Wonders of Scientific Discovery - Charles Gibson

Discoveries Concerning Man

The poetic story of creation—The advance of civilised man—Discovery of ancient Nineveh—Deciphering a lost language—History of mummification—Curious customs—"Druid Stones"—Pile-villages on the lakes—Valley deposits and cave-dwellings—Remains of primitive man—The Mammoth—Discoveries during digging operations—Man's early implements—A prehistoric Venus—Rock-shelters—Cave drawings—The artist's pencils—Attempts at perspective—Pictures of the Woolly Elephant—The duration of the Stone Age—The earliest stone implements

When considering the discoveries concerning the past history of living creatures, in the preceding chapter, the subject of man was omitted purposely. Not because man has no connection with these other living creatures, for we shall see that there is a relationship, nor yet was the omission made because a few people dislike to think that man was not specially created just as we find him to-day, only less cultured and learned. We have seen that the biblical story of the Creation is of a poetic nature, summing up the ideas of ancient man, and not intended to be taken literally. We agree with Galileo who said, some three hundred years ago, that the Bible was not designed to teach us how the heavens go, but how to go to heaven. Before considering the great discovery that man's body has been evolved gradually from simpler forms, it may be of interest to continue the plan of the preceding chapter and see what the Earth itself has to tell us of the early history of man.

If we seek to turn back the pages of the Earth-written history, we find upon the surface, which is not yet a part of the bound book, that living man differs very much in different parts of the Earth. There is a great contrast between the man of culture and the wild savage of heathen lands. This inequality goes a long way back in the history of man. Although the British Isles were occupied by semi-barbarous people less than two thousand years ago, when Julius Caesar made his first invasion, yet we all know that the people of the East were cultured and lived lives very similar to those of quite recent times. Indeed, until the advent of the steam-engine, and the consequent advance of mechanical power, the life of man was not remotely different from that of the cultured ancients.

It is less than one hundred years since we discovered ancient Nineveh buried in the East. An interesting find was that of ancient libraries of brick-books and cylinders of clay. These writings were in a language which had disappeared from the Earth, and it was supposed that these strange books could never be read. Indeed, it was quite reasonable to suppose that the meaning of these groups of horizontal, vertical, and slanting strokes of the Assyrians was lost for ever. But, thanks to the efforts of many students, it was discovered that the written characters of the Persians were founded upon similar signs, although the appearance of the languages was very different. A fortunate discovery was the finding, on a cliff in Persia, of an inscription which was written in Persian and in Assyrian, and placed there by King Darius, who figures in biblical history. As the two languages were different, it would seem impossible to discover that the one writing was a translation of the other, but it so happened that there were a great many proper names occurring in the two inscriptions. The names were kept the same in both languages, so this gave, a starting point from which enthusiastic students were able to decipher the Assyrian signs. Records of ancient kings were discovered, of whose existence we had no previous knowledge except that their names were mentioned in the Bible. Many records of wars upon early Palestine were found, and it became apparent that the compilers of the Book of Genesis had been acquainted with these stone-books.

There is a tablet shown in the British Museum which goes back to four thousand five hundred years before Christ, and there is evidence of much earlier writings, but these are not the only records of an ancient past. Much information has been gained by the discovery of mummies. We can even trace how the Ancients discovered the art of mummification.

Mask of a mummy


We find that it was their custom originally to bury their dead in shallow holes scraped in the soil. They discovered that when the body was placed in the hot dry sand the corpse was preserved in an incorruptible form. There is evidence that this fact became known to the Ancients through disgraceful acts of robbing graves for articles of value which had been buried with the bodies. Then we find the Ancients seeking to protect the body of the dead by placing it in a sarcophagus (coffin) or in a rock-cut tomb. We must remember that their belief was that the body had to be preserved if eternal life was to be obtained. But the improved method of burial was found to be defeating this end; the bodies were no longer preserved. It was then that the Ancients commenced to use means of embalming the bodies in order to preserve them.

The cosmetics required for embalming were already in use in those far-off days, being used by the ladies of that time in that ridiculous art of seeking to improve their natural charms by the addition of an artificial complexion. The ingredients of these cosmetics were what the embalmers required for their new art.

