THE ANTIQUITY OF MAN:
THE INTELLECTUAL SHOCK OF THE MID-NINETEENTH CENTURY
By Terence Meaden
It can be hard to imagine how two centuries ago erudite men were so beguiled by the teachings of the Old Testament, and fearful of the preachers who clung to ageing doctrines, that few dared publicly challenge the orthodoxy.
The mythologies of Genesis were not recognised as the fabrication of storytellers: God created Man and Woman—and the remainder of mankind and their archaeological traces resulted. Noah’s contribution seemed so pivotal that events in the archaeological record were classified as antediluvian, diluvian and postdiluvian.
This review explores how a uniform acceptance of these fables, for so long held to be ‘truths’, came to be disputed, and then so quickly overthrown that learned opinion as to human antiquity switched polarity in the space of a few years.
It sets in historical context the tremendous advances in understanding the origins of life and humans that Charles Darwin’s erudition initiated.
For centuries the renaissance of European scholarship followed an encouraging but slow advance in the face of religious conservatism. The doctrines of the Church were unassailable. To disagree was heresy. Galileo was denounced, but events proved that he and Copernicus were right: our planet does revolve about the sun; Earth is not the centre of the universe.
The Church was unwilling to fit disconcerting findings into its traditional framework. The Bible was fact, Genesis was fact, the flood was fact. The seventeenth-century Irish Archbishop James Ussher calculated the year of the creation of man as 4004 BC, which he achieved by analysing lines of descent from Adam. By the same token the flood was assigned to the year 2501 BC or some similar date and for two centuries academics and philosophers believed this, having been indoctrinated as children into believing the fables.
Although this did little harm to invention, engineering, mathematics, physics and botany which progressed steadily under leading figures like Leonardo, Newton, Fourier and Linnaeus, the Church’s attitude neutered astronomy, geology, medicine and prehistory. Some scientists may have doubted, but outwardly they conformed. Outspoken atheists, few in number, were ridiculed, persecuted or tormented—or at best ignored.
Against this background, by the end of the 18th century, fitful beginnings, towards realising there had been a truly long prehistoric period, were afoot.
We may cite Johann Esper who discovered in the German Jura in 1771 human bones in association with extinct animals like cave bear. And John Frere, in 1797, who found hand-axes alongside extinct animal bones 12 feet below the ground in undisturbed strata at Hoxne, Suffolk, and said they belonged to a remote stone-using period “even beyond that of the present world” (Daniels 1950).
John MacEnery, excavating in Kent’s Cavern, Torquay, in the 1820s, recognised the antiquity of hand-axes found with ancient animal remains, but peer-group pressure prevented publication. Godwin Austen continued this work in 1840 and soon wrote that “the bones of the cave-mammals and the works of man must have been introduced into the cave before the floor of the stalagmite had been formed” (Daniels 1950, Bibby 1957). Pierre Tournal, about 1826-1834, was uncovering cave deposits that he claimed could not be linked to any flood, and numerous discoveries and precocious ideas by others can be given.
In geology, there were parallel developments, as William Smith (1769- 1839) and Charles Lyell (1797-1875) led the way with concepts of superposition of strata and the law of uniformitarianism initiated by James Hutton (1726-1797). This culminated in Lyell’s 1830 classic The Principles of Geology, subtitled An attempt to explain the former changes of the Earth’s surface by reference to causes now in operation. Stratified deposits, if due to processes that are even now continuing, imply an age for Earth far greater than any that Biblical chronology assured.
THE TURNING POINT
By the 1850s the dogged persistence of two men helped turn the tide in favour of human antiquity: Jacques Boucher de Perthes (1788-1868) in France and William Pengelly (1812-1894) in England.
Boucher de Perthes found strong proof indicating a great age for early man, in deep strata near Abbeville in 1832, and in the course of 20 years made further discoveries which he described and published against a tide of scepticism.
A turning point was 1854. An authoritative sceptic Dr Rigollet, who had the aim of proving him wrong, excavated at the new site of St Acheul near Amiens and found so many specimens of stone axes and other tools in deep undisturbed strata that he changed his views and announced that Boucher de Perthes had been right after all. Antiquaries and geologists descended on Acheul and Abbeville, including a team from England in 1859.
In England William Pengelly set to work in Kent’s Cavern and soon agreed that his conscientious predecessors had been correct all the while, but his newly-published work of 1846 met with similar disdain. Nonetheless, despite continuing scepticism there was rising interest in the extreme age being argued for such remains.
