Naturalists divide the class Mammalia into a number of orders. At the head of these is the order Primates, which includes the lemurs, the monkeys, apes and man. Their classification was based originally upon anatomical resemblances and took no account of any mental qualities.
Now the past history of the Primates is one very difficult to decipher in the geological record. They are for the most part animals which live in forests like the lemurs and monkeys or in bare rocky places like the baboons. They are rarely drowned and covered up by sediment, nor are most of them very numerous species, and so they do not figure so largely among the fossils as the ancestors of the horses, camels and so forth do. But we know that quite early in the Cainozoic period, that is to say some forty million years ago or so, primitive monkeys and lemuroid creatures had appeared, poorer in brain and not so specialized as their later successors.
The great world summer of the middle Cainozoic period drew at last to an end. It was to follow those other two great summers in the history of life, the summer of the Coal Swamps and the vast summer of the Age of Reptiles. Once more the earth spun towards an ice age. The world chilled, grew milder for a time and chilled again. In the warm past hippopotami had wallowed through a lush sub-tropical vegetation, and a tremendous tiger with fangs like sabres, the sabre-toothed tiger, had hunted its prey where now the journalists of Fleet Street go to and fro. Now came a bleaker age and still bleaker ages. A great weeding and extinction of species occurred. A woolly rhinoceros, adapted to a cold climate, and the mammoth, a big woolly cousin of the elephants, the Arctic musk ox and the reindeer passed across the scene. Then century by century the Arctic ice cap, the wintry death of the great Ice Age, crept southward. In England it came almost down to the Thames, in America it reached Ohio. There would be warmer spells of a few thousand years and relapses towards a bitterer cold.
Geologists talk of these wintry phases as the First, Second, Third and Fourth Glacial Ages, and of the interludes as Interglacial periods. We live to-day in a world that is still impoverished and scarred by that terrible winter. The First Glacial Age was coming on 600,000 years ago; the Fourth Glacial Age reached its bitterest some fifty thousand years ago. And it was amidst the snows of this long universal winter that the first man-like beings lived upon our planet.
By the middle Cainozoic period there have appeared various apes with many quasi-human attributes of the jaws and leg bones, but it is only as we approach these Glacial Ages that we find traces of creatures that we can speak of as “almost human.” These traces are not bones but implements. In Europe, in deposits of this period, between half a million and a million years old, we find flints and stones that have evidently been chipped intentionally by some handy creature desirous of hammering, scraping or fighting with the sharpened edge. These things have been called “Eoliths” (dawn stones). In Europe there are no bones nor other remains of the creature which made these objects, simply the objects themselves. For all the certainty we have it may have been some entirely un-human but intelligent monkey. But at Trinil in Java, in accumulations of this age, a piece of a skull and various teeth and bones have been found of a sort of ape man, with a brain case bigger than that of any living apes, which seems to have walked erect. This creature is now called Pithecanthropus erectus, the walking ape man, and the little trayful of its bones is the only help our imaginations have as yet in figuring to, ourselves the makers of the Eoliths.
It is not until we come to sands that are almost a quarter of a million years old that we find any other particle of a sub- human being. But there are plenty of implements, and they are steadily improving in quality as we read on through the record. They are no longer clumsy Eoliths; they are now shapely instruments made with considerable skill. And they are much bigger than the similar implements afterwards made by true man. Then, in a sandpit at Heidelberg, appears a single quasi-human jaw-bone, a clumsy jaw-bone, absolutely chinless, far heavier than a true human jaw-bone and narrower, so that it is improbable the creature’s tongue could have moved about for articulate speech. On the strength of this jaw-bone, scientific men suppose this creature to have been a heavy, almost human monster, possibly with huge limbs and hands, possibly with a thick felt of hair, and they call it the Heidelberg Man.
This jaw-bone is, I think, one of the most tormenting objects in the world to our human curiosity. To see it is like looking through a defective glass into the past and catching just one blurred and tantalizing glimpse of this Thing, shambling through the bleak wilderness, clambering to avoid the sabre- toothed tiger, watching the woolly rhinoceros in the woods. Then before we can scrutinize the monster, he vanishes. Yet the soil is littered abundantly with the indestructible implements he chipped out for his uses.
Still more fascinatingly enigmatical are the remains of a creature found at Piltdown in Sussex in a deposit that may indicate an age between a hundred and a hundred and fifty thousand years ago, though some authorities would put these particular remains back in time to before the Heidelberg jaw- bone. Here there are the remains of a thick sub-human skull much larger than any existing ape’s, and a chimpanzee-like jaw-bone which may or may not belong to it, and, in addition, a bat-shaped piece of elephant bone evidently carefully manufactured, through which a hole had apparently been bored. There is also the thigh-bone of a deer with cuts upon it like a tally. That is all.
What sort of beast was this creature which sat and bored holes in bones?
