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SWEET FOOD OF ANTIQUITY
"In the study of Antiquity," wrote the English antiquarian William Camden (1551-1623), "there is a sweet food of the mind well befitting such as are of honest and noble disposition."
In all ages and all countries, people have been fascinated by their past. Today, many people argue that it is only by studying the past that we can properly understand the present and, perhaps, learn from the errors and achievements of our ancestors. A knowledge of their past is vital, too, to the self-respect of nations, as can be seen from the relatively large proportion of national budgets that many countries allocate to archaeological research.
Archaeology and History
Archaeology is often said to be the handmaiden of history. But the relationship between the two branches of study is not simply that of master and servant.
History depends on the availability of written records. Those are usually incomplete and may well be biased or inaccurate, too. Archaeology, on the other hand, can reveal much that would ordinarily be left out of written accounts, especially the details of everyday life. It helps, therefore, to round out our view of the past, to make it more balanced.
What is more, history deals only with the past of literate societies, a tiny portion of the human story. The written records of ancient peoples such as the Greeks of classical times tell us something about their illiterate neighbors and contemporaries. But most of what we know about these less-advanced peoples comesfrom archaeology. And archaeology is our only source of information about the millions of years of prehistory.
A Total Study
Archaeology is a total study. It involves analyzing everything that remains from the past, with the aim of reconstructing that past as fully as possible. Although some people regard archaeology as synonymous with excavation, it is far more than that. Excavation is only one of many of its processes.
Scientists carry out complicated analyses to date archaeological finds, to provide information on the sources of archaeological material or to establish exactly how ancient artifacts were made. Field archaeologists use many scientific devices to locate and map ancient sites.
Botanists, zoologists and physicians contribute information about the diets of ancient peoples, the environments in which they lived and their state of health. Archaeologists also study contemporary societies to gain an insight into life in the past. Their investigations range from observations of the daily life of surviving hunter-gatherers to surveys of the contents of garbage cans in modern America, to try to relate people's activities to the artifacts that are the main source of archaeological evidence.
Rummaging among the rubbish of the ages may seem a long way from Camden's "sweet food of the mind." But, as the pioneer of modern archaeology A. H. Pitt-Rivers (1827-1900) pointed out, it is the study of the ordinary, everyday things that helps us to reconstruct the past, far more so than rare, valuable objects that were unusual even in their own time and place.
The amazing achievements of our ancestors astound and fascinate us—the golden treasures of Tutankhamun, the jade princess of China, the vastness of the Pyramids. But in the end it is our common humanity that exerts the greatest appeal down the millennia—the man desperately stretching out his arms to protect his family as volcanic ash engulfed Pompeii, the 4,000-year-old exercise books of Sumerian schoolboys, the crumbling remains of the flowers laid on Tutankhamun's coffin.
That is the ultimate attraction of archaeology. Through its painstaking and detailed study of people of the past, we come ever closer to understanding ourselves.
ANTIQUARIANS AND NOBLE SAVAGES
The origins of archaeology go back more than 2,500 years. Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon (he reigned from 556 to 539 B.C.E.), excavated the temple of Shamath at Sippar to try to find out who built it. Nabonidus's daughter Ennigaldi-Nanna collected local antiquities and displayed them in the world's first known museum, in the city of Ur, which was located near the Euphrates.
The Greek historian Thucydides (c. 460-395 B.C.E.) describes how the Athenians excavated ancient graves on the Aegean island of Delos and interpreted the artifacts they found in them in terms of the politics of their own day. Chinese historians, too, used ancient artifacts and the remains of ruined cities to try to build up a picture of their ancestors' way of life.
This interest in the past was common to all literate ancient societies, while even illiterate peoples maintained an oral tradition of the deeds of their forebears. So philosophers such as the Roman Lucretius (96-55 B.C.E.) and Yuan Kang, who lived in China during the 1st century C.E., drew upon some remembrance of their ancestors when they wrote about former technological epochs—the age of stone, the age of jade, the age of bronze—and contrasted those with what they saw as the degenerate age of iron in which they themselves were living.
