Fire in the Stone: Prehistoric Fiction from Charles Darwin to Jean M. Auel

Fire in the Stone: Prehistoric Fiction from Charles Darwin to Jean M. Auel

by Nicholas Ruddick


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The genre of prehistoric fiction contains a surprisingly large and diverse group of fictional works by American, British, and French writers from the late nineteenth century to the present that describe prehistoric humans. Nicholas Ruddick explains why prehistoric fiction could not come into being until after the acceptance of Charles Darwin’s theories, and argues that many early prehistoric fiction works are still worth reading even though the science upon which they are based is now outdated. Exploring the history and evolution of the genre, Ruddick shows how prehistoric fiction can offer fascinating insights into the possible origins of human nature, sexuality, racial distinctions, language, religion, and art. The book includes discussions of well-known prehistoric fiction by H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, J.-H. Rosny Aîné, Jack London, William Golding, Arthur C. Clarke, and Jean M. Auel and reminds us of some unjustly forgotten landmarks of prehistoric fiction. It also briefly covers such topics as the recent boom in prehistoric romance, notable prehistoric fiction for children and young adults, and the most entertaining movies featuring prehistoric humans. The book includes illustrations that trace the changing popular images of cave men and women over the past 150 years.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819569004
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 04/22/2009
Series: Early Classics of Science Fiction Series
Pages: 292
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

NICHOLAS RUDDICK is a professor of English at the University of Regina and author of Ultimate Island: On the Nature of British Science Fiction (1993).

Read an Excerpt


From Boitard's Paris before Man to London's Before Adam

From a status like that of the Crees, Our society's fabric arose, — Develop'd, evolved, if you please, But deluded chronologists chose, In a fancied accordance with Mos es, 4000 B.C. for the span When he rushed on the world and its woes, — 'Twas the manner of Primitive Man!

— Andrew Lang [and E. B. Tylor], "Double Ballade of Primitive Man" (1880)

The French Origin of Prehistoric Fiction, 1861–1875

The central issue of the first French pf was the existence of the "fossil man" so categorically denied by Cuvier. Paris avant les hommes (Paris before man) (1861) by Pierre Boitard (1789–1859) was a posthumously published work by a writer who died in the annus mirabilis. Though no literary masterpiece, "the first Darwinian narrative" (Angenot, "Science Fiction," 62) and the originating work of pf is a frontal attack on the "preconceived opinions of the late Master Georges [Cuvier]" (Boitard, 252). It is an overt time travel story: the narrator, having fallen asleep reading Cuvier, dreams that he is taken back 12,000 years in time by a demon who warns him to leave his preconceptions about human prehistory at home. He observes the future site of Paris three hundred meters under water, and after being introduced to extinct monsters of earlier geological periods, he is taken by the demon to an actual cave, the Grotte de Souvignargues in southern France.

There the narrator is confronted by a revolting creature resembling an orangutan, in the company of his equally disgusting family, all covered with stinking filth. Boitard then summarizes the material evidence from many French sites to prove that Cuvier was wrong; fossil men (and women) certainly existed. Moreover, our ancestors were not Adam and Eve but demi-apes whose lives were anything but Edenic. Boitard's scatological portrait of our foreparents is correctively satirical: it is no accident that his cave dwellers are strongly reminiscent of Swift's Yahoos in part 4 of Gulliver's Travels (1726).

Boitard's aim is to promote the new scientific account of human origin, one shockingly different from, yet truer than, the biblical and Cuverian accounts. A full decade before Darwin's Descent of Man (1871), Boitard was arguing that we do better to celebrate the distance that we have ascended on our own initiative from our lowly origin, than to lament how far we have fallen from the scriptural Eden. The frontispiece of Paris avant les hommes shows "fossil man" caped in an animal skin brandishing a stone ax as he stands protectively in front of his mate and infant (fig. 1.1). This awkwardly drawn, unsigned image may be the earliest incarnation of the popular-culture icon of the caveman.

The next significant work of French pf was published only four years after Boitard's, but in the intervening time there had been an explosion of knowledge and speculation about human prehistory. In 1863 alone, Thomas Henry Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature had provided a powerful anatomical argument for the close cousinship of humans and apes; Charles Lyell's Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man had concluded that there were unshakable geological proofs of humanity's lengthy descent; and Louis Figuier had produced in La Terre avant le Déluge (translated as The World before the Deluge in 1865) the first best-selling chronicle of deep time from the Precambrian to the Quaternary appearance of man, illustrated with striking scenic engravings by Edouard Riou.