Scientific men have named him Eoanthropus, the Dawn Man. He stands apart from his kindred; a very different being either from the Heidelberg creature or from any living ape. No other vestige like him is known. But the gravels and deposits of from one hundred thousand years onward are increasingly rich in implements of flint and similar stone. And these implements are no longer rude “Eoliths.” The archaeologists are presently able to distinguish scrapers, borers, knives, darts, throwing stones and hand axes ….
We are drawing very near to man. In our next section we shall have to describe the strangest of all these precursors of humanity, the Neanderthalers, the men who were almost, but not quite, true men.
But it may be well perhaps to state quite clearly here that no scientific man supposes either of these creatures, the Heidelberg Man or Eoanthropus, to be direct ancestors of the men of to-day. These are, at the closest, related forms.
About fifty or sixty thousand years ago, before the climax of the Fourth Glacial Age, there lived a creature on earth so like a man that until a few years ago its remains were considered to be altogether human. We have skulls and bones of it and a great accumulation of the large implements it made and used. It made fires. It sheltered in caves from the cold. It probably dressed skins roughly and wore them. It was right-handed as men are.
Yet now the ethnologists tell us these creatures were not true men. They were of a different species of the same genus. They had heavy protruding jaws and great brow ridges above the eyes and very low foreheads. Their thumbs were not opposable to the fingers as men’s are; their necks were so poised that they could not turn back their heads and look up to the sky. They probably slouched along, head down and forward. Their chinless jaw-bones resemble the Heidelberg jaw-bone and are markedly unlike human jaw-bones. And there were great differences from the human pattern in their teeth. Their cheek teeth were more complicated in structure than ours, more complicated and not less so; they had not the long fangs of our cheek teeth; and also these quasi-men had not the marked canines (dog teeth) of an ordinary human being. The capacity of their skulls was quite human, but the brain was bigger behind and lower in front than the human brain. Their intellectual faculties were differently arranged. They were not ancestral to the human line. Mentally and physically they were upon a different line from the human line.
Skulls and bones of this extinct species of man were found at Neanderthal among other places, and from that place these strange proto-men have been christened Neanderthal Men, or Neanderthalers. They must have endured in Europe for many hundreds or even thousands of years.
At that time the climate and geography of our world was very different from what they are at the present time. Europe for example was covered with ice reaching as far south as the Thames and into Central Germany and Russia; there was no Channel separating Britain from France; the Mediterranean and the Red Sea were great valleys, with perhaps a chain of lakes in their deeper portions, and a great inland sea spread from the present Black Sea across South Russia and far into Central Asia. Spain and all of Europe not actually under ice consisted of bleak uplands under a harder climate than that of Labrador, and it was only when North Africa was reached that one would have found a temperate climate. Across the cold steppes of Southern Europe with its sparse arctic vegetation, drifted such hardy creatures as the woolly mammoth, and woolly rhinoceros, great oxen and reindeer, no doubt following the vegetation northward in spring and southward in autumn.
Such was the scene through which the Neanderthaler wandered, gathering such subsistence as he could from small game or fruits and berries and roots. Possibly he was mainly a vegetarian, chewing twigs and roots. His level elaborate teeth suggest a largely vegetarian dietary. But we also find the long marrow bones of great animals in his caves, cracked to extract the marrow. His weapons could not have been of much avail in open conflict with great beasts, but it is supposed that he attacked them with spears at difficult river crossings and even constructed pitfalls for them. Possibly he followed the herds and preyed upon any dead that were killed in fights, and perhaps he played the part of jackal to the sabre-toothed tiger which still survived in his day. Possibly in the bitter hardships of the Glacial Ages this creature had taken to attacking animals after long ages of vegetarian adaptation.
We cannot guess what this Neanderthal man looked like. He may have been very hairy and very unhuman-looking indeed. It is even doubtful if he went erect. He may have used his knuckles as well as his feet to hold himself up. Probably he went about alone or in small family groups. It is inferred from the structure of his jaw that he was incapable of speech as we understand it.
For thousands of years these Neanderthalers were the highest animals that the European area had ever seen; and then some thirty or thirty-five thousand years ago as the climate grew warmer a race of kindred beings, more intelligent, knowing more, talking and co-operating together, came drifting into the Neanderthaler’s world from the south. They ousted the Neanderthalers from their caves and squatting places; they hunted the same food; they probably made war upon their grisly predecessors and killed them off. These newcomers from the south or the east – for at present we do not know their region of origin – who at last drove the Neanderthalers out of existence altogether, were beings of our own blood and kin, the first True Men. Their brain-cases and thumbs and necks and teeth were anatomically the same as our own. In a cave at Cro-Magnon and in another at Grimaldi, a number of skeletons have been found, the earliest truly human remains that are so far known.
So it is our race comes into the Record of the Rocks, and the story of mankind begins.
The world was growing liker our own in those days though the climate was still austere. The glaciers of the Ice Age were receding in Europe; the reindeer of France and Spain presently gave way to great herds of horses as grass increased upon the steppes, and the mammoth became more and more rare in southern Europe and finally receded northward altogether ….
