Review of Osborn

Arthur Keith

Man May 1917 x


[82] Men of the Old Stone Age: Their Environment, Life, and Art. By Henry Fairfield Osborn,

LL.D., &c., Curator Emeritus of Vertebrate Palaeontology in the American Museum of Natural history. London: G. Bell and Sons, Ltd., 1916. Pp. 545. Pls. VIII. Text Figures 268. Price 20s. net.

If this had been a time of peace and we had appealed for an impartial judge to give a verdict on

the various and diverse explanations which Europeans have given of the ancient races and cultures of their continent, it is more than probable that our choice would have fallen on the author of this work, Dr. Henry Fairfield Osborn. He has spent a lifetime in resurrecting from broken fragments the fauna of past epochs and buried continents; he is a master in the art of reconstruction of past [83] worlds of living things. It is very evident from this book that he has taken infinite pains to weigh the evidence we have all put forward–the evidence of France, of Italy, of Belgium, of Germany, and of England–and his considered and reasoned verdict is for France–for Boule and for Breuil, with Germany as a bad second– Penck and Brückner being accepted as time-keepers. We do not grudge our colleagues of France their victory; they deserve it; their glorious country provided opportunities–that was their fortune; but they used them–that is their everlasting merit. Out of chaos and welter of artifacts they have organised an orderly sequence of ancient human cultures–a sequence which increasing knowledge leads us to believe holds good for all western and central parts of Europe–and yet I cannot help thinking our judge has been over-persuaded by the clear, definite, logical manner in which our French colleagues have presented their case; the evidence produced by Rutot and Reid Moir of a continuous sequence of human flint cultures from the end of the Pliocene to our modern epoch is brushed aside, which cannot well be done by anyone who has studied and examined their records. Nor do we think that any work which is to deal fully with Men of the Old Stone Age can exclude, as Dr. Osborn has, his own continent. Has North America nothing to show of men of the Pleistocene?

It is the big broad lines in which the problems of ancient Europe are approached in a book like this which should engage the critic's attention, not the presentment of minor details. There are those of us who believe, on the evidence produced, that Europe has been the continued abiding place for mankind at least throughout the whole of the Pleistocene period, for which Dr. Osborn accepts a duration of half-a-million of years. There are otters of us who look on the opening half or more of the Pleistocene period in Europe as sterile so far as man is concerned. That is the opinion Dr. Osborn favours; with Boule, he presses the races which have left us the rich records of the pre-Chellean, Chellean, and Acheulean cultures within the bounds of the third interglacial period–one to which he allows a period of some 100,000 years. Then, some 60,000 years ago, comes in the fourth great glaciation; the Mousterian culture appears, Neanderthal men come on the scene. At the close of that period come a succession of cultures and a succession of races of the modern type That is an orthodox and easily told version of our ancient story; it has the merit of its straightforward simplicity. As things fall out in this world they are rarely straightforward, and never, so far as concerns the rise and fall of mankind, very simple.

Dr. Osborn–as is the case with all who adopt this view, now wearing threadbare–regards Pleistocene Europe as a stage–a stage where human races and human cultures appear, play their part, and then disappear. Behind the "flies" of this European Pleistocene stage is Asia; Asia is the huge dressing room in which all the "making up" is done–ancient Asia, of which we know almost nothing, and therefore can believe it capable of anything. In Asia the cultures are fashioned, and the new races of mankind are evolved to cut transitory figures on the ancient European stage. Why should evolution be a monopoly of Asia? Are we not too apt to solve our difficulties in a childish way, and make Asia a fairy factory of anthropological needs? Does the law of evolution not bold for the soil of Europe? In every one of these ancient European cultures we see evolution at work; from the dawn to the close of every cultural period we see that the fashion is always changing. Did those ancient races, who fashioned flints, undergo no change during the centuries which passed?

The story of Men of the Old Stone Age cannot be dissociated from the explanation we must give of how the world has come by its present diverse assemblage of races and cultures. We cannot hope to pierce the darkness of the [84] past except we carry with us the light given by a knowledge of our modern world and its races, and perhaps it is just the lack of that knowledge which has kept Dr. Osborn from appreciating at its worth our British evidence. For him Pithecanthropus is exactly the evolutionary stage one would expect man to have reached in the first inter-glacial period of the Pleistocene; he sees no more difficulty in adding a few ounces to the brain than to the liver. The problems of the liver and brain are infinitely different, as those who are acquainted with the elaborate structure and organisation oŁ the brain well know; to me nothing less than a biological miracle could turn the brain of Pithecanthropus into the brain of Neanderthal man in the short space of two or three hundred years. Nor, to do Dr. Osborn justice, does he really think this was done; he represents Pithecanthropus. Heidelberg man, Neanderthal man, and Piltdown man as branches which separated from the ancestral stock of modern races at. the beginning of the Pleistocene period. For him humanity is a Pleistocene product. That is a bigger burden to throw on the short period of the Pleistocene than Dr. Osborn has fully fathomed.