Moreover, by 1865 excavations had begun at many subsequently notable and productive archaeological sites including Les Eyzies, La Madeleine, and Laugerie Basse in Périgord; Edouard Lartet and his English collaborator Henry Christy had shown that people of the Reindeer Age (the Upper Paleolithic) had made accomplished mobiliary (portable) artworks; and Neanderthal man had been recognized as an extinct hominid type and given a binomial designation, Homo neanderthalensis, that suggested he was of a lower order than our sapient selves. Already a process had begun without which there can be no effective pf: prehistoric human beings had begun to be differentiated, with certain individuals promoted to the rank of worthy ancestors and others demoted to savagery or animality. Already lineages were being sketched and allegiances mapped out. In short, the question of whether there had been prehistoric men had been settled; now it was a question of which prehistoric man was our forefather.

L'Homme depuis cinq mille ans (Five thousand years of man) (1865) by Samuel-Henry Berthoud (1804–91) employs a narrative strategy still current in pf that strives, as Stephen Baxter recently put it, "to dramatize the grand story of human evolution" (567), namely, an episodic rather than a temporally unified narrative. It takes the form of a sequence of chapter-length episodes in chronological order, each offering a glimpse of human life at a particular evolutionary stage. In Evolution (2002), his major contribution to this pf subgenre, Baxter starts at 145 million B.P. and ends circa 500 million years in the future. Berthoud, living at a time when absolute dating was impossible and human prehistory was still a novel concept, begins 4000 B.P. and ends in A.D. 2865. His narrator notes that while the ancient Egyptians were enjoying an advanced civilization, ancestral Frenchmen were huddling in caves while floods ceaselessly inundated the terrain. After discussing prehistoric tools and weapons found in the Paris area, he informs us that he will now offer "a sort of little novel" dramatizing primeval customs (25). This episode, "The First Inhabitants of Paris," constituting chapter 4 of Berthoud's book, is the first pure pf narrative.

A tribe, ruled by an old man, appears on the uninhabited banks of the Seine after having fled north from the Vézère to escape their enemies. They are delighted by the prospect of the easily fortifiable Ile de la Cité and by the butte of Montmartre with its accommodating caves. The men are small and robust with long reddish hair; the women are blonde and wear necklaces of animal teeth. Energetic as a result of their ceaseless war with necessity, they expel the bear (fig. 1.2) occupying the best cave and make fire to fend off nocturnal carnivores. Then they settle down diligently to their industries: hunting, tool manufacture, and artwork for the men; cooking, tailoring, and jewelry-making for the women. The old chief having invoked the protection of the sun god, social development proceeds apace.

After the cave becomes too crowded, the tribe construct a lake village on stilts. While the men fish, the women wash their hair in the river: these first Parisians had a passion for hygiene, filth being a product of modern civilization! Soon the young settlement is besieged by jealous foes, but the attackers are defeated; the captured warriors are sacrificed to the sun god, and their women enslaved. The enemy chief's captured daughter is found to have a remarkable ability to domesticate animals and heal with herbs. (Here Berthoud anticipates Auel's Ayla by more than a century.) Consequently she is fully adopted by her captors, who are wise enough to exploit talent in whomever it is found. In this way Berthoud celebrates the foresight of the founders of Paris, and reminds his own "tribe" of modern Parisians to adhere to their ancestral virtues, be they martial or compassionate. His utopian, Rousseauesque fantasy could hardly be more tonally different from Boitard's excremental vision, even though both writers identify troglodytic savages as the ancestors of the modern French.

Jules Verne (1828–1905), whose literary career was just beginning in the early 1860s, took a conservative position on the fossil man controversy, probably because he was reluctant to accept those aspects of the new scientific "materialism" that conflicted with his Catholic faith. Verne's third novel Voyage au centre de la Terre (1864, revised 1867, translated as A Journey to the Centre of the Earth in 1871–72), is a geological fantasia fictionalizing and humanizing the same journey through deep time that Figuier undertook in La Terre avant le Déluge. But how to deal with the culminating appearance of man? In the 1864 first edition, Verne's answer was to avoid the issue entirely. Yet so imperatively did fossil man demand attention that his exclusion from a work with a strong geological theme was soon no longer possible. The Paris International Exhibition of 1867 contained public displays of prehistoric artifacts, including Edouard Lartet's epoch-making discovery at La Madeleine (Dordogne); the guidebook to the exhibits was written by the fiercely anticlerical prehistorian Gabriel de Mortillet; the possibility of man's Tertiary origin was seriously discussed at the International Congress for Prehistoric Anthropology and Archaeology held during the Paris Exhibition.