Lucretius and other writers of classical Rome and Greece were aware, too, of more primitive peoples of their own day who still used stone or bronze tools. Their existence, vigorous but barbaric to Roman and Greek eyes, showed that the classical authors' notions of their own past were valid.
The Age of Antiquarians
From the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century C.E. to the end of the Middle Ages, scholarly interest in the past waned. People recalled only relatively recent events. The splendors of Greece and Rome were forgotten and previous eras thought of only as myths and legends. The Bible provided the main framework for history.
Stone tools and implements were popularly thought to be thunderbolts. Prehistoric pots dug up in central Europe were believed to have been spontaneously generated in the ground.
It was the Renaissance, from the mid-15th century onward, that stimulated an upsurge of interest in classical Greek and Roman art and architecture. In turn, this aroused a passion for collecting antique objects among the well-to-do.
By the 16th century, scholars were investigating Roman ruins in Italy, helping to feed the collectors' market. Excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii, towns buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E., yielded a rich supply of treasures from 1709 onward.
Egyptian antiquities were transported to Europe. Mummies were particularly popular. In medieval times, powdered preparations made from mummies were believed to have formidable powers of healing, but by the 18th century that belief had waned and florid exhibitions of mummy dissection became a public entertainment. European travelers explored much of the Middle East and produced richly illustrated volumes describing its ancient monuments.
Secrets of the Stones
In northern and western Europe, the monuments of antiquity were exhaustively studied and described in scholarly fashion from the 16th century. Prehistoric megaliths, impressive structures such as Stonehenge in England, were a particular focus of interest, and their origins were the subject of learned debate. They were variously interpreted as burial chambers, memorials, altars or temples associated with human sacrifice, built by Druids, Romans or Vikings.
Some students of ancient monuments enjoyed royal patronage. In 1533, John Leland was appointed antiquary to the king of England and, as such, examined ancient documents and old buildings. Since Leland's time, many monarchs have supported antiquarians and archaeologists—perhaps because royalty has a vested interest in the past to establish its ancestry and therefore its legitimate claim to rule.
Early antiquarians did not concentrate on the monuments alone; they also focused on the general surface features of the land around. The study grew into the science of topography, and it now plays a major part in archaeology. William Camden (1551-1623) was one of its pioneers. He observed patterns of ancient streets in fields of growing corn, noting that the crop grew more thinly where the thoroughfares had once been. Today, thanks to aerial photography, such patterns are a valuable clue to archaeologists seeking ancient sites (see pages 44-45).
The "Childhood of Man"
The "discovery" of America in the 16th century and the exploration of Africa and the Pacific gave added stimulation to antiquarian thought.
In the optimistic climate of the Enlightenment—the 18th-century Age of Reason in Europe—the primitive inhabitants of these newly found lands were regarded as "noble savages," unspoiled examples of what humankind must have been like in its earliest days, before the biblical Fall. Their lifestyle was taken to reflect that of the inhabitants of Europe before Roman times. So it was thought that a study of their customs and way of living—part of what is now called anthropology—could illuminate the work of historians and archaeologists.
Contact between Europeans and the peoples of America and elsewhere produced one immediate and significant insight. Many of the native inhabitants still used stone tools similar to those found all over Europe and previously believed to be thunderbolts. The growing suspicion that these objects were, in fact, of human origin was thus confirmed.
ORDERING THE PAST
Before the time of the Greeks and Romans, the past was "wrapped in a thick fog," according to Rasmus Nyerup (1759-1829), an eminent Danish antiquarian. "Everything that has come down to us from heathendom ... is older than Christendom," he declared, but by how much "we can do no more than guess."
What was needed was a system to help dispel the fog—one that would divide the vast expanse of prehistory into workable chronological blocks, to which objects discovered by antiquarians and archaeologists could be assigned as appropriate.
The ancient Romans and Chinese had, in fact, created the basis of such a system with their ages of stone, bronze and iron. But although the theoretical significance of their approach was appreciated by some later scholars, it was not until 1819 that a coherent attempt was made to apply it to archaeological material.