In an interesting paper read before the Royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow, Professor G. Elliot Smith, F.R.S., who has done so much original research work in connection with mummies, explained many points of interest. It is found that during a certain period it was customary to bury a little model or image of the deceased along with the mummy, but that, later on, this practice ceased. It has been discovered that these mummies, having an accompanying image, are not good specimens of the embalmers' art. It is evident that at this period, when the preservation of the features was very deficient, it was considered necessary to bury a likeness of the deceased along with the mummy, lest the soul upon its return might not recognise its former habitation. When the art of embalming improved these images were dispensed with.

Another point of interest to the general reader is that, believing the heart to be the seat of the soul, the embalmers made a copy of the heart in wax, and placed this in the body along with the human heart, lest by any accident the original dwelling-place should not remain till the return of the soul. To make assurance doubly sure, it was sometimes the custom to place a second artificial heart, made of stone, in the sarcophagus, so that the soul upon its return would be sure to find a resting-place.

But as the oldest mummy is less than five thousand years old (see illustration facing page 66), and as at that time man was a civilised being, it is evident that even this ancient history of mummification takes us back only a very short way towards the earliest man. But there are other sources of information.

On the very surface of the Earth we find some evidence of early man. The so-called "Druid Stones" or upstanding stones are familiar objects to many of us. Some of these are very massive, and the country folk sometimes have queer notions as to whence these came. Some years ago the author was looking at some of these upstanding stones on the Island of Arran (Scotland), when an intelligent middle-aged native woman came along. When asked where the stones came from, she said that as children they were told that the giants had flung them there, and others told her that these huge stones had fallen from heaven; she knew in any case that no man could have put them there.

Until recently these stones were associated with the Druids, but now we know that they are of much earlier origin, having been erected before the close of the Stone Age. In many cases the stones are set in large circles, and undoubtedly mark burial-places. Some of these upstanding stones are claimed by one authority to have been connected with Sun-worship.

The deposits of old lakes tell us something of early man, when he built pile-villages over the water for protection against wild creatures. There is evidence that these early men cultivated wheat and barley, and that they had tamed some of the animals, such as the ox, goat, and dog. These early people have left us traces of their pottery-ware and even of coarse weaving.

[Illustration] from Scientific Discoveries by Charles Gibson


It is of interest to inquire how much of man's earliest history is preserved within the Earth. We do not expect to find great quantities of human remains. So long as man's remains were left on the surface of the Earth, they would disappear in a comparatively short time. Even when man became a religious being and desired to bury the dead, we know that the bones would continue to disappear very gradually by chemical action. But it might happen that a man would be accidentally buried beneath falling rocks, or that in some of his cave-dwellings (rock-shelters) his bones became deposited under conditions in which chemical action would not take place so easily. And so it is that remains of prehistoric man have been found in valley deposits and in rock-shelters.

Traces of human remains of primitive man were discovered more than half a century ago, but for some time the finds were few and far between, and consisted in most cases of a single jaw. Our present interest does not lie in the order in which the discoveries have been made, but in the knowledge gained by the total discoveries.

One important discovery was that man was living at the same time as the great woolly elephant or "Mammoth." The first discoveries were made accidentally during digging operations, but the great finds have been made by systematic search. Only very occasionally have nearly complete skeletons been found, but even when the only remains are a skull and, say, a thigh bone the expert can tell a great deal about the one-time owner. He can say that the primitive creature was an old man, or a female, or a youth. That his intelligence was very low, that indeed in a few cases it is very difficult to say whether the individual was a man or an ape, and that it would be better to call this particular find an "ape-man." Other remains show a very primitive state of man, and from the want of development of a particular part of the under-jaw (the place to which the tongue muscle attaches), the expert declares that this primitive type of real man had no spoken language.

One fact is perfectly clear, that the farther back we can trace the skulls of prehistoric man the smaller is his brain capacity, until it reaches that point, already mentioned, when it becomes difficult to classify; the brain capacity being less than that of any known human remains, and yet greater than that of an ape.

The information as to the customs of primitive man, which we can get from these finds of human remains, is rather meagre. One strange find has been a number of heads all buried together, with their faces all turned towards the setting sun. It is perfectly clear that these heads were complete when buried, and that the bodies were not buried with them. Those of the women and children had necklaces of shells made of the teeth of stags. This was certainly a curious burial custom and must date back a very long time.

