, a Persian governor, a Greek poet, a Roman engineer, a Hindu saint, a Japanese artist, and a Chinese sage. We must pass from anthropology through archeology to history.

All over the earth seekers are digging into the earth: some for gold, some for silver, some for iron, some for coal; many of them for knowledge. What strange busyness of men exhuming paleolithic tools from the banks of the Somme, studying with strained necks the vivid paintings on the ceilings of prehistoric caves, unearthing antique skulls at Chou Kou Tien, revealing the buried cities of Mohenjo-daro or Yucatan, carrying débris in basket-caravans out of curse-ridden Egyptian tombs, lifting out of the dust the palaces of Minos and Priam, uncovering the ruins of Persepolis, burrowing into the soil of Africa for some remnant of Carthage, recapturing from the jungle the majestic temples of Angkor! In 1839 Jacques Boucher de Perthes found the first Stone Age flints at Abbeville, in France; for nine years the world laughed at him as a dupe. In 1872 Schliemann, with his own money, almost with his own hands, unearthed the youngest of the many cities of Troy; but all the world smiled incredulously. Never has any century been so interested in history as that which followed the voyage of young Champollion with young Napoleon to Egypt (1796); Napoleon returned empty-handed, but Champollion came back with all Egypt, past and current, in his grasp. Every generation since has discovered new civilizations or cultures, and has pushed farther and farther back the frontier of man’s knowledge of his development. There are not many things finer in our murderous species than this noble curiosity, this restless and reckless passion to understand.

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