A Huge Turning Point in Archaeology

Brian Fagan—

The bombshell exploded a few months after John Evans and Joseph Prestwich returned from their visit to the Somme gravel pits with axes and elephant bones. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species placed archaeology at the centre of the debates on human origins. The archaeologists and geologists had proved that human beings had lived on earth alongside extinct animals. Now Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection provided explanations for how animals and other living things had developed over time.

Darwin’s new theory removed all possibility of a boundary between the modern world and any previous world inhabited by extinct animals. No terrible floods or great extinctions separated mid-nineteenth-century scientists from the landscapes inhabited by earlier animals or humans. There could no longer be any doubt that now-extinct animals and people had lived on earth at the same time.

The year 1859 was a huge turning point in archaeology – and in science generally. New questions confronted archaeologists and biologists alike. Were there earlier forms of humans on earth before ourselves? If so, how long ago did they flourish? And how could you account for the great differences between living human societies and their ancestors? The Darwin bombshell sent archaeologists on a search for answers to these questions–and for early humans and their tools.

Charles Darwin (1809–82) had become an enthusiastic biologist while still an undergraduate at Cambridge University. His lengthy voyage around the world aboard HMS Beagle from 1831 to 1836 provided him with data on numerous plants and animals. Soon he began keeping notebooks on changes in animals over time. He observed geological layers in South America and realised that Charles Lyell’s arguments about the theory of uniformitarianism were correct. But the clincher came when Darwin read the scholar Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population, published in 1798. Malthus argued that animal populations, including humans, expanded to the limits of their food supplies. Darwin took the argument a stage further and wrote that human progress was a product of nature, and the mechanism was the gradual process of natural selection.

Natural selection causes changes in the properties of organisms from generation to generation. Animals display individual variation in their appearance and behaviour, such as body size, number of offspring and so on. Some traits are inherited – they pass from parent to offspring. Others are strongly influenced by environmental conditions and are less likely to be passed on. Individuals who had traits well suited to competition for local resources – what Darwin called ‘the struggle for existence’ – survived. Natural selection preserved small, beneficial changes that members of different species passed on to their offspring. The advantaged individuals survived and multiplied as the inferior ones died out. Natural selection applied to all animals, including humans.

Charles Darwin brought the mechanism of natural selection to the table. But he did not take up the issue of human evolution, for he felt it would prevent the book from getting a fair hearing. He merely remarked that his theory would ‘throw light’ on the development of humans. Twelve years passed before he published The Descent of Man, which explored the relationship between natural selection and human evolution.

Darwin also theorised that humans originated in tropical Africa, where many apes flourished. Today, we know he was right. His brilliant research provided a convincing reason for archaeological research into early humans. Evolution made it certain that humans had descended from apes. Respectable Victorian households were horrified. Mothers drew their children to their skirts and whispered to one another that they hoped the rumours were untrue. Satirical magazines mocked human ancestry among the apes with cartoons showing Darwin with a chimp’s body, and a gorilla upset at Darwin’s claims to be one of his decendants. Clergymen preached against evolution in their sermons.

Fortunately, Darwin had powerful allies, among them Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–95), one of the greatest biologists of the nineteenth century. Huxley was a striking man with lion-like features, black hair and whiskers. A brilliant public speaker, he made the case for evolution and natural selection so forcefully that he became known as ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’. Gradually the opposition to Darwin’s ideas faded, except among the most committed Christians.

No one had any idea what an ancestral human would have looked like. Three years before the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, quarrymen working in the Neander Valley near Düsseldorf, Germany, had discovered a thick-set skull and limb bones in a cave. The primitive-looking skull had a massive, rugged brow and was bun-shaped – quite unlike the smooth, rounded heads of modern people. The experts puzzled over the find. A well-known biologist, Hermann Schaaffhausen, proclaimed that the remains were those of an ancient and savage inhabitant of Europe. Schaaffhausen’s colleague Rudolf Virchow, also a distinguished surgeon, dismissed the bones as those of a deformed idiot.

But Darwin’s Bulldog had a different opinion. He realised that the Neander skull was that of a primitive human who had lived before modern humans, ourselves. He made a detailed study of the remains and compared them bone by bone with a chimpanzee skeleton. The similarities between the two were striking. Huxley wrote a classic of human evolution about his findings. In Man’s Place in Nature, published in 1863, he declared that the Neanderthal skull was from the most primitive human ever found and one clearly related to our apelike ancestors. Here was the proof that humans were descended from apes, as Darwin’s theory hinted. All modern studies of early human fossils originated in this short but beautifully and clearly written book. Huxley was heavily influenced by recent findings in geology and archaeology, as well as by evolutionary theory.

More Neanderthal skeletons came to light in caves and rock shelters in southwestern France during the 1860s and 1870s. With jutting jaws, heavy brows and sloping foreheads, the compactly built Neanderthals looked primitive, almost apelike. They became caricature cave people, armed by cartoonists with heavy clubs. Many more fossil discoveries were needed to establish even the basic details of human evolution.

Increasingly there was talk of a ‘missing link’ between apes and humans, the link being the ultimate human ancestor. Many people believed Darwin was correct that such a link would be uncovered in tropical Africa. Since that was where the most forms of apes flourished, it was logical to assume that humans originated there. Instead, the next important human fossil discoveries after the Neanderthals were elsewhere.