In that year, the Danish National Museum reopened with a totally novel reclassification of its prehistoric exhibits. Its curator, Christian J. Thomsen (1788-1865), had arranged its collections according to the substances from which they were made, following the three consecutive ages of stone, bronze and iron that Lucretius had written about nearly 2,000 years earlier.
In 1836, Thomsen elaborated on this "three-age" scheme of prehistory in his book Ledetraad til Nordisk Oldkyndighed (Guide to Nordic Antiquities). In it, he described the objects, burial rites and tomb architecture associated with each age, drawing on his own extensive familiarity with the material.
Thomsen's study was translated into German in 1837 and into English in 1848. By the second half of the 19th century, his system had become widely accepted. It is still the foundation of archaeology's attempts to order prehistory, though it has been considerably refined.
Probing the Strata
Thomsen's assistant and eventual successor at the Danish National Museum was J. J. Worsaae (1821-1885). A meticulous and painstaking archaeologist, his work helped to show the validity of the three-age system.
Unlike many antiquarians of his day, Worsaae did not dig haphazardly into ancient sites in search of treasures. In excavating burial mounds and Denmark's peat bogs, a rich source of prehistoric objects, he worked carefully, taking note of the distinct layers he discerned as he dug downward.
Worsaae recognized one of the fundamental principles on which archaeological investigation depends—that of stratigraphic succession. Like the geological strata laid down by the forces of nature over the ages, successive layers of archaeological material have accumulated in places frequented by people. Some are natural accumulations of soil and decayed vegetation, while others are the result of human activity. An archaeological site is therefore like a layer cake, in which the top layer is the most recent and the succeeding layers become progressively older the deeper you go. The period of time represented by each layer can vary considerably; in some burial mounds the layers may have been added within minutes of each other, while on other sites a deposit only a few centimeters deep can represent hundreds of years of human occupation.
By careful investigation, Worsaae was able to demonstrate that the Stone Age of Lucretius and Thomsen preceded an era in which most tools and implements were made of bronze. After the Bronze Age came an epoch in which everyday tools were iron, bronze being reserved for ornaments and luxury goods. This was the Iron Age that Lucretius had disparaged as degenerate.
While Worsaae conducted his pioneer investigations in Denmark, discoveries elsewhere showed that Thomsen's three-age scheme was valid for all Europe. But in France in particular, archaeologists found crudely chipped stone axes in addition to the polished ones regarded as typical of the Stone Age. This evidence led them to conclude that there had, in fact, been two Stone Ages, for which Sir John Lubbock (1834-1913) coined new names: Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, for the earlier period and Neolithic, or New Stone Age, for the later period.
In caves and rock shelters inhabited by Paleolithic peoples, French archaeologists such as Edouard Lartet (1801-1871) discovered breathtaking wall paintings. At first, few believed that prehistoric savages could have been capable of works of such technical skill and artistic vigor. It was not until mid-1890s that evidence emerged to win over the skeptics: Paleolithic art discovered at La Mouthe and Pair-non-Pair in France was found to be covered by undisturbed later deposits.
Four Ages of Man
As discoveries throughout Europe broadened knowledge of the artifacts of Thomsen's three ages, scholars tried to assess what the artifacts might imply about the development of human society. Researchers based their theories, at least in part, on comparisons with the lifestyles of contemporary primitive societies. One of the leading scholars in this field was another Scandinavian, Sven Nilsson (1787-1883). He proposed the idea that humankind passed or was passing through four phases. In the earliest, corresponding to much of the Stone Age, people were savage hunters and fishers. During the second phase, they herded some of the animals they had formerly hunted, but most people remained nomads. In the third phase, they settled down and turned to agriculture, creating a surplus of food that could be traded. The development of coinage to simplify such trade was, with the emergence of writing, one of Nilsson's signposts to the fourth phase—civilization.