Dr. Osborn can be very adroit in the handling of delicate problems. There are the questions

relating to the people who left us the pre-Chellean, the Chellean, and Acheulean cultures. No definite answer is given, but indirect statements leave us in no doubt that in Dr. Osborn's opinion these cultures were fashioned by races of the Neanderthal type–races bridging the gap, not a big one, between the Heidelberg type of the second inter-glacial and the true Neanderthal type which we know inhabited a great part of Europe in the final glaciation, the time of the Mousterian culture. Now, it is a very remarkable circumstance that all the human remains which have been found shut down under pre-Mousterian deposits should invariably prove to be men of the modern type. Our French colleagues have rejected all such finds; they are out of place; their very occurrence breaks a leading palaeontological axiom–that Pleistocene forms cannot be identical with modern forms because evolution has always been at work; ancient and modern forms cannot possibly be identical forms. There is, for instance, the skeleton found at Galley Hill. The Galley Hill man is of the modern type. He may be rejected as impossible. Dr. Osborn has his own way of getting rid of him; the part of our 100-foot terrace in which he was found is, in his opinion, only of late Pleistocene date. The date of Galley Hill is Solutrean, not Chellean. In the section of the Thames valley (Fig. 8) the Galley Hill remains are indicated as coming from the middle (50 foot) terrace, not the upper (or 100-foot) one. Discoveries similar to those at Galley Hill, in the gravels of the Somme, Seine, and Italy are rejected as unworthy of credence. So far as Dr. Osborn is concerned, our ancestors do not appear on the stage until the glacial period is drawing to a close, some 25,000 years ago.

From a British point of view our author is all at sea as regards the discovery at Piltdown. For him the skull of Eoanthropus is that of an Englishman of the third interglacial period practicing u pre-Chellean culture. The lower jaw is that of a chimpanzee. It is when we come to deal with the treatment of all the evidence relating to the discovery at Piltdown that our implicit faith in Dr. Osborn's judgment breaks down. He clearly has not realised a number of basal principles which all who deal with fossil finds of man and apes must ever bear in mind. We must expect if evolution be true, to find forms in which ape and human characters are reproduced in various combinations. Suppose we had only found the forehead of Neanderthal man, and known nothing of his great brain and other human characteristics, who would have doubted the correctness of assigning that forehead to an anthropoid ape? Even with the whole calvaria before him Dr. King was inclined to place Neanderthal man amongst the apes–the man we now know to have buried and reverenced his dead. Who would have dared associate the calvaria of Pithecanthropus with the femur, if [85]

that femur had been found in the same stratum but n mile or two distant? The calvaria would have been assigned to an ape-like man, the femur to a modern man. And now when the same problem comes up at Piltdown–with the jaw showing a texture exactly that of the skull, the same degree of fossilisatlon and of a corresponding size, with teeth as unlike chimpanzee teeth as teeth can well be–we have an authority like Dr. Osborn giving countenance to an error which is likely to bring a feeling of insecurity to those who are not qualified to form a judgment at first hand. He cannot blame his British colleagues if they fail to give his judgment that due which his great services to palaeontology should naturally demand from them.

On the other hand, one cannot but admire the thorough manner in which Dr. Osborn has applied himself to the problems of Ancient Europe, the labour he has taken to examine evidence at first hand and visit sites in person, and the clearness and precision he has stated and illustrated, the evidence and the conclusions he has drawn from that evidence. It is a book to read and to refer to, as good a book on the subject of Ancient Man as has yet appeared in the English language– in many senses it is the best–in spite of the fact that I think he has done less than justice to the work and opinions of his British colleagues.

There are minor details which one might have passed in review, but I shall mention only one of them. Dr. Osborn refers to the classic deposits at Hoxne, and to the arctic beds there. He definitely states that the arctic bed at Hoxne and that discovered in the Lea valley by Mr. Hazzeldine Warren are contemporary deposits–both post-Mousterian and of the fourth period of glaciation. Now, the arctic bed at Hoxne lies deep under the classic brick earth in which the first palaeoliths were discovered by John Frere in the year 1797, and they are palaeoliths of the Acheulean type, they belong to that culture and date. The Lea valley arctic bed belongs to a much later date–late palaeolithic–according to its discoverer, Mr. Hazzeldine Warren. It is quite true that we have much to learn regarding the sequence and approximate dates of our English Pleistocene deposits, and at the present time our geologists and archaeologists are modifying and extending their opinions regarding them, but I am certain that if Dr. Osborn will give them the attention he has given to those in France he will alter some of his conclusions in one of the many new editions into which his book will assuredly pass.