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The Age of the Gods: A Study in the Origins of Culture in Prehistoric Europe and Ancient Egypt

The Age of the Gods: A Study in the Origins of Culture in Prehistoric Europe and Ancient Egypt

by Christopher Dawson

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Catholic University of America Press
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Worlds of Christopher Dawson Series
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.10(d)

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A Study in the Origins of Culture in Prehistoric Europe and the Ancient East
By Christopher Dawson

The Catholic University of America Press

Copyright © 2012 The Catholic University of America Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8132-1977-6

Chapter One

The Glacial Age and the Beginnings of Human Life in Europe


The question of the origins of cultural change is hardly less fundamental than that of the mutation of species itself, which remains the fundamental problem of biology. In fact, the development of a new way of life, and that of a new race or species, are, as we have seen, closely bound up together, and form two aspects of a single vital movement. The farther we go back in the history of humanity, the more difficult it is to conceive of any spontaneous development or modification of culture. The way of life of a primitive people is almost as unchangeable as the habits of an animal species. When Tasmania was first discovered by Europeans its natives were living a life which was in all probability essentially the same as that of their ancestors in Pleistocene times, and the coming of the higher civilisation brought with it for them, not progress, but extermination.

In order to be effective, change must come from without—from a change in environment—as well as from within, for if natural conditions are unchanging, life will be unchanging also, and thus the evolution alike of cultures and of species is dependent on the whole process of terrestrial change.

For the history of the earth is not a simple uniform development. It has proceeded by a series of vast cyclic revolutions, true world-ages in which the stages of geological, climatic, and biological change are coordinated and dependent on one another. Behind the world that we know there lies a whole series of other worlds, each with its own continents and seas, and its own types of animal and vegetable life.

This conception of the cyclic process of terrestrial change was already foreshadowed by the Greek genius, in one of those flashes of scientific imagination which, as in the case of the atomic theory or the heliocentric astronomy, seem to anticipate the laborious experimental achievements of modern science. This is the Aristotelian theory of the great summer and the great Winter, according to which the earth passes through a cycle of climatic change, each phase of which is linked with a corresponding change in the relative area of land and sea.

This brilliant guess had to wait for its verification until the modern sciences of geology and paleontology had revealed the successive chapters of the earth's history and had proved that the whole process of terrestrial change is indeed governed by a kind of rhythmic movement. Not only the oceans, but the "eternal hills" themselves rise and fall in obedience to this cosmic law, so that the mountain ranges rise from the floor of ancient seas, and in their turn fade away again like snow wreaths under the sun and rain. Owing perhaps to the gradual accumulation of radio-active heat within the earth's crust, which ultimately causes the solid substratum of the continents to liquefy, each period of stability is followed by a slow process of continental depression and by the advance of the ocean at the expense of the land. This process culminates in a period of maximum submergence, which is followed by an intensification of volcanic activity and a new phase of orogenesis or mountain building, due mainly to the lateral pressure of the ocean floor on its continental margins. This climax reverses the former process of submergence and leads to a new phase of land elevation and continental advance. These cycles, each of which takes some forty million years to run its course, likewise form definite epochs in the history of organic life. Here the climatic changes which accompany the alternate phases of land depression and elevation play a leading part. Above all the growing severity of climate, culminating in the glaciation of large parts of the earth's surface, which coincides with the maximum phase of land elevation, following on a period of mountain building and continental uplift, has a most profound influence on the development and distribution of organic life.

Thus the vast glaciation of Permo-Carboniferous times, in which the ice sheets extended almost to the equator, marks the end of the Primary Paleozoic world, which was dominated by the lower forms of plant and animal life, such as the giant spore-bearing plants and the trilobites, and was followed by the first great expansion of land vertebrates and by the spread of coniferous trees and cycads. The passing of the Secondary Mesozoic world, with its giant forms of reptilian life, is more difficult to explain, but it is probable that the slight fall of temperature that accompanied the minor glaciation of Eocene times was sufficient to render conditions unfavourable for the survival of the cold-blooded reptiles, while the warm-blooded mammals and birds, with their coats of fur and feathers, were able to increase and multiply.

Finally the relatively modern glaciation of Pleistocene times, in the waning of which we ourselves live, witnessed the end of the reign of the beasts, and the rise to supremacy of the human race.

It was no doubt in the antediluvian world of the Tertiary Age, with its mild climatic conditions and its vast development of mammalian life, that the earliest forms of man first came into existence. It is true that we have no certain evidence for this, apart from Mr. Reid Moir's discoveries of flint implements in late Pliocene deposits at Foxhall in Norfolk, which have as yet not gained universal acceptance among archeologists.