Nilsson's ideas were adopted and modified by anthropologists such as Britain's Sir Edward Tylor (1832-1917) and Lewis H. Morgan (1818-1881) in America. Toward the end of the 19th century, it became widely accepted that all human societies everywhere were following the same general course of development, although obviously they were not all in the same phase at the same time. Believers in the theory ascribed it to what they called the "psychic unity of man." Today's archaeologists no longer accept the concept of an inevitable course of human progress, but traces of the idea of essential unity survives in the work of those who seek to discover universally applicable general laws of human behavior.
THE AGE OF HUMANITY
Until less than 200 years ago, the Bible's Old Testament version of the Creation of the world went unquestioned, at least in public, in Western nations. Thinkers and religious leaders tried to put a date to the event. In 1650, Archbishop James Ussher of Armagh in Ireland calculated from the Bible that the Creation had taken place in 4004 B.C.E.—a view subsequently widely accepted by many Christians.
Given the state of knowledge at the time, Ussher's dating did not seem unreasonable. Historical events known through biblical sources and the writers of Greece and Rome could all be encompassed within it.
First Doubts Appear
As more was learned about antiquity and as the sciences of geology and paleontology—the study of fossils—began to develop, the timetable of world events derived from a literal reading of the Bible posed increasing difficulties for those who believed in it.
The upsurge of interest in fossil hunting in 18th-century Europe revealed more and more remains of unfamiliar beasts, birds, fish and plants, often deep in the ground. The orthodox explanation was that the creatures and plants had been destroyed by Noah's flood—thus reconciling them with the Bible. People who believed this came to be called "catastrophists," or "diluvianists," the latter from diluvium, the Latin word for flood.
However, the explanation did not satisfy everybody. Among the doubters was James Hutton (1726-1797), a geologist from Edinburgh in Scotland. Hutton is now sometimes called the father of modern geology, but in his own century and well into the following one he was vilified by many people as an atheist.
Hutton observed the natural processes that form and shape the landscape, and maintained that these processes had occurred in exactly the same way throughout the past and that they would continue to do so in the future. "We find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end [in nature]," he wrote.
The theory Hutton propounded is called uniformitarianism and is now generally accepted. However, the catastrophists were not prepared to give up their case without a fight.
Faced with a steady increase in the discoveries of different species of fossil animals and plants, the catastrophists refined their ideas, still trying to reconcile them with the Bible. Perhaps, they suggested, there had been another flood or similar disaster after God had created the world, but before He had created people. As all other living creatures appeared before humans in the biblical account, that would mean that some species had been destroyed even before Noah's flood.
Despite the efforts of the catastrophists, uniformitarianism gradually gained ground, as followers of Hutton expanded upon his ideas. In 1833 Sir Charles Lyell, another Scot, published his Principles of Geology. Lyell's masterwork was the most influential geological sourcebook of the 19th century. It gradually won scientific respectability for Hutton's thesis, establishing that the world began many millions of years before Ussher and the catastrophists said it had, and paving the way for the theory of evolutionary development of all living things.
The Diffident Iconoclast
In 1797 John Frere, an antiquarian living in Norfolk, England, wrote a description of observations he had made in a clay pit being dug at Hoxne in Suffolk. In a layer of sandy soil he had found fossilized bones of extinct animals. In the gravel layer below, there were shaped stones that, he conjectured, were primitive weapons, presumably from a distant age when metal was totally unknown.
Frere commented that the items "tempt us to refer them to a very remote period indeed; even beyond that of the present world"—a revolutionary thought in the days when he was writing, as it went against the accepted ideas of Ussher and the catastrophists.
Little notice was taken of Frere at that time. But as the geological principle of stratification (that certain types of rock are formed in layers or strata, from which it is possible to draw conclusions about their age) gained acceptance, together with the archaeological principle of stratigraphy based on it, scholars came to share Frere's opinion.
Investigations of several sites in Europe where fossils and human artifacts appeared together, particularly caves and river terraces, suggested that people had lived alongside creatures that were now extinct. This meant humankind, like the earth itself, was far older than the Bible-derived timetable would allow.
