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Darwin-L Message Log 2:130 (October 1993)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.


<2:130>From DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu  Wed Oct 27 21:23:12 1993

Date: Wed, 27 Oct 1993 22:29:23 -0400 (EDT)
From: DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu
Subject: Cavemen in Rudwick's _Scenes From Deep Time_ (1992)
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Organization: University of NC at Greensboro

People interested in the history of the "caveman" idea might find some
interesting material in Martin Rudwick's very beautiful new book _Scenes From
Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World_ (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1992).  Rudwick is a leading historian of geology,
and this book is a handsomely produced album of illustrations and text passages
on the early attempts to depict the prehistoric earth.  Most date from the
early and mid-1800s and show plesiosaurs, pterodactyls, and the like, but there
are several early illustrations of prehistoric humans as well, including an
archetypal "caveman" taken from Pierre Boitard's _Paris before Men_ (1861).
I append here Rudwick's description of this figure, and the delightfully lurid
passage he quotes from Boitard about travelling back in time and entering the
cave itself while the cavemen are asleep.

Here is Rudwick (pp. 166-169):

"Jacques Boucher de Perthes (1788-1868)...had long claimed to have found
chipped flint implements of apparently human workmanship in direct association
with the familiar bones and teeth of mammoths and other extinct mammals....

"Such claims were first given pictorial expression in a popular book entitled
_Paris before Men_ (_Paris avant les hommes_, 1861).  This was a posthumous
publication by the French botanist and geologist Pierre Boitard (1789-1859).
In order to introduce his readers to the idea of deep time, Boitard uses the
literary device of an explicitly magical or fairy-tale character.  He conjurs
up Asmodee, the lame demon (la diable bioteux -- in French a nice pun on his
own name), whom he borrows from Le Sage's classic novel of that name (1707), to
conduct him on his adventure.  One of the first illustrations (not reproduced
here) shows the two, sitting comfortably on a large meteorite as if on a Paris
omnibus, traveling through deep time as if through deep space.

"The very first of Boitard's true scenes from deep time therefore depicts these
two characters -- the human and the magical -- as actors within the scene
itself, just as Buckland had been an actor within his den of extinct hyenas
(fig. 17).  The magic has whisked the demon in the period costume and the
elegantly dressed Parisian back in deep time into the world of the plesiosaur
(fig. 76; text 58).  The nightmarish horror of the encounter, heightened by
such gratuitous details as the reptile's forked tongue and yellowish scaly
coat, establishes the required tone of monstrosity in the ancient world.  With
the principle of magical time-travel thus established, Boitard does not bother
to depict himself in any later scenes.

"The frontispiece, however, is significant: it is a highly unflattering and
monkeylike representation of 'Fossil Man' (fig. 77), wielding a stone axe
against unseen enemies and defending his equally simian mate and offspring at
the mouth of their cave.  This design showed Boitard's readers at once where he
stood in the controversy about human origins, and the corresponding narrative
(text 59) accentuates the bestiality of his readers' forebears.  At the end of
the book, his final scene depicts what he terms the 'Anthropic Period,' setting
those hardly human beings unambiguously in a landscape of extinct mammals (fig.
78)."

And here is text 59, which Rudwick reproduces from Boitard:

"'Are you afraid?' the demon asked me.

" -- I believe we are going to encounter animals even more formidable than
those we met on our way here.

"But the genie threw me such a forcefully ironic glance that I was ashamed of
my weakness, and I entered the cave with a determined step....Little by little
my pupils dilated, and I was able to see, vaguely at first, the objects that
surrounded us: a hyaena, with its skull split as if it had been struck on the
head with an axe, was stretched out at our feet, and several scraps of bear's
flesh, half eaten, were strewn here and there on the ground, exuding a highly
unpleasant smell....But what astonished me most was a kind of clay pot, not
fired but sun-baked, very crudely made, and half full of the still warm blood
of the hyaena.  The genie pointed out that on the edge of the pot were the
bloody marks of lips that had drunk the disgusting liquid it contained.  By the
side of the pot I saw a fragment of flint, trimmed roughly into the form of a
tapered axe, mounted at the end of a stick, and bound firmly with strips of
bear's skin.  This instrument was closely similar to the tomahawk of the
Canadian savages....

"The genie put his finger to his mouth, signalling me to keep silent and to
move forward with care; which I did.  Then he gently lifted the bear skin and
revealed to my eyes the most singular and horrible animals I had seen until
now.  There were three of them, two large, and a small one that I recognized as
the young of this horrible species....Its body had rather the form of an
orang-utang, but without being either nimble to graceful, because it was stout,
squat and thickly muscular...."

Bob O'Hara, Darwin-L list owner

Robert J. O'Hara (darwin@iris.uncg.edu)
Center for Critical Inquiry and Department of Biology
100 Foust Building, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Greensboro, North Carolina 27412 U.S.A.

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