Darwin-L Message Log 2:136 (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.

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<2:136>From buchignani@hg.uleth.ca  Thu Oct 28 12:59:02 1993

Date: Thu, 28 Oct 1993 11:57:17 MDT
From: Norman Buchignani <buchignani@hg.uleth.ca>
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Re: caveman

>Date: Thu, 28 Oct 1993 10:09:23 -0500
>To: Multiple recipients of list <darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu>
>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.

Well, I guess I should not have used "primitiveness" here.
It would be more accurate to say that they were associated
with extreme degeneration. Degeneration from a cultured,
civilized life to brutish existence due to environmental and
other postulated causes was of course a commonplace notion.
More socioculturally relativist folk like Ferguson saw all
peoples as civil, but not necessarily civilized; with a full
kit of basic human social tendencies and aspirations, and
social org. to match.

>> 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).

Not independent of degeneration, as noted above. Sorry again
for the ambiguity.

>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.

Well, it is easily to provide support for the connection, as
I can think of a number of cases where early (16th and e.
17th century) travellers' accounts clearly have homed in on
cave dwelling as part of a shorthand kit of indicators of a
very degenerate, "brutish" existence. This includes cases
where none of the people so represented actually lived in
caves. I wouldn't want to foreground this. however, as there
were other pan-European markers indicative of extreme
generation that were much more frequently used.

>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.

Well, of course as far as high interest in human difference
goes, that in sociocultural difference far predates that
concerning human biological diversity, so there is fertile
ground here for such a link. Note that late medieval
travellers were (by today's standards) highly sensitive to
etiquette, civility, etc.--general markers of status, which
already were associated with civilization and opposed to

>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.

I would agree re: what I have read of the fossil lit. from
1800-1835, but note another necessary ingredient: the rise
of invidious scientific notions of human race, which really
aren't mainstream until about 1835-50 (save in the US).

Norman Buchignani
Department of Anthropology
University of Lethbridge

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