We do not know where the True Men first originated. But in the summer of 1921, an extremely interesting skull was found together with pieces of a skeleton at Broken Hill in South Africa, which seems to be a relic of a third sort of man, intermediate in its characteristics between the Neanderthaler and the human being. The brain-case indicates a brain bigger in front and smaller behind than the Neanderthaler’s, and the skull was poised erect upon the backbone in a quite human way. The teeth also and the bones are quite human. But the face must have been ape-like with enormous brow ridges and a ridge along the middle of the skull. The creature was indeed a true man, so to speak, with an ape- like, Neanderthaler face. This Rhodesian Man is evidently still closer to real men than the Neanderthal Man.
This Rhodesian skull is probably only the second of what in the end may prove to be a long list of finds of sub-human species which lived on the earth in the vast interval of time between the beginnings of the Ice Age and the appearance of their common heir, and perhaps their common exterminator, the True Man. The Rhodesian skull itself may not be very ancient. Up to the time of publishing this book there has been no exact determination of its probable age. It may be that this sub-human creature survived in South Africa until quite recent times.
The earliest signs and traces at present known to science, of a humanity which is indisputably kindred with ourselves, have been found in western Europe and particularly in France and Spain. Bones, weapons, scratchings upon bone and rock, carved fragments of bone, and paintings in caves and upon rock surfaces dating. it is supposed. from 30,000 years ago or more, have been discovered in both these countries. Spain is at present the richest country in the world in these first relics of our real human ancestors.
Of course our present collections of these things are the merest beginnings of the accumulations we may hope for in the future, when there are searchers enough to make a thorough examination of all possible sources and when other countries in the world, now inaccessible to archaeologists, have been explored in some detail. The greater part of Africa and Asia has never even been traversed yet by a trained observer interested in these matters and free to explore, and we must be very careful therefore not to conclude that the early true men were distinctively inhabitants of western Europe or that they first appeared in that region.
In Asia or Africa or submerged beneath the sea of to-day there may be richer and much earlier deposits of real human remains than anything that has yet come to light. I write in Asia or Africa, and I do not mention America because so far there have been no finds at all of any of the higher Primates, either of great apes, sub-men, Neanderthalers nor early true men. This development of life seems to have been an exclusively old world development, and it was only apparently at the end of the Old Stone Age that human beings first made their way across the land connexion that is now cut by Behring Straits, into the American continent.
These first real human beings we know of in Europe appear already to have belonged to one or other of at least two very distinct races. One of these races was of a very high type indeed; it was tall and big brained. One of the women’s skulls found exceeds in capacity that of the average man of to-day. One of the men’s skeletons is over six feet in height. The physical type resembled that of the North American Indian. From the Cro-Magnon cave in which the first skeletons were found these people have been called Cro-Magnards. They were savages, but savages of a high order. The second race, the race of the Grimaldi cave remains, was distinctly negroid in its characters. Its nearest living affinities are the Bushmen and Hottentots of South Africa. It is interesting to find at the very outset of the known human story, that mankind was already racially divided into at least two main varieties; and one is tempted to such unwarrantable guesses as that the former race was probably brownish rather than black and that it came from the East or North, and that the latter was blackish rather than brown and came from the equatorial south.
And these savages of perhaps forty thousand years ago were so human that they pierced shells to make necklaces, painted themselves, carved images of bone and stone, scratched figures on rocks and bones, and painted rude but often very able sketches of beasts and the like upon the smooth walls of caves and upon inviting rock surfaces. They made a great variety of implements, much smaller in scale and finer than those of the Neanderthal men. We have now in our museums great quantities of their implements, their statuettes, their rock drawings and the like.
The earliest of them were hunters. Their chief pursuit was the wild horse, the little bearded pony of that time. They followed it as it moved after pasture. And also they followed the bison. They knew the mammoth, because they have left us strikingly effective pictures of that creature. To judge by one rather ambiguous drawing they trapped and killed it.
They hunted with spears and throwing stones. They do not seem to have had the bow, and it is doubtful if they had yet learnt to tame any animals. They had no dogs. There is one carving of a horse’s head and one or two drawings that suggest a bridled horse, with a twisted skin or tendon round it. But the little horses of that age and region could not have carried a man, and if the horse was domesticated it was used as a led horse. It is doubtful and improbable that they had yet learnt the rather unnatural use of animal’s milk as food.
They do not seem to have erected any buildings though they may have had tents of skins, and though they made clay figures they never rose to the making of pottery. Since they had no cooking implements their cookery must have been rudimentary or nonexistent. They knew nothing of cultivation and nothing of any sort of basket work or woven cloth. Except for their robes of skin or fur they were naked painted savages.
These earliest known men hunted the open steppes of Europe for a hundred centuries perhaps, and then slowly drifted and changed before a change of climate. Europe, century by century, was growing milder and damper. Reindeer receded northward and eastward, and bison and horse followed. The steppes gave way to forests, and red deer took the place of horse and bison. There is a change in the character of the implements with this change in their application. River and lake fishing becomes of great importance to men, and fine implements of bone increased. “The bone needles of this age,” says de Mortillet, “are much superior to those of later, even historical times, down to the Renaissance. The Romans, for example, never had needles comparable to those of this epoch.”