Fortunately, we are not dependent entirely upon the remains of man himself in tracing his first existence. Primitive man used tools, and it is the remains of his industries which tell us of his very early existence. The early use of iron and bronze implements falls within the scope of authentic history, and we are not surprised to know that earlier implements of stone have been found in deposits within the Earth. Indeed, we might conjecture that this would be so, as we find savages of modern times working with stone tools. The Tasmanians made practical use of stone implements right up to the time of their extinction some forty years ago. This people remained primitive after they had been cut off from the mainland of Australia, of which their island was once a part. The small community of men made little progress towards civilisation.

In trying to read the history of early man from stone and flint instruments found deposited in the Earth, it is not an easy matter to place them in any definite chronological order. Even to-day we find very different stages of civilisation, and so we may be sure that the different stages of the Stone Age would be lived by different people in different places at the same time. This is perfectly clear from the fact that the use of primitive stone implements has persisted not only in Tasmania but in other distant lands right into the days of the steam-engine.

The discoveries which appeal most to the imagination are those made in the cave-dwellings of early man, but before considering these it will be well to refer to the valley deposits.

Some finds were made while digging out the foundations for modern factories and other large buildings. On one such occasion in France the workmen found over one thousand different objects of prehistoric interest, these being chiefly flint implements made for various purposes. The fact of so many implements being found at one particular place suggested the idea that this must have been a workshop in which these tools were made. It is a strange thought that a modern factory should happen to be placed right over the scene of a flint tool factory of prehistoric man. Other finds have been made while constructing docks and railways. One of the most complete discoveries was made, a few years ago, during the making of a railway in Austria. Nine different layers of deposits, one upon another, were found to be quite distinct, and it was evident that prehistoric man had dwelt at this place.

In the uppermost layers were found beautifully finished stone implements, and a remarkable female statuette carved in limestone. The figure measured about five inches in height, and it has been christened the "Venus of Willemdorf," having been found at the place of that name. But we must not let our imagination run away with the idea of beauty in this ancient Venus. Those of us who have seen the figure, or a photograph of it, would not associate its appearance with that of the Venus de Milo. There is no attempt to make any features for the face, but the hair is represented in a negro-like fashion. The figure is by no means graceful, indeed, all would agree in describing it as being ugly, even apart from the fact that the arms and legs are out of all proportion. Nevertheless, the statuette is of great prehistoric value. It tells us that the primitive women of these days wore bracelets on their wrists, if they did not wear any clothes. Of course, we are not to imagine that the women were as ugly as the statuette, but rather that the prehistoric sculptor was exaggerating certain parts, and that he could not attempt to reproduce a face. More female figures have been found, similar to this, but others, again, show a more pleasing and slender figure. The remains of fireplaces were found near these statuettes, but there was no trace of human bones remaining. A human jaw was found in a corresponding layer in another valley, and along with it were bones of the extinct mammoth, the horse, the reindeer, and the fox.

Continuing the search down into the lower of the nine distinct layers the searchers found bone implements, and shafts made of reindeer horn, which had been used as handles for some of their stone implements. In addition to bones of animals such as found in the higher deposits there were discovered here remains of the cave-lion and the wolf. Still lower down were found implements made of hornstone, and some of these were in the form of scrapers, probably used in skinning animals. As the searchers got into lower deposits they found the stone implements to be of a more primitive type. The flint work was very poor, while in the lowest deposits these implements were of an extremely simple style.

As valley deposits are of very great extent, and very numerous, doubtless we shall make many more finds in that direction. The rock-shelters or cave-dwellings are numerous, but necessarily more limited; these have been favourite search-places for palaeontologists.

In the successive deposits, forming the floor of these caverns, we find a great deal of interest. Many thousands of primitive implements have been found in the floor of a single cave, and occasionally there have been discovered the beginnings of sculpture. Stone implements have been found in deposits which must have been laid down more than twenty thousand years ago. Other evidence seems to prove the existence of man more than one hundred thousand years ago.

