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Olduvai & All That
James Ussher, born in 1581, attended Trinity College, Dublin, where he was ordained at the age of twenty. Four years later he became chancellor of Saint Patrick's Cathedral. Ten years after that he drafted the articles of doctrine and discipline for the Irish Protestant Church. At forty he was appointed bishop of Meath. Soon he became archbishop of Armagh. He visited England frequently and after his death he was buried, by Cromwell's order, in Westminster Abbey. Widely honored and respected, not merely because of his ecclesiastic eminence but for prodigious scholarship, he was the first to distinguish between the genuine and spurious epistles of Saint Ignatius of Antioch. He wrote as fluently in Latin as in English, and among his most celebrated works is Annales Veteris et Novi Tentamenti, a tremendous article of faith which proves that God created the Universe in 4004 B.C.
Considering Archbishop Ussher's erudition and prestige, nobody should have challenged his date for the Creation, but the devil's disciples seldom rest. So we come upon Isaac de La Peyrère who, after examining some oddly chipped stones gathered from the French countryside, wrote a little book in which he asserted that these stones had been chipped by human beings who lived before the time of Adam. The year A.D. 1655 was not a good year to make such observations: M. de La Peyrère's blasphemous monograph was publicly incinerated.
You might think this warning would be sufficient, enabling Christians to sleep comfortably through another millennium; but the Western world had begun to awaken and strict guardians of the status quo could not prevent impertinent questions from blossoming like daffodils in spring.
The Ark, for instance. How big was it? How many animals shuffled up the gangplank?
This problem, although not new, had been complicated by the voyages of Columbus and other explorers who reported seeing strange birds and beasts. In 1559 a monk named Johann Buteo had tried to clear up the matter with a learned disquisition titled Noah's Ark, its Form and its Capacity. Alas, Brother Buteo's statement did not assuage certain doubts.
Theologians then explained that these previously unknown creatures came into existence after the Flood just as domestic animals crossbreed and evolve, just as the mating of a cat with a wolf produces a lynx, or a camel with a leopard produces a giraffe.
Sir Walter Raleigh had something to say, as usual. New species might emerge not only through crossbreeding but also because of different surroundings. The European wildcat, when its home is India, grows up to become the panther. The European blackbird changes color and size in Virginia.
Nevertheless, despite every explanation, new and more odious questions bloomed, nourished by such infernal advocates as a French diplomat named Benoît de Maillet who wrote that germs of the first living organisms could have arrived from outer spacean idea considered preposterous until quite recently. These germs inevitably dropped into the ocean because a long time ago there was no land, and here they commenced to evolve. Hence it must follow that Man's ancestors were aquatic: "maritime people who spend part of their life under water and who often have fins instead of feet, scales instead of bare skin." About ninety such creatures had been sighted, we are told, and several females were delivered to the king of Portugal who, wanting to preserve these curious beings, graciously allowed them to spend three hours a day in the seasecured by a long line. And it is said that they submerged at once and never came up for air. The king kept these maritime women for several years, hoping to communicate with them, "but they never learnt to speak at all."
Maillet also reflected upon the metamorphosis of fish into birds:
There can be no doubt that fish, in the course of hunting or being hunted, were thrown up on the shore. There they could find food, but were unable to return to the water. Subsequently their fins were enlarged by the action of the water, the radial structures supporting the fins turned to quills, the dried scales became feathers, the skin assumed a coating of down, the belly-fins changed into feet, the entire body was reshaped, the neck and beak became prolonged, and at last the fish was transformed into a bird. Yet the new configuration corresponded in a general way to the old. The latter will always remain readily recognizable.
However bold he may have been imaginatively, Benoît de Maillet in person was altogether discreet. Rather than identify himself as the author of these intellectual flights, he contrived the anagram Telliamed, and further protected himself by attributing his theory to an Indian philosopher who had revealed it to a French missionary. "I confess to you," says the missionary to the philosopher, prudently separating himself from the Indian's outrageous ideas, "that notwithstanding the small Foundation I find in your system, I am charmed to hear you speak...."
Maillet also stipulated that the manuscript should not be published until eleven years after his death, as though there were a statute of limitations on the digging up of heretics in order to burn or otherwise abuse their corpses.
Despite these precautions, copies of Telliamed ou Entretien d'un Philosophe Indien avec un Missionnaire Français were circulating through Paris salons during his lifetime; and the great naturalist Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, seems to have been much impressed by the startling essay.
