Laelaps

A tidbit from Richard Owen

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The skull of Machairodus, from Owen’s A History of British Fossil Mammals, and Birds.

Digging through the seemingly endless mass of 19th century paleontological literature that I have collected via Google Books, I happened across a very interesting quote from Richard Owen in his 1846 textbook A History of British Fossil Mammals, and Birds. Earlier in the week, while researching William Buckland’s relationship to the bewitching “Red Lady” during the 1820′s, I was struck by some of the rhetorical techniques used by Buckland to diminish the importance of the skeleton. Among them was the notion that the skeleton was found among fierce extinct mammals (rhinoceros, hyena, “tiger,” etc.) that would have no use to humans. Surely God would have made sure our appearance coincided with that of more useful domestic animals, and for that reason Asia was a more probably place for the first appearance of humans. A similar argument against ancient humans appears at the end of a discussion of a fossil sabercat in Owen’s book, the anatomist writing;

When we are informed that, in some districts of India, entire villages have been depopulated by the destructive incursions of a single species of large Feline animal, the Tiger, it is hardly conceivable that Man, in an early and rude condition of society, could have resisted the attacks of the more formidable Tiger, Bear, and Machairodus of the cave epoch. And this consideration may lead us the more readily to receive the negative evidence of the absence of well-authenticated human fossil remains, and to conclude that Man did not exist in the land which was ravaged simultaneously by three such formidable Carnivora, aided in their work of destruction by troops of savage Hyaenas.

Given Owen’s position I wonder what he would have thought of the diversity of carnivores in South Africa during the time of Paranthropus robustus and Homo erectus, but I won’t waste time on such “What if?” situations. Even though the role theology played in geology and paleontology was on surely on the decline during the 1840′s, little vestiges of Biblical reasoning remained. Although Owen makes no mention of God in the above-quoted piece, there still is a minor hint that some benevolent agency allowed our species to avoid becoming a meal for the mammalian terrors of ancient Europe. This sort of reasoning does create a hypothesis, however, and the hypothesis was ultimately refuted when discoveries of stone tools of post-Pliocene age were found among the ancient extinct British fauna.

Even after stone tools had been found among extinct mammals, however, Owen was still reluctant to say that humans appeared earlier than had previously been thought. Towards the end of the 2nd edition of his textbook Palaeontology (1861) Owen writes;

…the present evidence does not necessitate the carrying back the date of man, in past time, so much as bringing forward of the extinct post-glacial animals towards our own time.

This was the position outlined in a massive paper on stone tools written by Joseph Prestwich, who was certainly excited over the contemporaneous existence of humans with extinct mammals, remaining agnostic about the antiquity of those humans. During a time of relative dating for strata it was relatively easy to still maintain that the appearance of humans marked the beginning of the modern era, and so the stone tools alone did not mark an assured victory for those who thought that humans had a more ancient origin.

Comments

  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    June 5, 2008

    When we are informed that, in some districts of India, entire villages have been depopulated by the destructive incursions of a single species of large Feline animal, the Tiger, it is hardly conceivable that Man, in an early and rude condition of society, could have resisted the attacks of the more formidable Tiger, Bear, and Machairodus of the cave epoch.

    “Tigers and Bears and Machairodi, oh my!”

  2. #2 Lars Dietz
    June 6, 2008

    The “tigers” were probably cave lions. I remember reading in old books that there was a controversy about whether they were closer to lions or to tigers.

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