Almost fifteen or twelve thousand years ago a fresh people drifted into the south of Spain, and left very remarkable drawings of themselves upon exposed rock faces there. These were the Azilians (named from the Mas d’Azil cave). They had the bow; they seem to have worn feather headdresses; they drew vividly; but also they had reduced their drawings to a sort of symbolism – a man for instance would be represented by a vertical dab with two or three horizontal dabs – that suggest the dawn of the writing idea. Against hunting sketches there are often marks like tallies. One drawing shows two men smoking out a bees’ nest.These are the latest of the men that we call Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) because they had only chipped implements. By ten or twelve thousand years a new sort of life has dawned in Europe, men have learnt not only to chip but to polish and grind stone implements, and they have begun cultivation. The Neolithic Age (New Stone Age) was beginning.
It is interesting to note that less than a century ago there still survived in a remote part of the world, in Tasmania, a race of human beings at a lower level of physical and intellectual development than any of these earliest races of mankind who have left traces in Europe. These people had long ago been cut off by geographical changes from the rest of the species, and from stimulation and improvement. They seem to have degenerated rather than developed. They lived a base life subsisting upon shellfish and small game. They had no habitations but only squatting places. They were real men of our species, but they had neither the manual dexterity nor the artistic powers of the first true men.
And now let us indulge in a very interesting speculation; how did it feel to be a man in those early days of the human adventure? How did men think and what did they think in those remote days of hunting and wandering four hundred centuries ago before seed time and harvest began. Those were days long before the written record of any human impressions, and we are left almost entirely to inference and guesswork in our answers to these questions.
The sources to which scientific men have gone in their attempts to reconstruct that primitive mentality are very various. Recently the science of psycho-analysis, which analyzes the way in which the egotistic and passionate impulses of the child are restrained, suppressed, modified or overlaid, to adapt them to the needs of social life, seems to have thrown a considerable amount of light upon the history of primitive society; and another fruitful source of suggestion has been the study of the ideas and customs of such contemporary savages as still survive. Again there is a sort of mental fossilization which we find in folk-lore and the deep-lying irrational superstitions and prejudices that still survive among modern civilized people. And finally we have in the increasingly numerous pictures, statues, carvings, symbols and the like, as we draw near to our own time, clearer and clearer indications of what man found interesting and worthy of record and representation.
Primitive man probably thought very much as a child thinks, that is to say in a series of imaginative pictures. He conjured up images or images presented themselves to his mind, and he acted in accordance with the emotions they aroused. So a child or an uneducated person does to-day. Systematic thinking is apparently a comparatively late development in human experience; it has not played any great part in human life until within the last three thousand years. And even to-day those who really control and order their thoughts are but a small minority of mankind. Most of the world still lives by imagination and passion.
Probably the earliest human societies, in the opening stages of the true human story, were small family groups. Just as the flocks and herds of the earlier mammals arose out of families which remained together and multiplied, so probably did the earliest tribes. But before this could happen a certain restraint upon the primitive egotisms of the individual had to be established. The fear of the father and respect for the mother had to be extended into adult life, and the natural jealousy of the old man of the group for the younger males as they grew up had to be mitigated. The mother on the other hand was the natural adviser and protector of the young. Human social life grew up out of the reaction between the crude instinct of the young to go off and pair by themselves as they grew up, on the one hand, and the dangers and disadvantages of separation on the other. An anthropological writer of great genius, J. J. Atkinson, in his Primal Law, has shown how much of the customary law of savages, the Tabus, that are so remarkable a fact in tribal life, can be ascribed to such a mental adjustment of the needs of the primitive human animal to a developing social life, and the later work of the psycho-analysts has done much to confirm his interpretation of these possibilities.
Some speculative writers would have us believe that respect and fear of the Old Man and the emotional reaction of the primitive savage to older protective women, exaggerated in dreams and enriched by fanciful mental play, played a large part in the beginnings of primitive religion and in the conception of gods and goddesses. Associated with this respect for powerful or helpful personalities was a dread and exaltation of such personages after their deaths, due to their reappearance in dreams. It was easy to believe they were not truly dead but only fantastically transferred to a remoteness of greater power.
The dreams, imaginations and fears of a child are far more vivid and real than those of a modern adult, and primitive man was always something of a child. He was nearer to the animals also, and he could suppose them to have motives and reactions like his own. He could imagine animal helpers, animal enemies, animal gods. One needs to have been an imaginative child oneself to realize again how important, significant, portentous or friendly, strangely shaped rocks, lumps of wood, exceptional trees or the like may have appeared to the men of the Old Stone Age, and how dream and fancy would create stories and legends about such things that would become credible as they told them. Some of these stories would be good enough to remember and tell again. The women would tell them to the children and so establish a tradition. To this day most imaginative children invent long stories in which some favourite doll or animal or some fantastic semi-human being figures as the hero, and primitive man probably did the same – with a much stronger disposition to believe his hero real.