To the archeologist man is essentially a tool-using animal, and he is apt to conclude that where stone implements are absent, man is nonexistent. Yet it is probable that just as the Stone Age far surpasses the Age of Metals in duration, the age before man learned to fashion stone implements was the longest of all. Even today there are tribes like the Semang of the Malay Peninsula, the Kubu of Sumatra, and the Veddahs of Ceylon, who are still in a pre-paleolithic stage of culture, and it is suggestive that the region in which these peoples survive is that in which there has been least change of climatic conditions since Pliocene times, and in which the flora and fauna of the Pre-Glacial Age still flourish. Thus it was probably only after the expulsion of man from the Paradise of the Tertiary World, with its mild climatic conditions and its abundance of animal and vegetable life, that he made those great primitive discoveries of the use of clothing, of weapons, and above all of fire, which rendered him independent of the changes of climate and prepared the way for his subsequent conquest of Nature.

But the effect of the Glacial period was not only to increase the severity of the struggle for existence and to lead to the extermination of the less adaptable species, it also produced a growing tendency to racial and cultural differentiation. It is necessary to remember that the Pleistocene Glaciation was not a simple uniform change of climate. It was rather a vast series of oscillations, which shifted the climatic zones alternatively backwards and forwards, so that as Northern Europe became a desert of ice, the modern desert areas of North Africa and Central Asia became moister and more temperate. Each swing of the pendulum was accompanied by a change in fauna and flora, and in the human population and culture. And it was during these successive changes that the human type seems to have developed most rapidly, for while a period of glaciation involved retrogression and death in one region, it gave fresh opportunities for life and progress elsewhere; and with the ebbing of glacial conditions, there was a returning wave of new life and more highly developed types. Moreover, these climatic changes led in some cases to the permanent isolation of certain regions which became areas of racial segregation and differentiation. Thus the glaciation of the highlands of Central Asia led to the separation of the East Asiatic steppes—the cradle of the Mongolian race—from the rest of Asia, and in the same way the breaking up of the tropical forest belt which had formerly been continuous caused the isolation of the tropical region of Southeastern Asia from that of Africa.


Unfortunately it is as yet impossible for us to trace the resultant process of human differentiation in detail. Though Europe was but the extreme outer margin of the inhabited world, and was certainly not the earliest or the most important centre of human development, we owe our knowledge of primitive man almost entirely to European evidence, and it is the typology of the stone implements of prehistoric Europe which serves as our standard of interpretation for paleolithic culture throughout the world. Nevertheless, even the partial and incomplete evidence that we possess does tend to illustrate the process of racial and cultural differentiation which we have just described. The lower Paleolithic cultures, the Pre-Chellean, the Chellean, and the Acheulean, of which the first two are contemporary with the warm climate of the inter-glacial periods, represent a uniform type of culture, which is almost world-wide in extension, being found not only in West and Southern Europe, but also in Western and Central Asia and India, in North and South Africa, and in North and South America. This uniformity of cultural type undoubtedly points to a similar uniformity of racial type, since cultural borrowing is hardly conceivable at that period. Unfortunately we have no satisfactory evidence to show what this primitive type was like. The only human remains that go back to the Chellean age are these of the Piltdown Man (Eoanthropus dawsoni) in England, and the Mauer Jaw from near Heidelberg, in Germany. It is possible that the Piltdown man belonged to the Chellean culture, but as his remains are not associated with Chellean implements, and as England itself lies on the extreme frontiers of the Chellean province, it is equally probable that he represents the survival of an even more primitive type. On the other hand, the Heidelberg man was undoubtedly non-Chellean, for Central and Eastern Europe lay outside the limits of Chellean culture, and even at that date formed part of another culture province, that of the so-called Pre-Mousterian.

This was the forerunner and ancestor of the Mousterian culture which spread southwards into Western and Southern Europe with the fresh advance of glacial conditions. The Chellean period had been characterised by a warm climate and a semi-tropical fauna, including the hippopotamus, the ancient straight-tusked elephant, and Mercks rhinoceros, and these conditions still existed during the early stages of the Acheulean culture, which appears to have developed directly from the Chellean without any abrupt change of race or culture. During the later Acheulean period, however, there was a gradual deterioration of climate which ultimately led to the extinction of the earlier warm flora and fauna and the appearance of a new semi-Arctic fauna—the woolly rhinoceros and the mammoth, the musk ox and the reindeer, as well as hosts of small Arctic rodents, such as the lemming and the tailless hare. At the same time it would seem that the earlier human population was driven out by the increasingly rigorous climate, and gave place to a new type of man, the Neanderthal race, which was probably derived from the Heidelberg man, who, as we have seen, existed in Central Europe at an earlier period.

