The Discovery of Human Prehistory

"Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it." Most of you have heard this quote before and some of you scholars may actually remember who said it - alas, not me, but that is of little importance. I begin with this quotation because I believe in its pertinence towards the book that I am reviewing. See if you don't agree.

Men among the Mammoths, Victorian Science and the Discovery of Human Prehistory by A. Bowdoin Van Riper is my topic book for this month. Men among the Mammoths was published by The University of Chicago Press in 1993. The retail price of the 267 page hardcover edition is $49.00 so you may want to check your local library for a copy. A paperback version is also available for $19.00.

Men among the Mammoths is the publication of Van Riper's 1990 PhD thesis from the University of Wisconsin - Madison. The text was revised, expanded and the chapter "The Public Debate over Human Antiquity, 1859 - 1875" was added for the book. Dr. Van Riper is currently an assistant professor at Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Georgia teaching sections of their Introduction to Science, Technology, and Society course. My thanks to the author for providing me with this current biographical information.

I have reviewed a number of books over the years concerning one phase or another of the history of paleontology or geology. I must admit that some have been lively, fun to read accounts, while others were a bit dry to say the least. Men among the Mammoths falls into the former favorable category. It is probably going to be a hard sell for me to convince any of you that a historical account of British Victorian geology would be interesting to read but let's give it a try.

Men among the Mammoths covers pivotal time in the science of geology beginning mid-nineteenth century. The final chapter takes the reader barely into the twentieth century. The science of geology had been growing since the seventeenth century as the scientists of the time - mostly clergy and the wealthy - studied and tried to understand the workings of the natural world. From 1858 through 1862, the growing science of geology staged a revolution in the natural sciences that shook society as a whole. Men among the Mammoths is a well researched account of an extremely important time in the study of the natural sciences.

Van Riper leads with introductory background information. Prior to 1858, British geologists were occupied with studying the stratigraphy in Britain while applying the rules of superposition - youngest sediments on top - and working out the bulk of the now well known geologic time scale (back then the "time" part was unknown so the scale was strictly relative). Archaeologists dealt with historical artifacts dating only back to the time of the Celtic peoples. There was a distinct gap between the study area of the geologists, whose youngest area of study was what they defined as the end of pre-human history, and the archaeologists, whose studies stopped with recorded history. Setting the stage further, the common knowledge in the western world was the acceptance of the Biblical creation account in Genesis, including a 6,000 year age for the earth, the truth of the Noachian universal flood, man's special place as master of nature as decreed by God, and the Bible as the inspired word of God. Much early geological work was involved in finding evidence in the natural world that would serve as proofs and support for the benevolence and design of God. As the natural world was observed by these early scientists, a certain degree of uneasiness towards these givens crept into the discussions of the intelligentsia.

Geologists in Britain and in Europe continued their studies into the younger strata of earth's history by the middle 1800's. These strata were a bit more difficult to work with, as stated by Van Riper, than the ancient sediments, partially due to their disjointed nature. Within these strata were found curious flint objects - objects that some thought had been fashioned by humans. These discoveries became disconcerting because they were found alongside skeletal remains of extinct animals including cave bear, hyaena, and mammoth. At the time, these creatures were believed to be pre-Deluge. Van Riper illustrates the struggles of the leading scientists, clergy, and lay persons to come to grips with human made implements in a pre-Flood setting. The objects' human origins were questioned, many proffering that the objects were too crudely made and must therefore have been formed by natural forces. They also argued that no human remains had been found associated with the artifacts even though animal remains had been - shouldn't there be human remains if these were indeed made by humans? Accusations were also made that, in essence, the stratigraphic positions were wrong and the implements were not as old as the animal remains they were found with. Some amongst the church proposed that science and religion need not be at odds over these findings in that the church should be involved strictly with morals and spirituality (see S. J. Gould's Rock's of Ages, Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life for more on this subject). These conflicts were a minor ripple compared with what was to come, as Van Riper explains, and they were all resolved satisfactorily within the scientific community. For some layman, there were minor "adjustments" made to the interpretations of Genesis to accommodate the evidence. For others the human origins of the implements could be accepted providing that they were pre-Adamite primitive humans who were destroyed by God during the process of making the earth ready for more perfect modern humans.

Although human remains had been found before this time, it was in 1857 that the first pesky Neanderthal was found. Not only was this ancient, it was also very primitive in appearance. Lacking the absolute dating techniques of the early twentieth century, the Neanderthal remains actually helped reinforce those who believed in a pre-Adamite human occupancy. It made sense that pre-Adamites would be brutish somewhat less than human looking creatures probably without morals.

Van Riper reports on the important publications and reviews covering the human antiquity problem. The well known and most respected geologist of these times, Charles Lyell, published his 1859 address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science as Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man in 1863. Although Lyell had his detractors, his opinion held much sway in Victorian Britain. Up until Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, it appeared that most Christians had some way to accept what science had discovered (especially with the absence of absolute dating methods). The publication of On the Origin of Species upset the remaining peace. Van Riper summarizes the onslaught to Christianity that confronted Victorians: no geological evidence existed for a universal flood; humans are animals that evolved from earlier forms; and the Bible was a collection of myths and fables passed on by fallible humans. Everything that Victorian society held true and sacred blew up in a few short years.

Van Riper covers the ensuing debates and controversies in Men among the Mammoths through the latter part of the nineteenth century. Christianity was shaken severely even from within when a controversial book, Essays and Reviews (1860), confronted Victorians. This book was authored by a group within the Anglican Church "who believed that both the biblical texts and the authority of the church could be subjected to systematic criticism." In addition, J. W. Colenso, an Anglican Bishop, published The Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua Critically Examined (1862). To quote from Men among the Mammoths, the Bishop followed others "in reading the Old Testament as the work of fallible human authors whose work was the product of a specific place and time." And timing was everything according to Van Riper. Within a very short time frame, not only were Essays and Reviews and The Pentateuch published, but also add to this Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859),Lyell's Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man (1863), and T. H. Huxley's Man's Place in Nature and Other Anthropological Essays (1863) and you have a society in shock.

Besides the impact to the accepted belief systems of society, there was a major impact to the sciences involved in studying prehistoric man. The geologists who more or less started the debates on man's antiquity, retired to their core field and left the studies of early man to others. The archaeologists stayed in their area too, preferring to work with historic cultural remains. A new breed of scientist who combined anthropology, archaeology, and geology came to the front. The Victorian name for the group that we now call paleoanthropologists was prehistoric archaeologists.

Men among the Mammoths will provide you with much insight to one of the biggest scientific revolutions of the nineteenth century. The impact to society was monumental. While we know that not all PhD theses are deemed important enough for publication, I can assure you that this one certainly was.

Returning briefly to my beginning quote about repeating history, over 100 years have passed since science has discovered and proved the antiquity of man and his place in nature. Where are we now? We need only look across the river to the Answers in Genesis Museum to find out.

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