For the very earliest of the true men that we know of were probably quite talkative beings. In that way they have differed from the Neanderthalers and had an advantage over them. The Neanderthaler may have been a dumb animal. Of course the primitive human speech was probably a very scanty collection of names, and may have been eked out with gestures and signs.
There is no sort of savage so low as not to have a kind of science of cause and effect. But primitive man was not very critical in his associations of cause with effect; he very easily connected an effect with something quite wrong as its cause. “You do so and so,” he said, “and so and so happens.” You give a child a poisonous berry and it dies. You eat the heart of a valiant enemy and you become strong. There we have two bits of cause and effect association, one true one false. We call the system of cause and effect in the mind of a savage, Fetish; but Fetish is simply savage science. It differs from modern science in that it is totally unsystematic and uncritical and so more frequently wrong.
In many cases it is not difficult to link cause and effect, in many others erroneous ideas were soon corrected by experience; but there was a large series of issues of very great importance to primitive man, where he sought persistently for causes and found explanations that were wrong but not sufficiently wrong nor so obviously wrong as to be detected. It was a matter of great importance to him that game should be abundant or fish plentiful and easily caught, and no doubt he tried and believed in a thousand charms, incantations and omens to determine these desirable results. Another great concern of his was illness and death. Occasionally infections crept through the land and men died of them. Occasionally men were stricken by illness and died or were enfeebled without any manifest cause. This too must have given the hasty, emotional mind of primitive man much feverish exercise. Dreams and fantastic guesses made him blame this, or appeal for help to that man or beast or thing. He had the child’s aptitude for fear and panic.
Quite early in the little human tribe, older, steadier minds sharing the fears, sharing the imaginations, but a little more forceful than the others, must have asserted themselves, to advise, to prescribe, to command. This they declared unpropitious and that imperative, this an omen of good and that an omen of evil. The expert in Fetish, the Medicine Man, was the first priest. He exhorted, he interpreted dreams, he warned, he performed the complicated hocus pocus that brought luck or averted calamity. Primitive religion was not so much what we now call religion as practice and observance, and the early priest dictated what was indeed an arbitrary primitive practical science.
We are still very ignorant about the beginnings of cultivation and settlement in the world although a vast amount of research and speculation has been given to these matters in the last fifty years. All that we can say with any confidence at present is that somewhen about 15,000 and 12,000 B.C. while the Azilian people were in the south of Spain and while the remnants of the earlier hunters were drifting northward and eastward, somewhere in North Africa or Western Asia or in that great Mediterranean valley that is now submerged under the waters of the Mediterranean sea, there were people who, age by age, were working out two vitally important things; they were beginning cultivation and they were domesticating animals. They were also beginning to make, in addition to the chipped implements of their hunter forebears, implements of polished stone. They had discovered the possibility of basketwork and roughly woven textiles of plant fibre, and they were beginning to make a rudely modelled pottery.
They were entering upon a new phase in human culture, the Neolithic phase (New Stone Age) as distinguished from the Palaeolithic (Old Stone) phase of the Cro-Magnards, the Grimaldi people, the Azilians and their like. †The term Palaeolithic we may note is also used to cover the Neanderthaler and even the Eolithic implements. The pre-human age is called the “Older Palaeolithic;” the age of true men using unpolished stones in the “Newer Palaeolithic.”Slowly these Neolithic people spread over the warmer parts of the world; and the arts they had mastered, the plants and animals they had learnt to use, spread by imitation and acquisition even more widely than they did. By 10,000 B.C., most of mankind was at the Neolithic level. Now the ploughing of land, the sowing of seed, the reaping of harvest, threshing and grinding, may seem the most obviously reasonable steps to a modern mind just as to a modern mind it is a commonplace that the world is round. What else could you do? people will ask. What else can it be? But to the primitive man of twenty thousand years ago neither of the systems of action and reasoning that seem so sure and manifest to us to-day were at all obvious. He felt his way to effectual practice through a multitude of trials and misconceptions, with fantastic and unnecessary elaborations and false interpretations at every turn. Somewhere in the Mediterranean region, wheat grew wild; and man may have learnt to pound and then grind up its seeds for food long before he learnt to sow. He reaped before he sowed.
And it is a very remarkable thing that throughout the world wherever there is sowing and harvesting there is still traceable the vestiges of a strong primitive association of the idea of sowing with the idea of a blood sacrifice, and primarily of the sacrifice of a human being. The study of the original entanglement of these two things is a profoundly attractive one to the curious mind; the interested reader will find it very fully developed in that monumental work, Sir J. G. Frazer’s Golden Bough. It was an entanglement, we must remember, in the childish, dreaming, myth-making primitive mind; no reasoned process will explain it. But in that world of 12,000 to 20,000 years ago, it would seem that whenever seed time came round to the Neolithic peoples there was a human sacrifice. And it was not the sacrifice of any mean or outcast person; it was the sacrifice usually of a chosen youth or maiden, a youth more often who was treated with profound deference and even worship up to the moment of his immolation. He was a sort of sacrificial god-king, and all the details of his killing had become a ritual directed by the old, knowing men and sanctioned by the accumulated usage of ages.