In 1858 a test became possible at a virgin site, a cave near Brixham in South Devon. Pengelly would excavate, and a committee chosen by the Royal Society and Geological Society would supervise. Soon a stalagmite floor was uncovered, and embedded within and beneath it were bones of cave lion, cave bear, hyena, mammoth, rhinoceros and reindeer, together with flint tools of human workmanship.
As for geological research, although fossils in the rocks were now best explained as extinct life forms from a hugely remote past, this meant nothing to Biblical supporters. Either God was responsible, or the flood carried them there. But scientists who carefully documented facts, and hypothesised and tested by experiment, were acquiring an independence of thought unimpaired by ecclesiastical dogma.
Here is a fitting truth from a lecture I heard Professor Thomas Gold, F.R.S. give in 1989: “It often takes a long time for new ideas, new concepts, new explanations to gain acceptance in science, even when they accord far better with the facts as known and replace what is demonstrably wrong. A long-established viewpoint—the orthodoxy—can maintain itself against the clearest disproof. Support for the orthodoxy is readily accepted, disproof is often ignored . . . and the innovator shunned.” GOLD (1989)
The context of this appraisal was science but it applies to all scholarship past and present including theology and archaeology, and thereby explains the psychology of the ‘antiquity-of-man’ critics.
By 1859 the best-read scientists were mentally prepared for the explosion that erupted in November that year with the publication of Charles Darwin’s research. Others had anticipated ideas regarding evolution but Charles Darwin (1809-1882) catalysed an expectant atmosphere by explaining in meticulous detail how evolution operated, and on such vast time scales.
As a youth he was sent to Cambridge expecting to take holy orders, but soon after getting his degree in 1831 he joined the Beagle as ship’s naturalist. His five years of collecting and 20 years of analysing would come to revolutionise scientific judgement, and eventually religious opinion.
He was also influenced by Thomas Malthus’ concept of “competition through popular pressure” published in 1798 as An Essay on the Principle of Population. Later, Charles Darwin’s son quoted his father’s changing views on Christianity thus: “Disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress”. He had become a quiet agnostic or atheist (Francis Darwin 1887).
His convictions liberated, his research ideas would free others, to the lasting benefit of archaeological prehistory and the sciences. Encouraged by recent progress in archaeology and geology it was time for Darwin to announce his findings.
The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection
sold out its first edition of 1250 copies on the first day.
In 1860 came the renowned confrontation at Oxford between Bishop Wilberforce and the Darwinian Thomas Huxley. Human culture was now seen as a progression, not just of biological evolution but of social and cultural evolution.
C. J. Thomsen’s Three Age System, published in Danish in 1836 and in English in 1848, was proving to be a valuable resource for classifying artefacts into a chronological order (Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age). Megalithic monuments, previously thought by some antiquaries as unworthy of study because they belonged to an unknown, conceivably evil, prehistoric culture, became as acceptable for research as the Biblically-historical classical sites had long been.
When the first Neanderthal bones were recognised in 1856, in Neander Valley (Germany), Christian apologists claimed it was the special case of an idiot whose curved legs arose from excessive equestrianism, the eyebrow ridges thickened through the pain of rickets causing extreme puckering.
Instead Charles Darwin and his supporters assigned Neanderthal Man his privileged place as a missing link between ape and man -- not as Homo Sapiens’
ancestor but from a coexisting evolution, since extinct.
So much happened between 1854 and 1860 that unbiased thinkers became convinced of the antiquity of man. The discovery of Neanderthal Man, Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and the evidence offered by Boucher de Perthes and Pengelly were the compelling fresh elements. Ussher’s diagnosis was false, and because evolution explained the life sciences and human origins, Darwin held the key to explaining the advent of man without recourse to divine intervention.
With it, archaeology came of age. The Antiquity of Man
by Charles Lyell was published in 1863 and Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex
The study of archaeology soared to a high profile.
A century later we know that human origins go back 1.6 million years, of hominids four million years, of the Earth 4.5 billion years and of the Universe almost 14 billion years.
Few scholars in 1850 could have anticipated this from the seeds then being sown, and we have reaped the intellectual harvest ever since.”
BIBBY, Geoffrey (1957). The testimony of the spade. Collins, London.
DANIEL, Glyn (1950). A hundred years of archaeology. London, Duckworth
DARWIN, Francis (editor) (1887). The life and letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter. 3 volumes. London.
GOLD (1989). Abstract from Lecture entitled ‘The Inertia of Scientific Thought’, part of a two-day conference on Science and the Unexpected. IBM, London.
The author is a professional physicist, meteorologist and archaeologist of Oxford University. He contributed this review for the rationalist web site Mukto-Mona on the occasion of Darwin Day 14 February 2007.