Life Among the Mammoths

It is another busy day, and since I am again left with little time to write here I have decided to post another "follow-up" excerpt from my book.**

A few days ago I mentioned that many paleontologists were skeptical that humans had lived alongside extinct mammals until discoveries made in Europe between 1858-1859 convinced them otherwise. Below is a brief summary of how the scientific consensus began to change on this issue;


The plan of Brixham Cave, from Geology: Chemical, Physical, and Stratigraphical by Joseph Prestwich.

Several months after Koch's presentation, and over 4,000 miles away, the entrepreneur John Philp stumbled onto a cache of fossils in Brixham cave in Devonshire, England. He had set out to quarry limestone, but he was sure that the strange bones could turn of profit, too. He cleaned up the cave, set up displays, and opened it to paying customers, and word of the in situ exhibit grabbed the attention of amateur geologist William Pengelly. When Pengelly inquired if he and his fellows in the nearby Tourquay Natural History Society could study the cave Philp was happy to oblige, but only if the price was right. The Tourquay NHS formed a committee to try to secure the cave for a six month study, but before they could acquire the rights the fossil mammal expert Hugh Falconer took an interest in the site.

Pengelly had told Falconer of the cave as the senior geologist was passing through Torquay in April of 1858. After visiting it with his friend Robert Everest, Falconer agreed that the cave could not be left to Philp if its scientific value was to be preserved. The difficulty was that the Torquay NHS could not afford the six-month rent, but Falconer promised to mention the situation to the Geological Society of London. Upon hearing Falconer's report the esteemed society agreed that the site had potential. The Geological Society resolved to appeal to the Royal Society for a 100 pound grant and formed a "Cave Committee" consisting of Pengelly, Falconer, Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Andrew Ramsay, and Joseph Prestwich. By May, the Royal Society consented to provide the funding and the excavations were ready to begin.

The project was carried out by two teams. Members of the Tourquay NHS supervised the digging by hired help and the fossils were sent back to the professional geologists in London for analysis. This was to be a precise enterprise, and Pengelly made careful geological notes as the strata were peeled back and the fossils removed. By August over 1,500 mammal bones were recovered, but the workers also turned up a few relics that were even more intriguing. Before the summer ended seven stone tools were found mingled with the remains of extinct cave bears, hyenas, and rhinoceros. At long last the elusive proof of "men among the mammoths" had been found, but most of the Geological Society experts were skeptical. Joseph Prestwich, in particular, worried that if the find was announced too soon religious outrage would overwhelm whatever scientific value the tools held, and Falconer's enthusiastic report on the artifacts went through a month-long process of editing to make it less controversial.

A buzz surrounded the paper, but when it was delivered to a packed London audience it failed to elicit much of a response. The evidence was too flimsy to push back the emergence of humans, and the fact that most London geologists had not even seen the tools made it easy to downplay their significance. Even so, the debate had more to do with age than manufacture, a point on which Pengelly's notes were pivotal. This strained the relationship between Falconer and Pengelly as the expert began to lecture the non-professional on proper geological note-taking. The unequal division of labor caused a mounting strain between the Torquay amateurs and the London theorists, too, which came to a head when Torquay NHS member Edward Vivian published an article that attempted to reconcile Brixham cave with a literal reading of Genesis. The London academics, who could not confine geology within such narrow Scriptural interpretation, were shocked and embarrassed. They ordered a halt to any publications about the cave, and even though it had previously been understood that the Brixham fossils would be returned to Torquay the experts now insisted that the bones stay in London.

As the London-Torquay association was suffering, so was Falconer's health. He set off for a trip to the Mediterranean to improve his constitution, but he intended to investigate a few interesting fossil sites along the way. One of his first stops was in Abbeville, France, home of the controversial scientist Boucher de Perthes. During the 1830's French naturalists like Paul Tournal discovered stone tools alongside bones of extinct mammals, and de Perthes made similar finds around Abbeville in 1838. He presented these finds in the first volume of his 1846 work Antiquites celtiques et antediluviennes in which he boldly proclaimed that the "rude stones" mixed with the extinct fauna "prove[d] the existence of Man as surely as a whole Louvre would have done." This assertion was not taken lightly, and de Perthes faced a barrage of jeering opposition and scientific criticism from his peers. Falconer, too, was skeptical of de Perthes' claims, but a few of the French tools resembled those from Brixham.

In a message sent to Prestwich, Falconer suggested that further investigations of Abbeville might be worthwhile, and Prestwich soon visited the sites with his friend John Evans. The duo left France empty-handed, but when they returned home to England Prestwich received a message that a stone tool had been found and left in situ for him to examine. Prestwich and Evans dashed back across the English Channel and found precisely what they had been hoping for. Whereas the age of the Brixham site was difficult to determine, the stratigraphy of the French site in the Somme Valley was better known and Prestwich was able to convincingly show that the tool had been deposited at the same time as the bones of the extinct mammals. Even so, Prestwich was cautious. He did not want to move the age of humanity backward in time any more than he wanted to move ancient mammals forward. What was significant was that the appearance of humans did not mark the beginning of a distinct geological period, but had once inhabited an unfamiliar and dangerous world.

Prestwich encouraged his colleagues to visit the tool-bearing sites to convince them of his conclusion and the geological community quickly reached a consensus. Fresh from the Somme Valley sites, Charles Lyell publicly announced the coexistence of human and ancient mammals before the 1859 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and eventually even critics like Thomas Wright and John Henslow were won over by the evidence. Geologists still faced an old dilemma, however. Where were the bodies of the toolmakers? A jaw found by de Perthes in 1862 in La Naulette, France turned out to have been planted by someone else, and human remains that had been unearthed previously were not well-documented enough to be used as evidence.

[The bones of ancient humans were eventually positively identified, of course, but not without much debate surrounding their correct age and their relationship to living humans. Human evolution, to say the least, engendered heated debate.]

**[For those of you interested in how things are coming along I have completed three key chapters of the book. The next step, which will certainly be a difficult one, will be to obtain an agent. I will continue to work during the search, but at present I have no idea whether the above excerpt (as well as the rest of the book) will ever reach the printed page.]]


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Really enjoyed reading your entry on the events at Abbeville. I have one question, do you have an exact date for when Lyell deliver his account of the findings at St Acheul to the BAAS. Was it before or after Prestwich published? I'm currently writing a short paper on the events and looking at the faultlines between Lyell and the rest of the community.

Also are you sure Evans and Prestwich left France "empty handed"? I assumed the trip to St Achuel immediately followed the Abbeville visit as part of the same trip, but might be wrong,



By Matthew Pope (not verified) on 30 Apr 2009 #permalink