At first primitive men, with only a very rough idea of the seasons, must have found great difficulty in determining when was the propitious moment for the seed-time sacrifice and the sowing. There is some reason for supposing that there was an early stage in human experience when men had no idea of a year. The first chronology was in lunar months; it is supposed that the years of the Biblical patriarchs are really moons, and the Babylonian calendar shows distinct traces of an attempt to reckon seed time by taking thirteen lunar months to see it round. This lunar influence upon the calendar reaches down to our own days. If usage did not dull our sense of its strangeness we should think it a very remarkable thing indeed that the Christian Church does not commemorate the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ on the proper anniversaries but on dates that vary year by year with the phases of the moon.
It may be doubted whether the first agriculturalists made any observation of the stars. It is more likely that stars were first observed by migratory herdsmen, who found them a convenient mark of direction. But once their use in determining seasons was realized, their importance to agriculture became very great. The seed-time sacrifice was linked up with the southing or northing of some prominent star. A myth and worship of that star was for primitive man an almost inevitable consequence.
It is easy to see how important the man of knowledge and experience, the man who knew about the blood sacrifice and the stars, became in this early Neolithic world.
The fear of uncleanness and pollution, and the methods of cleansing that were advisable, constituted another source of power for the knowledgeable men and women. For there have always been witches as well as wizards, and priestesses as well as priests. The early priest was really not so much a religious man as a man of applied science. His science was generally empirical and often bad; he kept it secret from the generality of men very jealously; but that does not alter the fact that his primary function was knowledge and that his primary use was a practical use.
Twelve or fifteen thousand years ago, in all the warm and fairly well-watered parts of the Old World these Neolithic human communities, with their class and tradition of priests and priestesses and their cultivated fields and their development of villages and little walled cities, were spreading. Age by age a drift and exchange of ideas went on between these communities. Eliot Smith and Rivers have used the term “Heliolithic culture” for the culture of these first agricultural peoples. “Heliolithic” (Sun and Stone) is not perhaps the best possible word to use for this, but until scientific men give us a better one we shall have to use it. Originating somewhere in the Mediterranean and western Asiatic area, it spread age by age eastward and from island to island across the Pacific until it may even have reached America and mingled with the more primitive ways of living of the Mongoloid immigrants coming down from the North.
Wherever the brownish people with the Heliolithic culture went they took with them all or most of a certain group of curious ideas and practices. Some of them are such queer ideas that they call for the explanation of the mental expert. They made pyramids and great mounds, and set up great circles of big stones, perhaps to facilitate the astronomical observation of the priests; they made mummies of some or all of their dead; they tattooed and circumcized; they had the old custom, known as the couvade, of sending the father to bed and rest when a child was born, and they had as a luck symbol the well-known Swastika.
If we were to make a map of the world with dots to show how far these group practices have left their traces, we should make a belt along the temperate and sub-tropical coasts of the world from Stonehenge and Spain across the world to Mexico and Peru. But Africa below the equator, north central Europe, and north Asia would show none of these dottings; there lived races who were developing along practically independent lines.
About 10,000 B.C. the geography of the world was very similar in its general outline to that of the world to-day. It is probable that by that time the great barrier across the Straits of Gibraltar that had hitherto banked back the ocean waters from the Mediterranean valley had been eaten through, and that the Mediterranean was a sea following much the same coastlines as it does now. The Caspian Sea was probably still far more extensive than it is at present, and it may have been continuous with the Black Sea to the north of the Caucasus Mountains. About this great Central Asian sea lands that are now steppes and deserts were fertile and habitable. Generally it was a moister and more fertile world. European Russia was much more a land of swamp and lake than it is now, and there may still have been a land connexion between Asia and America at Behring Straits.
It would have been already possible at that time to have distinguished the main racial divisions of mankind as we know them to-day. Across the warm temperate regions of this rather warmer and better-wooded world, and along the coasts, stretched the brownish peoples of the Heliolithic culture, the ancestors of the bulk of the living inhabitants of the Mediterranean world, of the Berbers, the Egyptians and of much of the population of South and Eastern Asia. This great race had of course a number of varieties. The Iberian or Mediterranean or “dark-white” race of the Atlantic and Mediterranean coast, the “Hamitic” peoples which include the Berbers and Egyptians, the Dravidians; the darker people of India, a multitude of East Indian people, many Polynesian races and the Maoris are all divisions of various value of this great main mass of humanity. Its western varieties are whiter than its eastern.
In the forests of central and northern Europe a more blonde variety of men with blue eyes was becoming distinguishable, branching off from the main mass of brownish people, a variety which many people now speak of as the Nordic race. In the more open regions of northeastern Asia was another differentiation of this brownish humanity in the direction of a type with more oblique eyes, high cheek-bones, a yellowish skin, and very straight black hair, the Mongolian peoples. In South Africa, Australia, in many tropical islands in the south of Asia were remains of the early negroid peoples. The central parts of Africa were already a region of racial intermixture. Nearly all the coloured races of Africa to-day seem to be blends of the brownish peoples of the north with a negroid substratum.