At first, the scientific establishment rejected the implications. But the turning point came in 1859, when a group of distinguished British scholars visited Abbeville in northern France to observe the work being carried out there by Jacques Boucher de Perthes (1788-1868). He had found flint tools associated with bones of extinct animals in local gravel pits. The British came away convinced of the validity of Boucher de Perthes' findings and endorsed them vigorously. As a result, most scholars came to accept humankind's great antiquity.
The Origin of Species
The revolution in 19th-century thinking in geology, started by Hutton and carried forward by Lyell and others, was accompanied by an equally massive upheaval in biology. It came to a head in 1859, when the British naturalist Charles Darwin published the book usually referred to as On the Origin of Species.
Since the 18th century, scholars had been speculating that fossils were earlier links in a chain of evolution in which creatures gradually adapted to changes in their environment, rather than being victims of biblical floods. To Darwin, however, belongs the credit for working out the mechanism by which evolution takes place—natural selection. Individual members of a species vary in some of their characteristics, and those with variations best suited to their environment are the most likely to survive and reproduce (i.e., "survival of the fittest"). The original variations become enhanced in succeeding generations, eventually leading to the evolution of a new species.
Various scholars quickly saw the implications the theory of evolution held for determining the origins of humankind, among them Thomas Huxley (1825-1895), who earned the nickname "Darwin's bulldog" for his vigorous championing of the idea. Darwin himself hesitated to enter the public controversy, but did so in 1871, with his book The Descent of Man.
In that work Darwin contended, as Huxley and others had already done, that humankind had evolved from the same ancestors as present-day apes. For the theory to hold, however, there would have to have been at some stage of prehistory a creature representing an evolutionary "bridge" between their apelike forebears and human beings themselves. The search for the fossilized remains of this creature, the so-called missing link, united naturalists, geologists and fossil-hunting antiquarians.
QUEST FOR THE MISSING LINK
The idea that humans are descended from the apes provoked two reactions in the second half of the 19th century. For some scholars, the search for our earliest ancestors was akin to the legendary quest for the Holy Grail in its intensity. But fundamentalist believers in the literal truth of the Bible rejected the theory of evolution.
In 1856, the skeleton of what is now known to be an early human was found in a limestone cave at Neanderthal, near Düsseldorf in Germany. It attracted great attention, but the most eminent pathologist of the day, Rudolf Virchow, declared that it came from a modern human who had suffered from arthritis and tickets.
However, in 1882 skeletons showing similar characteristics to the Neanderthal remains, associated with the bones of extinct animals, were discovered at Spy in Belgium. Scholarly opinion had changed, and these were accepted as a form of early human. Their acceptance was reinforced by subsequent finds of such skeletons from other sites in Europe, particularly in France.
Now it is known that these early humans, the Neanderthals, lived in Europe and West Asia between 200,000 and 35,000 years ago. The western European, or classic, Neanderthals developed rather different physical characteristics from their counterparts in West Asia.
The Java Apeman
The Neanderthals were too similar to modern humans to be the missing link with the apes, so the quest was still on. In 1887, a young Dutch anatomist and surgeon, Eugene Dubois, set out upon it, heading for the East Indies.
Dubois did not choose his destination at random. Some scholars, including Virchow, had already speculated that the missing link would be traced to the Tropics, home of all modern apes.
Amazingly, within four years of his arrival, Dubois found what he was looking for. In the fossil beds of Java he unearthed the skull and thighbone of a humanlike creature, with a smaller brain cavity than modern humans and a thick, bony ridge across the brows. The structure of the thighbone showed that the creature had walked upright.
The scientific world, however, was not ready to accept the Java fossil as a human ancestor. It was not until the 1930s that the German anthropologist Gustav von Koenigswald found further examples of the creature in the Java fossil beds, and the achievement of Dubois was recognized.
The Java apeman is now known as Homo erectus (upright man). They lived here from around 1.7 million years ago. And they were not confined to Java, as later research was to show.