Buffon, we should note, admitted to being one of history's five supreme figuresthe others being Newton, Bacon, Leibniz, and Montesquieu. The earth, said he, had been thrown from the sun and congealed until it attained a temperature suitable for life. That being so, the earth's exact age could be deduced without resorting to biblical texts. One needed only to heat some iron spheres, observe how long they required to cool, and correlate this information, taking into account the earth's dimensions. Buffon then announced that he had found our planet to be 74,832 years old. It had sustained life for the past 40,062 years, but because the temperature would continue falling it would become uninhabitable after another 93,291 years, a globe forever sheathed in ice.
Along with these facts, which have not weathered very well, he came close to anticipating Darwin: "It may be assumed that all animals arise from a single form of life which in the course of time produced the rest by processes of perfection and degeneration." And he went on to say that the organic structure of each natural thing illustrates the following truth: life on earth developed gradually.
However, discretion may at times be advisable, and Buffon could appreciate the monumental power of the Church. No, he wrote somewhat hastily at one point, "no, it is certaincertain by revelationthat all animals have shared equally the grace of creation, each has emerged from the hands of the Creator as it appears to us today."
One of Buffon's pupils, Jean-Baptiste Pierre de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck, encouraged the attack on biblical dogma. He wrote that species cannot be absolutely distinguished from each other; species pass into one another, proceeding from simple infusoria to the magnificent complexity of Man.
Immanuel Kant had similar thoughts: "It is possible for a chimpanzee or an orangutan, by perfecting its organs, to change at some future date into a human being. Radical alterations in natural conditions may force the ape to walk upright, accustom its hands to the use of tools, and learn to talk."
Schopenhauer wrote in 1851: "We must imagine the first human beings as having been born in Asia of orangutans and in Africa of chimpanzees...."
James Hutton, a Scottish geologist and farmer, a gentleman of numerous partsphilosopher, chemist, jurist, Quaker, inventor, physicistHutton found the world not in a grain of sand but in a brook gently transporting sediment to the sea. Only one portrait of this extraordinary man survives, revealing a long, sad face. The face of somebody who has looked so far, comments Loren Eiseley, that mortals do not interest him. For the lesson of the industrious brook was this: mountains, plains, rivers, and oceans must be the result of slow topographical changes. The earth's surface must have been lifted and then eroded, which would take a while. Indeed, Hutton wrote, "we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end." Apparently he did not think this contradicted the Bible because he is said to have been gravely shocked when charged by the Royal Irish Academy with atheism; so shocked that he became physically ill and never quite recovered.
Then along came Sir Charles Lyell who demonstrated in three stout volumes, Principles of Geology, how the earth had been modified in the past and how this process continues. If, let us say, you watch some pebbles tumble from a crag, you are watching a mountain disintegrate. Furthermore, he said, any catastrophic flooding in the past had resulted not from a stupendous rain but from glaciers melting.
This latter argument especially troubled the faithful because the Bible was explicit: forty days, forty nights. Rain rain rain rain. Fifteen cubits of water. We had God's Word. Besides, look at the evidence.
In 1726, for example, the city doctor of Zurich, Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, had unearthed a fossilized skeleton near the village of Oeningen. This ancient sinner, according to Scheuchzer's calculations, went down for the last time in 2306 B.C.
"You will like to know, my learned friend," wrote Scheuchzer to the prominent British physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane, "that we have obtained some relics of the race of man drowned in the Flood.... What we have here is no vision of the mere imagination, but the well-preserved bones, and much in number, of a human skull, quite clearly distinguishable...."
Dr. Scheuchzer then wrote an uncompromising pamphlet titled A Most Rare Memorial of That Accursed Generation of Men of the First World, the Skeleton of a Man Drowned in the Flood, which informs us that together with the infallible testimony of the Divine Word we have other proofs of a Deluge: various plants, fishes, insects, snails, quadrupeds, et cetera. Of human beings drowned on that occasion, however, few traces survive because their corpses floated on the surface of the waters and soon decayed. How fortunate that Oeningen Man should be preserved.
Dr. Scheuchzer provided an illustration of his remarkable find: "a carefully executed woodcut now offered for the consideration of the learned and inquiring world.... It does not merely present certain features in which a vivid imagination could detect something approximating to the human shape. On the contrary, it corresponds completely with all the parts and proportions of a human skeleton. Even the bones embedded in the stone, and some of the softer components too, are identifiable as genuine...."