We have to remember that human races can all interbreed freely and that they separate, mingle and reunite as clouds do. Human races do not branch out like trees with branches that never come together again. It is a thing we need to bear constantly in mind, this remingling of races at any opportunity. It will save us from many cruel delusions and prejudices if we do so. People will use such a word as race in the loosest manner, and base the most preposterous generalizations upon it. They will speak of a “British” race or of a “European” race. But nearly all the European nations are confused mixtures of brownish, dark-white, white and Mongolian elements.
It was at the Neolithic phase of human development that peoples of the Mongolian breed first made their way into America. Apparently they came by way of Behring Straits and spread southward. They found caribou, the American reindeer, in the north and great herds of bison in the south. When they reached South America there were still living the Glyptodon, a gigantic armadillo, and the Megatherium, a monstrous clumsy sloth as high as an elephant. They probably exterminated the latter beast, which was as helpless as it was big.
The greater portion of these American tribes never rose above a hunting nomadic Neolithic life. They never discovered the use of iron, and their chief metal possessions were native gold and copper. But in Mexico, Yucatan and Peru conditions existed favourable to settled cultivation, and here about 1000 B.C. or so arose very interesting civilizations of a parallel but different type from the old-world civilization. Like the much earlier primitive civilizations of the old world these communities displayed a great development of human sacrifice about the processes of seed time and harvest; but while in the old world, as we shall see, these primary ideas were ultimately mitigated, complicated and overlaid by others, in America they developed and were elaborated, to a very high degree of intensity. These American civilized countries were essentially priest-ruled countries; their war chiefs and rulers were under a rigorous rule of law and omen.
These priests carried astronomical science to a high level of accuracy. They knew their year better than the Babylonians of whom we shall presently tell. In Yucatan they had a kind of writing, the Maya writing, of the most curious and elaborate character. So far as we have been able to decipher it, it was used mainly for keeping the exact and complicated calendars upon which the priests expended their intelligence. The art of the Maya civilization came to a climax about 700 or 800 A.D. The sculptured work of these people amazes the modern observer by its great plastic power and its frequent beauty, and perplexes him by a grotesqueness and by a sort of insane conventionality and intricacy outside the circle of his ideas. There is nothing quite like it in the old world. The nearest approach, and that is a remote one, is found in archaic Indian carvings. Everywhere there are woven feathers and serpents twine in and out. Many Maya inscriptions resemble a certain sort of elaborate drawing made by lunatics in European asylums, more than any other old-world work. It is as if the Maya mind had developed upon a different line from the old-world mind, had a different twist to its ideas, was not, by old-world standards, a rational mind at all.
This linking of these aberrant American civilizations to the idea of a general mental aberration finds support in their extraordinary obsession by the shedding of human blood. The Mexican civilization in particular ran blood; it offered thousands of human victims yearly. The cutting open of living victims, the tearing out of the still beating heart, was an act that dominated the minds and lives of these strange priesthoods. The public life, the national festivities all turned on this fantastically horrible act.
The ordinary existence of the common people in these communities was very like the ordinary existence of any other barbaric peasantry. Their pottery, weaving and dyeing was very good. The Maya writing was not only carven on stone but written and painted upon skins and the like. The European and American museums contain many enigmatical Maya manuscripts of which at present little has been deciphered except the dates. In Peru there were beginnings of a similar writing but they were superseded by a method of keeping records by knotting cords. A similar method of mnemonics was in use in China thousands of years ago.
In the old world before 4000 or 5000 B.C., that is to say three or four thousand years earlier, there were primitive civilizations not unlike these American civilizations; civilizations based upon a temple, having a vast quantity of blood sacrifices and with an intensely astronomical priesthood. But in the old world the primitive civilizations reacted upon one another and developed towards the conditions of our own world. In America these primitive civilizations never progressed beyond this primitive stage. Each of them was in a little world of its own. Mexico it seems knew little or nothing of Peru, until the Europeans came to America. The potato, which was the principal food stuff in Peru, was unknown in Mexico.
Age by age these peoples lived and marvelled at their gods and made their sacrifices and died. Maya art rose to high levels of decorative beauty. Men made love and tribes made war. Drought and plenty, pestilence and health, followed one another. The priests elaborated their calendar and their sacrificial ritual through long centuries, but made little progress in other directions.
The old world is a wider, more varied stage than the new. By 6000 or 7000 B.C. there were already quasi-civilized communities almost at the Peruvian level, appearing in various fertile regions of Asia and in the Nile valley. At that time north Persia and western Turkestan and south Arabia were all more fertile than they are now, and there are traces of very early communities in these regions. It is in lower Mesopotamia however and in Egypt that there first appear cities, temples, systematic irrigation, and evidences of a social organization rising above the level of a mere barbaric village-town. In those days the Euphrates and Tigris flowed by separate mouths into the Persian Gulf, and it was in the country between them that the Sumerians built their first cities. About the same time, for chronology is still vague, the great history of Egypt was beginning.