The 1867 reissue of Voyage, illustrated by Edouard Riou, contains two more chapters than the first edition. Now, toward the end of their subterranean odyssey, Professor Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel (the narrator) find a human skull associated with the bones of prehistoric animals. The Professor eagerly discourses on the possible major significance of this find in light of the recent discovery of a human jawbone unearthed by workmen at Moulin-Quignon (Somme) under the direction of Boucher de Perthes. Verne probably refers to this "discovery" because its authenticity was seriously in doubt. Indeed, by 1867 the Moulin-Quignon jaw was generally dismissed as a hoax, and it remains one of the most notorious frauds in the field of paleoanthropology, if not quite on the level of "Piltdown Man."

Lidenbrock, unaware of the unfolding scandal of Moulin-Quignon back in Europe, enthusiastically supports the authenticity of the jaw and the existence of fossil man. But then the travelers come across a well-preserved corpse of "Quaternary man" (211) and shortly thereafter they glimpse a herd of living mastodons shepherded by a man over twelve feet tall (fig. 1.3). In retrospect, the narrator doubts his own eyes: "No human being could exist in that subterranean world. ... The very idea is insane" (219).

Verne, however, would like his readers to believe in the living reality of the mastodons and their herdsman, because such phenomena, together with the evident recency of the Quaternary man's death, undermine Lidenbrock's naïve materialist confidence in fossil man. Couldn't the discoveries of stone tools in association with extinct animals be accounted for by the continuing coexistence of the "prehistoric" tool-makers and the "extinct" animals in the subterranean world? Might not Cuverian catastrophes in the form of landslips and earthquakes explain why archaeologists keep unearthing these tools and bones in association? For Verne, then, if fossil man is a living species, he cannot be an extinct human ancestor, and the Mosaic account of creation, as elaborated by Cuvier, remains (just about) intact. Verne's vignette of the giant herdsman is a product of the author's reluctance to abandon the biblical account of human origin. Verne's readers would have to wait thirty-four years until he was prepared to revisit the question of prehistoric man in fiction.

Boitard, Berthoud, and Verne were nonspecialists who introduced prehistoric sections into their fiction, buttressed with references to experts, in order to engage in the fierce ideological debate that was directly about fossil man and indirectly about man's place in nature. The author of the first pf novel proper was himself an experienced archaeologist with a bold imagination. Adrien Arcelin (1838–1904) was one of the discoverers of Solutré (Saône-et-Loire) in east-central France, Europe's richest Paleolithic "kill site." Here the men of the Reindeer Age, close to the limit of human habitation during the Würm glaciation about 20,000 B.P., probably ambushed migrating herds of reindeer and wild horses, dismembering the corpses with exquisitely fashioned stone knives shaped like laurel leaves.

In 1870, Louis Figuier had published L'Homme primitif (translated as Primitive Man in 1870), a popular synopsis of new paleoanthropological discoveries in a format similar to his La Terre avant le Déluge. It included thirty-nine full-page plates by Emile Bayard depicting reconstructed scenes from prehistoric human life. Twelve of the most striking of these plates had been engraved from preliminary sketches by Adrien Arcelin that had been inspired by his excavations at Solutré. Perhaps the most famous of these plates (137) shows wild horses, stampeded by hunters, plunging over the edge of the steep escarpment known as La Roche de Solutré (fig. 1.4).

We now know that such events almost certainly never happened. The animal bones lie far from the bottom of the Roche and none show multiple fracture patterns typical of such a fall. It seems that Arcelin, carried away by accounts and images of North American Indian buffalo jumps that had filtered into European popular culture via Lewis and Clark's diaries, George Catlin's paintings, and James Fenimore Cooper's novels, had figuratively clad his prehistoric Solutreans in the garb of the Plains Indians. Thanks to the success of L'Homme primitif, the icon of the horse jump embedded itself in popular culture even before Arcelin's novel was published, reappearing in several later works of pf. Here, then, early pf reveals its generic proximity to the emerging body of fiction about the untamed American West — and, as is sometimes the case in Western fiction, the aboriginals are viewed more sympathetically than the invading settlers.

Arcelin's novel, Solutré, ou les chasseurs de rennes de la France centrale. Histoire préhistorique (Solutré; or, the reindeer hunters of central France. A prehistoric story), was published under the anagrammatic pseudonym "Adrien Cranile" in 1872. The narrative, framed as a time-traveling dream vision, has a melodramatic plot turning on a clash of races, but it is competently written and commendable for its resistance to the more simplistic scientific racism of the time.