And there was the testimony of a German pastor, Johann Friederich Esper, who had uncovered the shoulder blade and jaw of another Flood victim in a cave near Bamberg.
During the nineteenth century additional proof turned up. William Buckland, Dean of Westminster and author of Reliquiae Diluvianae, reported a unique burial in South Walesa female skeleton which became known as the Red Lady because her bones were stained with red ocher. Such mortal deposits, Buckland wrote, "by affording the strongest evidence of a universal deluge, leads us to hope that it will no longer be asserted as it has been by high authorities, that geology supplies no proofs of an event in the reality of which the truth of the Mosaic records is so materially involved."
Just the same, renegade Christians continued boring holes in the Ark:
Scheuchzer's rare memorial, upon close examination, proved to be all that was left of a giant salamander.
Esper's fossils could not be reexamined because they had somehow disappeared, but on the basis of contemporary drawings it would seem that what he picked up were the bones of a cave bear.
Buckland's so-called Red Lady was indeed humanthough male instead of femalebut nothing about the discolored scraps indicated that this person had drowned. Apart from sex, in fact, all that could be scientifically determined was that his bones, which had been discovered in association with Paleolithic tools, were older than the date of Scheuchzer's flood, perhaps older than the date established by Archbishop Ussher for the creation of the universe. Just how old Dean Buckland's masculine lady might beah, that would be hard to say. One can scarcely estimate how long men and women have been going about their affairs. To resolve such questions quite a lot more information would be necessary.
Then, in 1857, while the Neander valley near Düsseldorf was being quarried for limestone, workmen blasted open a cave and the shattering reverberations have not yet died away. Within this cave lay a wondrously complete skeleton. Laborers shoveled it aside because they were after something more valuable; but the owner of the quarry, Herr Beckershoff, either noticed these bones or was told about them and decided to save them. By this time, however, all that could be collected were some bits of arm and leg, part of the pelvis, a few ribs, and the skullcap. Herr Beckershoff thought these might be fragments of a bear, and after keeping them awhile he gave them to the president of the Elberfield Natural Science Society, J. C. Fuhlrott.
Fuhlrott realized that the bones were human. The slanted brow of the skullcap and the thick, bent limbs convinced him that this individual must have lived a long time ago. Possibly he had been washed into the cave while Noah was riding out the storm. In any event somebody important ought to be notified, so Fuhlrott called on Professor Schaaffhausen who taught anatomy at the University of Bonn.
Schaaffhausen carefully appraised and measured Fuhlrott's treasure: "The cranium is of unusual size, and of a long, elliptical form. A most remarkable peculiarity is at once obvious in the extraordinary development of the frontal sinuses.... The cavity holds 16,876 grains of water, whence its cubical contents may be estimated at 57.64 inches, or 1033.24 cubic centimeters." Or, in dried millet seed, "the contents equalled 31 ounces, Prussian Apothecaries' weight." This skull and the attendant bones, Professor Schaaffhausen deduced, probably belonged to one of the "barbarous, aboriginal people" who inhabited northern Europe before the Germans arrived.
Not so, replied other experts. The bones of a forest-dwelling hydrocephalic, said one. A cannibal somehow transported to Europe, said another.
Probably a Dutch sailor, said Professor Andreas Wagner of Göttingen.
An old Celt who perished during a tribal migration, said Dr. Pruner-Bey of Paris.
A Mongolian Cossack killed in 1814 while the Russians were chasing Napoleon across the Rhine, said a colleague of Schaaffhausen's, Professor Robert Mayer. Unmistakably a Cossack because, if you will be good enough to observe, the femur is bent inward, which is characteristic of a man accustomed to riding horses. No doubt this soldier had been wounded and crawled into the cave to die.
T. H. Huxley, soon to be Darwin's champion, also thought the skeleton was recent. An odd specimen, granted, but still a member of Homo sapiens.
Darwin himself would not comment; he seldom did unless he could be absolutely sure.
The great panjandrum of the era was Rudolf Virchow, director of the Berlin Pathological Institute. In his opinion the bones Fuhlrott displayed were not prehistoric but merely diseased. The bent legs were a consequence of rickets. The bony ridge above the eyes, together with other apparent malformations, were the result of arthritis. What could be more obvious? Also, this individual had suffered a number of blows on the head. Yet in spite of injury and disease he had lived to a ripe old age, which would be conceivable only in a settled community; and as there were no settled communities thousands of years ago it must be self-evident that the Neander valley bones were recent.