These Sumerians appear to have been a brownish people with prominent noses. They employed a sort of writing that has been deciphered, and their language is now known. They had discovered the use of bronze and they built great tower-like temples of sun-dried brick. The clay of this country is very fine; they used it to write upon, and so it is that their inscriptions have been preserved to us. They had cattle, sheep, goats and asses, but no horses. They fought on foot, in close formation, carrying spears and shields of skin. Their clothing was of wool and they shaved their heads.
Each of the Sumerian cities seems generally to have been an independent state with a god of its own and priests of its own. But sometimes one city would establish an ascendancy over others and exact tribute from their population. A very ancient inscription at Nippur records the “empire,” the first recorded empire, of the Sumerian city of Erech. Its god and its priest-king claimed an authority from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea.
At first writing was merely an abbreviated method of pictorial record. Even before Neolithic times men were beginning to write. The Azilian rock pictures to which we have already referred show the beginning of the process. Many of them record hunts and expeditions, and in most of these the human figures are plainly drawn. But in some the painter would not bother with head and limbs; he just indicated men by a vertical and one or two transverse strokes. From this to a conventional condensed picture writing was an easy transition. In Sumeria, where the writing was done on clay with a stick, the dabs of the characters soon became unrecognizably unlike the things they stood for, but in Egypt where men painted on walls and on strips of the papyrus reed (the first paper) the likeness to the thing imitated remained. From the fact that the wooden styles used in Sumeria made wedge-shaped marks, the Sumerian writing is called cuneiform (= wedge-shaped).
An important step towards writing was made when pictures were used to indicate not the thing represented but some similar thing. In the rebus dear to children of a suitable age, this is still done to-day. We draw a camp with tents and a bell, and the child is delighted to guess that this is the Scotch name Campbell. The Sumerian language was a language made up of accumulated syllables rather like some contemporary Amerindian languages, and it lent itself very readily to this syllabic method of writing words expressing ideas that could not be conveyed by pictures directly. Egyptian writing underwent parallel developments. Later on, when foreign peoples with less distinctly syllabled methods of speech were to learn and use these picture scripts they were to make those further modifications and simplifications that developed at last into alphabetical writing. All the true alphabets of the later world derived from a mixture of the Sumerian cuneiform and the Egyptian hieroglyphic (priest writing). Later in China there was to develop a conventionalized picture writing, but in China it never got to the alphabetical stage. The invention of writing was of very great importance in the development of human societies. It put agreements, laws, commandments on record. It made the growth of states larger than the old city states possible. It made a continuous historical consciousness possible. The command of the priest or king and his seal could go far beyond his sight and voice and could survive his death. It is interesting to note that in ancient Sumeria seals were greatly used. A king or a nobleman or a merchant would have his seal often very artistically carved, and would impress it on any clay document he wished to authorize. So close had civilization got to printing six thousand years ago. Then the clay was dried hard and became permanent. For the reader must remember that in the land of Mesopotamia for countless years, letters, records and accounts were all written on comparatively indestructible tiles. To that fact we owe a great wealth of recovered knowledge.
Bronze, copper, gold, silver and, as a precious rarity, meteoric iron were known in both Sumeria and Egypt at a very early stage.
Daily life in those first city lands of the old world must have been very similar in both Egypt and Sumeria. And except for the asses and cattle in the streets it must have been not unlike the life in the Maya cities of America three or four thousand years later. Most of the people in peace time were busy with irrigation and cultivation – except on days of religious festivity. They had no money and no need for it. They managed their small occasional trades by barter. The princes and rulers who alone had more than a few possessions used gold and silver bars and precious stones for any incidental act of trade. The temple dominated life; in Sumeria it was a great towering temple that went up to a roof from which the stars were observed; in Egypt it was a massive building with only a ground floor. In Sumeria the priest ruler was the greatest, most splendid of beings. In Egypt however there was one who was raised above the priests; he was the living incarnation of the chief god of the land, the Pharaoh, the god king.
There were few changes in the world in those days; men’s days were sunny, toilsome and conventional. Few strangers came into the land and such as did fared uncomfortably. The priest directed life according to immemorial rules and watched the stars for seed time and marked the omens of the sacrifices and interpreted the warnings of dreams. Men worked and loved and died, not unhappily, forgetful of the savage past of their race and heedless of its future. Sometimes the ruler was benign. Such was Pepi II, who reigned in Egypt for ninety years. Sometimes he was ambitious and took men’s sons to be soldiers and sent them against neighbouring city states to war and plunder, or he made them toil to build great buildings. Such were Cheops and Chephren and Mycerinus, who built those vast sepulchral piles, the pyramids at Gizeh. The largest of these is 450 feet high and the weight of stone in it is 4,883,000 tons. All this was brought down the Nile in boats and lugged into place chiefly by human muscle. Its erection must have exhausted Egypt more than a great war would have done.