Ancient History & Civilisation

1. Men of the Old Stone Age

The geological background—Paleolithic types

Immense volumes have been written to expound our knowledge, and conceal our ignorance, of primitive man. We leave to other imaginative sciences the task of describing the men of the old and the New Stone Age; our concern is to trace the contributions of these “paleolithic” and “neolithic” cultures to our contemporary life.

The picture we must form as background to the story is of an earth considerably different from that which tolerates us transiently today: an earth presumably shivering with the intermittent glaciations that made our now temperate zones arctic for thousands of years, and piled up masses of rock like the Himalayas, the Alps and the Pyrenees before the plough of the advancing ice.* If we accept the precarious theories of contemporary science, the creature who became man by learning to speak was one of the adaptable species that survived from those frozen centuries. In the Interglacial Stages, while the ice was retreating (and, for all we know, long before that), this strange organism discovered fire, developed the art of fashioning stone and bone into weapons and tools, and thereby paved the way to civilization.

Various remains have been found which—subject to later correction—are attributed to this prehistoric man. In 1929 a young Chinese paleontologist, W. C. Pei, discovered in a cave at Chou Kou Tien, some thirty-seven miles from Peiping, a skull adjudged to be human by such experts as the Abbé Breuil and G. Elliot Smith. Near the skull were traces of fire, and stones obviously worked into tools; but mingled with these signs of human agency were the bones of animals ascribed by common consent to the Early Pleistocene Epoch, a million years ago.3 This Peking skull is by common opinion the oldest human fossil known to us; and the tools found with it are the first human artefacts in history. At Piltdown, in Sussex, England, Dawson and Woodward found in 1911 some possibly human fragments now known as “Piltdown Man,” or Eoanthropus (Dawn Man); the dates assigned to it range spaciously from 1,000,000 to 125,000 B.C. Similar uncertainties attach to the skull and thigh-bones found in Java in 1891, and the jaw-bone found near Heidelberg in 1907. The earliest unmistakably human fossils were discovered at Neanderthal, near Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1857; they date apparently from 40,000 B.C., and so resemble human remains unearthed in Belgium, France and Spain, and even on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, that a whole race of “Neanderthal Men” has been pictured as possessing Europe some forty millenniums before our era. They were short, but they had a cranial capacity of 1600 cubic centimeters—which is 200 more than ours.4

These ancient inhabitants of Europe seem to have been displaced, some 20,000 B.C., by a new race, named Cro-Magnon, from the discovery of its relics (1868) in a grotto of that name in the Dordogne region of southern France. Abundant remains of like type and age have been exhumed at various points in France, Switzerland, Germany and Wales. They indicate a people of magnificent vigor and stature, ranging from five feet ten inches to six feet four inches in height, and having a skull capacity of 1590 to 1715 cubic centimeters.5 Like the Neanderthals, Cro-Magnon men are known to us as “cave-men,” because their remains are found in caves; but there is no proof that these were their sole dwelling-place; it may be again but a jest of time that only those of them who lived in caves, or died in them, have transmitted their bones to archeologists. According to present theory this splendid race came from central Asia through Africa into Europe by land-bridges presumed to have then connected Africa with Italy and Spain.6 The distribution of their fossils suggests that they fought for many decades, perhaps centuries, a war with the Neanderthals for the possession of Europe; so old is the conflict between Germany and France. At all events, Neanderthal Man disappeared; Cro-Magnon Man survived, became the chief progenitor of the modern western European, and laid the bases of that civilization which we inherit today.

The cultural remains of these and other European types of the Old Stone Age have been classified into seven main groups, according to the location of the earliest or principal finds in France. All are characterized by the use of unpolished stone implements. The first three took form in the precarious interval between the third and fourth glaciations.

I. The Pre-Chellean Culture or Industry, dating some 125,000 B.C.: most of the flints found in this low layer give little evidence of fashioning, and appear to have been used (if at all) as nature provided them; but the presence of many stones of a shape to fit the fist, and in some degree flaked and pointed, gives to Pre-Chellean man the presumptive honor of having made the first known tool of European man—the coup-de-poing, or “blow-of-the-fist” stone.

II. The Chellean Culture, ca. 100,000 B.C., improved this tool by roughly flaking it on both sides, pointing it into the shape of an almond, and fitting it better to the hand.

III. The Acheulean Culture, about 75,000 B.C., left an abundance of remains in Europe, Greenland, the United States, Canada, Mexico, Africa, the Near East, India, and China; it not only brought the coup-de-poing to greater symmetry and point, but it produced a vast variety of special tools—hammers, anvils, scrapers, planes, arrow-heads, spear-heads, and knives; already one sees a picture of busy human industry.

IV. The Mousterian Culture is found on all continents, in especial association with the remains of Neanderthal Man, about 40,000 B.C. Among these flints the coup-de-poing is comparatively rare, as something already ancient and superseded. The implements were formed from a large single flake, lighter, sharper and shapelier than before, and by skilful hands with a long-established tradition of artisanship. Higher in the Pleistocene strata of southern France appear the remains of

V. The Aurignacian Culture, ca. 25,000 B.C., the first of the postglacial industries, and the first known culture of Cro-Magnon Man. Bone tools—pins, anvils, polishers, etc.—were now added to those of stone; and art appeared in the form of crude engravings on the rocks, or simple figurines in high relief, mostly of nude women.7 At a higher stage of Cro-Magnon development

VI. The Solutrean Culture appears ca. 20,000 B.C., in France, Spain, Czechoslovakia and Poland: points, planes, drills, saws, javelins and spears were added to the tools and weapons of Aurignacian days; slim, sharp needles were made of bone, many implements were carved out of reindeer horn, and the reindeer’s antlers were engraved occasionally with animal figures appreciably superior to Aurignacian art. Finally, at the peak of Cro-Magnon growth,

VII. The Magdalenian Culture appears throughout Europe about 16,000 B.C.; in industry it was characterized by a large assortment of delicate utensils in ivory, bone and horn, culminating in humble but perfect needles and pins; in art it was the age of the Altamira drawings, the most perfect and subtle accomplishment of Cro-Magnon Man.

Through these cultures of the Old Stone Age prehistoric man laid the bases of those handicrafts which were to remain part of the European heritage until the Industrial Revolution. Their transmission to the classic and modern civilizations was made easier by the wide spread of paleolithic industries. The skull and cave-painting found in Rhodesia in 1921, the flints discovered in Egypt by De Morgan in 1896, the paleolithic finds of Seton-Karr in Somaliland, the Old Stone Age deposits in the basin of the Fayum,* and the Still Bay Culture of South Africa indicate that the Dark Continent went through approximately the same prehistoric periods of development in the art of flaking stone as those which we have outlined in Europe;8 perhaps, indeed, the quasi-Aurignacian remains in Tunis and Algiers strengthen the hypothesis of an African origin or stopping-point for the Cro-Magnon race, and therefore for European man.9 Paleolithic implements have been dug up in Syria, India, China, Siberia, and other sections of Asia;10 Andrews and his Jesuit predecessors came upon them in Mongolia;11 Neanderthal skeletons and Mousterian-Aurignacian flints have been exhumed in great abundance in Palestine; and we have seen how the oldest known human remains and implements have lately been unearthed near Peiping. Bone tools have been discovered in Nebraska which some patriotic authorities would place at 500,000 B.C.; arrowheads have been found in Oklahoma and New Mexico which their finders assure us were made in 350,000 B.C. So vast was the bridge by which prehistoric transmitted the foundations of civilization to historic man.

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