Another interesting discovery has been the finding of drawings made by prehistoric man. When it was reported, a generation ago, that actual drawings, made by primitive man, had been discovered in a cavern, the statement was not accepted as fact. People thought there must be some misunderstanding, and they continued to think so, for nearly twenty years, till further similar discoveries were made. During recent years much research has been made in this direction, and some caves have been found to contain more than a hundred distinct pictures. Occasionally there have been found drawings of animals upon pieces of bone or horn, and on blocks of stone, but the greatest finds are those upon the walls and ceilings of the rock-shelters. Sometimes these pictures are life size, and they are almost entirely of animals. Most of them are really engravings made by a sharp tool. Some are merely line drawings, but others are filled in and shaded, while others again of a presumably later date are worked in coloured ochres.

Within the deposits of the cave-floors there have been found some of the ochre pencils with which the prehistoric artist made his pictures. Some of these ochres have been made in the form of a triangle, similar to that still adopted in tailor's chalk. This gave the artist three separate points which he could use at will. In some cases the cave drawings have been made with a regular paint material, so that we are not surprised to find among the floor deposits stone mortars in which the colours had been mixed with some fatty matter. Stone lamps have been found also, and no doubt the artist used these while executing his drawings.

[Illustration] from Scientific Discoveries by Charles Gibson


In one cave there are twenty-five figures on the ceiling, worked out in red, brown, black, and yellow. In practically every case the picture of the animal is shown in profile. Where any attempt at a group of animals has been made, the artist has failed sadly; he had no idea of perspective. So long as he kept to a simple profile his work was sometimes remarkably good, as is evidenced by the examples which have been found. In the accompanying illustration, Fig. 2, is shown an attempt of the primitive artist to reproduce a hunting scene. Of course, he has taken a good deal of licence, and evidently merely wished to express his ideas without producing any detail. Other hunting scenes show animals with a number of arrows stuck in their sides, the blood from the wounds being represented by red paint.

More than one attempt to reproduce the front view of an animal has been found upon pieces of bone or horn. These are extremely poor, although the artists have evidently thought differently, for in these cases it is clear that the prehistoric artist has desired to append his signature. One artist uses a circle with four dots above it as his sign or crest, and he appends this to each of his attempts to represent the front view of an animal, as though he were proud of the production.

From some of these pictures made in the long-ago by prehistoric man, we learn that the mammoth, or woolly elephant, had a real coat of shaggy hair (see Fig. 1, page 69). We also find some primitive drawings of women showing the whole body covered with a distinct coat of hair.

All these drawings were made in what we call the "Stone Age." We believe the earliest Stone Age to have covered a period very much longer than historic times have reached. Indeed, it seems certain that prehistoric man worked away with the most simple stone implements for at least one hundred thousand years. It took him all that vast time to reach the advance represented by polished stone axes, saws, knives, and arrows. It is estimated that the beginning of the Stone Age goes back about half a million years. Think of the slow progress made by prehistoric man in five thousand centuries, and contrast it with the progress of civilised man in the past century.

In trying to turn back to even earlier periods in the life of primitive man we have discovered many stones, so simple in their formation that some authorities believe them to have been fashioned by nature and not by human intelligence. These "eoliths," or earliest stones, have been very carefully examined, and there is considerable evidence in favour of the assertion that they are the handiwork of man. One authority claims that about ninety-five per cent of his large collection of these eoliths show the chipping to have been done according to a fixed rule. The blows producing the chips were always from the front toward the back, and the tiny scars left by the chipping begin at the margin and extend over the back. There is too much method in it to be the result of chance. If these eoliths are truly the work of intelligent man, then his history dates back several millions of years.

The story disclosed by all these discoveries makes a romance. Our imaginations can picture many scenes of primitive life in these dark caverns. One enterprising firm, who make cinematograph films, has reproduced an imagined scene in the life of prehistoric man. The size of these rock-shelters varies greatly, but the largest measures not far short of three-quarters of a mile in length, there being an entrance hall with many passages leading into other halls.

The evolution of man does not rest upon the evidence of the palaeontologist, although his discoveries go to support the theory of evolution. It is the zoologist and the physiologist who bring forward conclusive proofs, as we shall see in the succeeding chapter.