The narrator, Alexandre, hypnotized by a glittering stone as he lies sleepily below the Roche de Solutré, is transported with his friend Dr. Ogier, a local savant, back to prehistoric times. There they meet the aboriginal Solutreans, a short, dark-haired people who are a common ancestor of the Lapps, Finns, Estonians, Tartars, and Eskimos. The Solutreans, however, are led by an Aryanoutsider, the beautiful I-ka-eh, daughter of the late chief: "She had the mixture of strength and refinement that one rarely finds except among the purest Indo-Europeans ... and her foot ... wouldn't have dishonored a Parisienne" (46). I-ka-eh is reluctantly betrothed to a native warrior whose Neanderthal features suggest that he is a throwback to the ape. Spurned by I-ka-eh (who now favors Alexandre), the brute betrays his people to blond Aryans who are about to invade the area for its flint mines.

Yet though the invaders are ancestral Frenchmen, Arcelin's sympathies are with the peaceable reindeer hunters. (The novel's publication in the aftermath of France's military humiliation by Prussia may well account for Arcelin's preference for the aboriginals over the blond invaders.) The Solutreans have no knowledge of war; their meat supply being plentiful, they have never had any reason to fight anyone. Taking his lead from I-ka-eh, who loves her adopted tribe more than the race of her birth, Alexandre chooses the humanist path; ironically, this requires that he lead his hosts into battle. But he is too late: his outnumbered Solutreans on the Roche are soon encircled by the ruthless Aryans with their superior weaponry. Meanwhile, Dr. Ogier, who has joined the Aryans, spouts a crude racial determinism: the Solutreans are vermin destined to be exterminated by their betters. Inevitably the Aryans triumph, and I-ka-eh in despair throws herself off the Roche. Alexandre wakes from his dream, but when he later disinters the skeleton of a disfigured woman at the foot of the cliff, the authenticity of his adventure is proven.

Arcelin's modern editor feels that in 1872 Solutré was too poorly understood to be successful (10); certainly it has never received the recognition it deserves as the first pf novel. Instead, that honor has usually been given to Elie Berthet's Romans préhistoriques: le monde inconnu (1876). This, the first French pf novel to be translated into English (as The Pre-Historic World in 1879), is the most recent common ancestor of both the French and English pf traditions. Berthet (1815–91) was no archaeologist like Arcelin; though science had been his passion since childhood, he had made his living as a prolific feuilletoniste (writer of fiction for serialization in magazines) until, with the new popularity of human prehistory, he found a subject that harnessed both his literary talent and his scientific imagination. The Pre-Historic World is not strictly a novel but a trilogy of novellas, each set in Paris at a different epoch. By the 1870s prehistory was no longer one nebulous stretch of time but an increasingly well established sequence of demarcated periods.


Excerpted from "The Fire in the Stone"
by .
Copyright © 2009 Nicholas Ruddick.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University 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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Table of Contents

Notes on References
Introduction: The Fiction of Hominization
From Boitard’s Paris before Man to London’s Before Adam
From Rosny’s First Artist to del Rey’s Last Neanderthal
From Fisher’s “Testament of Man” to Auel’s “Earth’s Children”
Nature and Human Nature
Sex and Gender
Race or the Human Race
A Cultural Triad: Language, Religion, Art
Coda: Baxter’s Evolution and Post-Hominization
A Prehistoric Chronology
Works Cited
Illustration Credits

What People are Saying About This

David Seed

“There is no other book that connects studies of evolution to mainstream fiction so thoroughly and thoughtfully.”

Gary K. Wolfe

“Ruddick has described an extensive, widely popular, and surprisingly persistent tradition of stories which, as he shows, is far more than an eccentric subtheme of science fiction. He gives the individual works the attention they deserve as literature, which leads to some original and surprising conclusions.”

From the Publisher

"Ruddick has described an extensive, widely popular, and surprisingly persistent tradition of stories which, as he shows, is far more than an eccentric subtheme of science fiction. He gives the individual works the attention they deserve as literature, which leads to some original and surprising conclusions."—Gary K. Wolfe

"There is no other book that connects studies of evolution to mainstream fiction so thoroughly and thoughtfully."—David Seed, professor

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Fire in the Stone: Prehistoric Fiction from Charles Darwin to Jean M. Auel 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Louise66 More than 1 year ago
When I bought this book, I thought I was getting the latest Clan of the Cave Bear book!! I wasted $15.00 plus. Do not get this book unless you are doing a research paper on prehistoric tribes.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a readable study of how we fictionalize and visualize the prehistoric past.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I would like to know this book is written by Jean M. Auel? I was a bit confused the author Nicholas Ruddick. The Fire In The Stone is by Clan of Cave Bear? Pls email me about this.. Tks.. Gina Bell