This is the first human type, of which we possess plentiful and positive evidence. Its remains have been discovered not only in Central and Western Europe, but as far south as Gibraltar and Malta, and recently as far east as Galilee, while the corresponding culture—the Mousterian—is as world-wide in extent as its Chellean and Acheulean predecessors. The evidence suggests that a specialised type of race and culture, which had been developed under temperate conditions in Central Europe or farther east, was forced to migrate southwards before the fresh advance of the ice-sheets, thus taking the place of the population which had inhabited Western and Southern Europe during the previous period of warm climate. Either in continuation of this movement, or in consequence of the growing severity of climatic conditions during the maximum of the last glaciation, Neanderthal man passed on into South-west Asia and into Africa, where he probably continued to exist long after his disappearance from Europe, for the famous skull discovered at Broken Hill, Rhodesia, proves that a type closely allied to Neanderthal man existed in South Africa in Post-Glacial times.


But in spite of the almost world-wide extension of the Mousterian culture, which, at least in Europe and Palestine, is everywhere associated with the Neanderthal race, it is certain that the latter was in no sense the ancestor of modern man. In spite of the almost bestial appearance of his skull, with its massive chinless jaw, its enormous brow ridges and receding forehead, Neanderthal man was not a primitive, undifferentiated type of humanity. He was rather an over-specialised by-product, a side path or blind alley on the road of human development. Modern man descends from other unknown types which must have existed somewhere in the Old World, both before and during the dominance of the Neanderthal race in Europe. There is no gradual transition from the latter to more modern types. When the climax of the last glacial phase began to pass, and Europe became a land of cold, dry steppes, ranged by vast herds of bison and reindeer and wild horse, Neanderthal man and his culture disappear entirely, and their place is taken by a new culture and by new types of man. This is the greatest turning-point in the human history of Europe, for it marks the coming of modern humanity. Henceforward, however great may be the changes in environment and culture, there is no complete break. The process of development is continuous, and we have to do with essentially the same kind of man as that which inhabits the world today.

Indeed, judged by purely physical standards, such as the size of their brain, fossil men of the later paleolithic period were equal and sometimes even superior to the average modern man.

The modern average of cranial capacity lies between 1,400 and 1,500 cubic centimetres, while that of the fossil man of Cromagnon has been estimated at 1,650 c.c., that of Chancelade at 1,710 c.c., and that of Barma Grande, near Mentone, higher still.

This result is not flattering to our pride in the progress of modern man, but it is curiously borne out by the recent discoveries of fossil man outside Europe. In South Africa, remains have been found at Boskop and Tsitzikama of a prehistoric race, somewhat resembling the Cromagnon type and probably of similar age. The cranial dimensions of the skulls are most remarkable and were estimated by the discoverer of the Boskop specimen at 1,832 c.c., and by Professor Elliot Smith at 1,900. This is probably too high, but the lowest estimate gives over 1,700.

There is reason to think that this race was the ancestor of the modern South African Hottentot and Bushman, for the remains of an in termediate type—the vanished race of Strandloopers—has been discovered and all three types agree in certain cranial characteristics. In size of brain, however, there is a steady diminution from the 1,700 c.c. or more of Boskop through the Strandlooper skulls with a maximum of 1,500 down to the Hottentot who averages 1,380, and the Bushman whose cranial average is only 1,300 c.c. Just the same phenomenon is to be found in Oceania, where the ancestral type of the small-brained modern Australian native goes back to the large-brained fossil man discovered at Wadjak in Java.

The conclusion seems to be that the last glacial period was contemporary with a simultaneous development of humanity, which was not confined to a single race or a single part of the world. But while in Europe and Asia the new types of man were the initiators of a progressive movement which has never wholly ceased, in South Africa and Australasia, owing to isolation and the absence of external stimulus, they became stationary in culture and physically retrograde.

Even in Europe, the successors of Neanderthal man did not belong to a single type. Among the remains dating from the Aurignacian period that have been discovered in Southern France and the Riviera, we can distinguish at least three different races. The most important is the Cromagnon type (Homo priscus), characterised by its tall stature and large and lofty skull, though the face is unsymmetrically short and wide.


Excerpted from THE AGE OF THE GODS by Christopher Dawson Copyright © 2012 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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