Nobody cared to debate Virchow. There is a portrait of him seated tensely in an armchair. A long sharp nose supports thin spectacles; he looks acutely intelligent, crisp, impatient, and merciless.
Years later these bones would be unpacked and scrutinized again, compared with similar finds, and subjected to a variety of microscopic, electronic, and chemical tests, with the result that we now know quite a lot about Fuhlrott's caveman. It has even been determined that he was unable to raise his left hand to his mouth because of an elbow injury.
And we have learned enough from other Neanderthal remnants to make a few tentative generalizations. For instance, it could be deduced from an Iraqi skeleton that the owner was arthritic, blind in one eye, and had a birth defect limiting the use of his right side. Now what this means is that he would have been unable to hunt, which in turn means that somebody had to provide his food. Care of the infirm and elderly is not what comes to mind when the word Neanderthal is mentioned.
Something else we don't think of in relation to these people is a concept of life after death; yet the Neanderthals buried their dead, which implies concern. Furthermore, the characteristics of a burial may tell us what the survivors were thinking. At least that is the assumption we make. Fires had been kindled on the graves of two Belgian Neanderthals, presumably to lessen the chill of death. And in France, at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, a hunter was interred with a bison legfood for his long journey.
Another French site held bits and pieces of a man, a woman, two children about five years old, and two babies. Flint chips and bone splinters were discovered in the man's grave and a flat stone lay on his head, either to protect him or to prevent him from coming back. The woman was buried in a tight fetal position, as though she had been bound with cords. Perhaps, like the stone slab, this was meant to confine her. Or maybe it saved work by reducing the size of the grave.
On a gentle slope near this family plot another child had been buriedits head separated from its body. The head lay almost a yard higher on the slope. Why this child did not lie with the others, and why the head was detached, is not known.
Quite a few Neanderthal graves were found at the Shanidar cave in northern Iraq. Several of these people appeared to have been killed by rocks falling from the roof, possibly during an earthquake. In one trench lay a hunter with a fractured skull, and when the surrounding soil was analyzed it disclosed pollen from a number of brightly colored wildflowers related to the hollyhock, bachelor's button, grape hyacinth, and groundsel. The existence of so much pollen could not be attributed to wind or to the feces of animals and birds. The only other explanation is that flowers were scattered on his grave by somebody who loved him.
A less agreeable picture came into focus at Monte Circeo, fifty miles south of Rome. Laborers at a tourist resort were widening a terrace when they exposed the entrance to a cave that had been sealed long ago by a landslide. The owner of the resort, accompanied by some friends, crept on hands and knees through a tunnel leading deep into the hillside and finally they entered a chamber that had not been visited for perhaps 60,000 years. By lantern light they saw a human skull, face to the earth, within a circle of stones. Anthropologists suspect the skull may have been mounted on a stick and dropped in that position when the wood decayed; but the unforgettable part of this ceremony must have occurred before the skull was mounted, because the aperture at the base had been enlarged, almost certainly in order to extract and eat the brain.
Neanderthal rituals in Switzerland clearly focused on the bear. A number of boxlike stone structures found in Alpine eaves contain bear skulls. One of these crude chests held seven skulls arranged so that the muzzles pointed to the chamber entrance, while farther back in the cave six more skulls had been set in niches along the wallone with a bone thrust through the arch of the cheek.
What this bear business means, nobody knows. Maybe the earliest human pageantry involved a bear. Even today a few Stone Age tribes conduct ceremonies whose principal figure is a bear, and some ethnologists regard this as the last glint of light from Neanderthal times.
Says Herbert Wendt: "It was in the time of cave bears that the first cultural and religious ideas arose, that the first magicians appeared, that Man achieved dominion over Nature and began to believe in the support of supernatural powers."
What did they look like ?these people we faintly abhor and seldom think about, yet who seem always to be not far away,
Museum dioramas are familiar: shambling, hairy, ape-faced monstrosities wearing animal pelts, the males holding spears or clubs, the females usually crouched beside a fire. This is the image, but it may not be accurate. Our impression is based on a skeleton reconstructed and studied in 1908. The relatively uncorrugated inner surface of the skull suggested that the brain had been simple, with convolutions resembling those of apes. The 1908 examiners also deduced a "simian arrangement" of spinal vertebrae and concluded that Neanderthal man slumped along with knees bent, on feet very much like the feet of a gorilla.
Excerpted from THE AZTEC TREASURE HOUSE by Evan S. Connell. Copyright © 2001 by Evan S. Connell. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.