Darwin-L Message Log 2:133 (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.

<2:133>From LANGDON@GANDLF.UINDY.EDU  Thu Oct 28 10:08:41 1993

Date: Thu, 28 Oct 1993 10:08:41 -0500
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Re: caveman

In message <00974AED.239E71C0.18510@hg.uleth.ca>  writes:

> I learned something from my somewhat delayed search. It
> seems that there is general consensus that medieval notions
> of "savages"--essentially wild men--saw then as naked,
> hairy, without social organization, and living in caves.
> Thus it is not surprising that many early travellers
> accounts of folk who fit the notion of extreme degeneration
> were said to be living in caves. The association of extreme
> primitiveness and caves clearly pre-dates any discussion of
> fossils and of fossil human remains. 18th c. philosophers
> (like Adam Ferguson 1767:9) often use cave-dwelling as a
> shorthand for really basic human existence.
> With the rise in interest in remains found in caves in the
> early 1820s by Wm Buckland and others, a key issue was
> whether human remains and artifacts there were actually
> associated with what evidently were extinct animal remains
> or not; there was an assumption that people had at some time
> long ago occupied some of these caves. Ditto Chas. Lyell in
> the 1830s. However, the popular image of the caveman we have
> today (as per cartoons, etc.) seems to have come together
> after the first Neanderthal finds.

The notion of "wildmen" existed in European folklore through the Middle ages
and into modern periods independently of any notion of evolution (physical or
cultural). I think they were understood to be something quite different from
real people-- not merely culturally "primitive" people and certainly not
evolutionarily ancestral types. Wildmen were hairy/animal-like creatures of the
woods and other non-civilized places. I believe they have the same source in
the human psyche as abominable snowmen and Sasquatch. A structuralist might say
that wildmen are to nature what people are to culture.

I doubt that the concept of a "caveman" evolved directly from wildmen, but
certainly similar psychological processes are at work. Possibly it is an
archetype reinterpreted in an evolutionary setting. It might therefore be a
useful exercise to trace the transformation in scientific thought of early
humans into subhuman "cavemen" and observe the convergence reconstruction with

Because caves were used occasionally as permanent or temporary human living
quarters into modern times, I also doubt that cave-dwelling has always been
associated with primitiveness. Perhaps that association might have arisen in
urban society as the cultural gulf between urban and rural experience widened,
but I suspect that "cave" entered the equation because of the discovery of
archaeological remains there and without reference to the older wildman image.

I would be very interested in any evidence that does link the popular wildman
myth with the modern science of human evolution. I am aware of the intense
scientific interest in human freaks and "wolf children" in the 17th through
19th centuries, but I don't know of any carry over from these discussions into
the interpretation of early fossils and archaeological remains.

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