From the Dragon's Teeth
For centuries, Chinese apothecaries sold what they called dragon's teeth as a sovereign remedy for illness. In fact, what they believed to be the remains of ancient dragons were fragments of fossilized animals. Many were actually teeth, and in the 1920s Western scholars concluded that some on sale in Peking could have come from apemen.
They tracked the source of the teeth to Zhoukoudian, a huge cave 28 miles (45 km) from Peking (Beijing). Excavations between 1927 and 1939 yielded the remains of 45 apemen closely resembling those previously found in Java. Similar specimens have subsequently been discovered in many parts of the Old World, including Europe and East Africa; these are now known respectively as Homo heidelbergensis and H. ergaster.
Child of the South
The scientific skepticism that greeted Homo erectus emerged again when the remains of a young humanlike ape were found in 1924. They were identified by Professor Raymond Dart among fossil-bearing rocks from Taung in South Africa. In modern times, no apes have lived in the region, so it did not seem a likely place in which to search for the missing link.
In addition, the skull, thought to be of a child about six years old, had teeth resembling those of a human, but a brain cavity no larger than that of modern apes. Scholars had for years reasoned that apes in the human lineage would have a large brain and apelike jaws and teeth. Their expectations had been fulfilled in 1912 by "Piltdown man," allegedly found in Sussex in England but shown in 1953 to be a hoax (see page 129), so the Taung child had no place in their scheme of things.
Dart named his discovery Australopithecus africanus (African ape of the south). By the 1940s enough specimens of Australopithecus had been found in Africa for scientists to accept them as part of our family tree. However, it now appears they were cousins, rather than direct forebears, of humans.
Today, several species of Australopithecus are known. A. africanus was small and slender and lived 2-3 million years ago. A. robustus was sturdier and lived 1-2 million years ago. Both species walked upright.
The Leakey Achievement
The Kenyan archaeologist and anthropologist Louis Leakey had been searching East Africa for traces of our early ancestors for 30 years when, in 1959, he was rewarded by finding the remains of a very robust Australopithecus robustus. He named it "Dear Boy" in understandable gratitude. The following year, he and his wife Mary made an even more important discovery—the fossil remains of another creature living at the same time as Australopithecus but much more human in appearance. Leakey called it Homo habilis (handy man). It flourished between 2 million and 1.5 million years ago.
Enter Lucy ...
At Laetoli, near the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, Mary Leakey and her son Richard made one of their most exciting finds: footprints preserved in hardened volcanic ash. They show that several hominids crossed the site nearly 4 million years ago (that is, perhaps 1 million years before Australopithecus africanus), walking upright.
A few bones of these creatures were also unearthed at Laetoli, but Hadar in Ethiopia was the site of the most spectacular finds. There, in November 1974, a French and American team discovered nearly half of the skeleton of a hominid they nicknamed Lucy (see page 141). This was remarkable because fossil hominids are rarely represented by more than a few teeth or bones.
By 1981, the remains of 13 individuals like Lucy, though less complete, had been unearthed at Hadar. These hominids are called Australopithecus afarensis (Afar is the region of Ethiopia in which Hadar lies). A. afarensis is probably the direct ancestor of both early humans and their cousins, A. africanus and A. robustus.
Out of Africa
Recent work has underlined the key role of Africa in the development of humankind. Homo ergaster (formerly known as H. erectus), which emerged in Africa around 1.8 million years ago, was the ancestor of the first human inhabitants of Europe (H. heidelbergensis) and East Asia (H. erectus). While hominids in Europe and West Asia developed into the Neanderthals, H. ergaster's descendants in Africa evolved into H. sapiens sapiens—modern humans. Most scholars now believe that the world was colonized between 100,000 and 40,000 B.C.E. by modern humans moving out of Africa, replacing the earlier Neanderthal populations in Europe and West Asia and H. erectus in East Asia, although some paleoanthropologists still maintain that modern humans evolved gradually over the entire inhabited region of the globe. The somewhat acrimonious debate between holders of these two opposing viewpoints shows that the search for the missing link is by no means over.