Eugène Dubois (1858–1940) was a Dutch physician who became obsessed with human origins. He believed that our ancestors came from Southeast Asia, where many apes were also to be found. Dubois was so intent on discovering them that he wangled a job as a government medical officer in Java in 1887. For the next two years he patiently searched in the gravels of the Solo River, near the small town of Trinil. There he unearthed the top of a skull, an upper leg bone and the molar teeth of an apelike human. He named it Pithecanthropus erectus, meaning ‘Ape-human who stands upright’, but it was popularly known as ‘Java Man’. It was, he said, the missing link between apes and humans. Today, it is known as Homo erectus.

The European scientific community scorned Dubois’s claims, partly because all early human fossils had hitherto come from Europe. The scientists laughed at him. They were mesmerised by the Neanderthals, who ‘looked’ primitive. Dubois was devastated, returned to Europe, and is said to have hidden the fossils under his bed.

By the turn of the century, for most people the Neanderthals had become the shambling, savage cave people depicted in newspaper cartoons. Instead, scientists became obsessed with a remarkable ‘discovery’ made by a lawyer and fossil hunter, Charles Dawson, in a gravel quarry at Piltdown in southern England in 1912.

Dawson also claimed to have found the ‘missing link’ – but it was a forgery. It had been fashioned from a medieval skull, a 500-year-old human lower jaw and carefully filed fossil chimpanzee teeth, all the bones stained with an iron solution to look ancient. It was almost certainly Dawson, hungry for scientific recognition, who created this outrageous fake. Dawson knew that scientists of the day believed that the development of a large brain came before the consumption of a broad-based diet by modern humans. And so (it is thought) he quietly created a fossil human with a large skull from an anatomically modern person, and then added suitably modified chimpanzee teeth to create the primitive ‘Piltdown Man’.

Astonishing though it may seem, no one questioned the find. But it should be remembered that at the time there were not the analytical tools required to verify its age. Chemical analysis of the bones finally exposed the forgery in 1953. By that time, however, other fossil finds from both Africa and China were casting doubt on Piltdown, which did not look anything like them.

Dubois’s Pithecanthropus erectus was more or less forgotten until the 1920s when a Chinese geological survey excavated a deep cave at Zhoukoudian, southwest of Beijing. There a Swedish fieldworker and Chinese scholar Pei Wenzhong unearthed human bones. The specimens proved to be virtually identical to Dubois’s Trinil find. Soon the two forms of Pithecanthropus were united under the single label of Homo erectus, ‘the human who stood upright’.

Despite the discovery of the Neanderthals and Homo erectus, enormous gaps remained in the story of the past. Many thousands of years separated the stone axes from Hoxne and the Somme Valley from later human fossils and much more recent archaeological sites such as Stonehenge. No one could date either Dubois’s fossils or the Neander finds. All that filled the gap between the Java fossils and the Neanderthals were museum drawers full of undated stone tools. And they showed only that technology had become more complex over time – nothing else.

One pressing question was who the earliest humans had been. Another was how the widely differing human societies had lived together.

Theories of human social evolution appeared, notably in the works of a social scientist called Herbert Spencer (1820–1903). He worked at a time of rapid industrialisation and major technological change. Hardly surprisingly, Spencer argued that human societies had developed from the simple to the complex and the highly diverse. Such a theory allowed archaeologists to imagine orderly progress from simple ancient societies to complex modern ones.

But what had the ancient societies been like? Spencer was writing at a time when knowledge of non-Western societies in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific was becoming widely available. Using explorers’ descriptions of hitherto unknown tribes, as well as the work of Catherwood, Stephens and others, you could easily imagine a tree of progress. At the base were the Neanderthals, as well as hunting peoples like the Australian and Tasmanian aborigines. Higher up were the sophisticated civilisations of the Aztecs, Maya and Cambodians. And at the top, of course, was Victorian civilisation.

People were trying to slot both human fossils and archaeological finds into a framework that was easily understood and that made sense. Theories of human progress brought a convenient framework to the little-known past uncovered by archaeologists. But some people went further.

Another British social scientist, Sir Edward Tylor (1832–1917), thought of human societies in three stages: savagery (hunting and foraging societies), barbarism (simple farming societies) and civilisation. A simple, stepwise perspective on the past appealed to Victorian audiences, who believed strongly in technological progress as a mark of civilisation. And who can blame them? At the time, almost nothing was known of archaeology outside the narrow confines of Europe. These simple theories reflected the common assumption that nineteenth-century civilisation represented the peak of humankind’s long history. As it appeared in the 1860s and 1870s, the evolution of humanity did seem ladderlike and orderly.

But all that was to change when archaeological discoveries in Africa, the Americas and Asia revealed a far more diverse and fascinating prehistoric world.

From A Little history of Archaeology by Brian Fagan. Published by Yale University Press in 2019. Reproduced with permission.

Brian Fagan is emeritus professor of anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara, an internationally recognized authority on global prehistory, and the author of dozens of books on archaeological topics including Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization.

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Featured photo by Brian Kairuz on Unsplash

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