Early History of Mankind

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The Stone Age is that period in the history of mankind during which stone is habitually used as a material for weapons and tools. Antiquaries find it convenient to make the Stone Age cease whenever metal implements come into common use, and the Bronze Age, or the Iron Age, supervenes. But the last traces of a Stone Age are hardly known to disappear anywhere, in spite of the general use of metals; and in studying this phase of the world’s history for itself, it may be considered as still existing, not only among savages who have not fairly come to the use of iron, but even among civilized nations. Whenever the use of stone instruments, as they were used in the Stone Age proper, is to be found, there the Stone Age has not entirely passed away. The stone hammers with which tinkers might be found at work till lately in remote districts in Ireland, the hugo stone mallets with wooden handles which are still used in Iceland for driving posts and_ other heavy hammering, and the lancets of obsidian with which the Indians of Mexico still bleed themselves, as their fathers used to do before the Spanish Conquest, are stone implements which have survived for centuries the general introduction of iron.

Mere natural stones, picked up and used without any artificial shaping at all, are implements of a very low order. Such natural tools are often found in use, for the most part slabs, water-worn pebbles, and other stones suited for hammers and anvils, and their employment is no necessary proof of a very low state of culture. Among the lower races, Dr. Milligan gives a good instance of their use, in describing the shell-mounds left by the natives on the shores of Van Diemen’s Land. In places where the shells found are univalves, round stones of different sizes are met with; one, the larger, on which they broke the shells; the other, and smaller, having served as the hammer to break them with. But where the refuse-mounds consist of oysters, mussels, cockles, and other bivalves, there flint-knives, used to open them with, are generally found. Sir George Grey’s description of the sites of native encampments, so frequently met with in Australia, will serve as another example. The remains of such an encampment consist of a circle of large fiat stones arranged round the place where the fire has been; on each of the flat stones a smaller stone for breaking shell-fish; besides each pair of stones a large shell used for a cup, and, scattered all around, broken shells and bones of kangaroos.

Nor are cases hard to find of the use of these very low representatives of the Stone Age carried up into higher levels of civilization. Thus the tribes of Central and Southern Africa, though often skilful in smiths’ work, have not come thoroughly to the use of the iron hammer and anvil. Travellers describe them as forging their weapons and tools with a stone of handy shape and size, on a lump of rock which serves as an anvil; while sometimes an iron hammer is used to give the last finish. The quantities of smooth rolled pebbles found in our ancient English hill-forts were probably collected for sling-stones; but larger pebbles, very likely used as cracking-stones, are found in early European graves. At the present day, the inhabitants of Heligoland and Rügen not only turn to account the natural net-sinkers formed by chalk-flints, out of which the remains of a sponge, or such thing, has been washed, leaving a convenient hole through the flint to tie it by; but they have been known to turn such a perforated flint into a hammer, by fixing a handle in the hole. And lastly, the women who shell almonds in the south of France still use a smooth water-worn pebble (couède, couèdou), as their implement for breaking the shells.

The distinction between natural and artificial implements is of no practical value in estimating the state of culture of a Stone Age tribe. A natural chip or fragment of stone may have been now and then used as an edged or pointed tool; but we have not the least knowledge of any tribe too low habitually to shape such instruments for themselves. There is, however, a well-marked line of distinction in the Stone Age which divides it into a lower and a higher section. We have no historical knowledge of any tribe who have used stone instruments, and have not been in the habit of grinding or polishing some of them. But there are remains which clearly prove the existence of such tribes, and thus the Stone Age falls into two divisions, the Unground Stone Age and the Ground Stone Age.

To the former and ruder of these two classes belong the instruments of the Drift or Quaternary deposits, and of the early bone caves, and, in great part at least, those of the Scandinavian shell heaps or kjökkenmöddings. Even should a few ground instruments prove to belong to these deposits, the case would not be much altered, for the finding of hundreds of unground implements unmixed with ground ones will still show a vast predominance of chipping over grinding, which would justify their being classed in an Unground Stone Age, quite distinct from the Ground Stone Age in which modern tribes have been found living.

The rude flint implements found in the drift gravels of the Quaternary (i. e., Post-Tertiary) series of strata, belong to the earliest known productions of human art. Since the long unappreciated labors of M. Boucher de Perthes showed the historical importance of these relics, the date of the first appearance of man on the earth has been much debated. . . .

A set of characteristic drift implements would consist of certain tapering instruments like huge lance-heads, shaped, edged, and pointed, by taking off a large number of facets, in a way which shows a good deal of skill and feeling for symmetry; smaller leaf-shaped instruments; flints partly shaped and edged, but with one end left unwrought, evidently for holding in the hand; scrapers with curvilinear edges; rude flake-knives, etc. Taken as a whole, such a set of types would be very unlike, for instance, to a set of chipped instruments belonging to the comparatively late period of the cromlechs in France and England. But a comparison of particular types with what is found elsewhere, breaks down any imaginary line of severance between the men of the Drift and the rest of the human species. The flake-knives are very rude, but they are like what are found elsewhere, and there is no break in the series which ends in the beautiful specimens from Mexico and Scandinavia. The Tasmanians sometimes used for cutting or notching wood a very rude instrument. Eye-witnesses describe how they would pick up a suitable flat stone, knock off chips from one side, partly or all round the edge, and use it without more ado; and there is a specimen corresponding exactly to this description in the Taunton Museum. An implement found in the Drift near Clermont would seem to be much like this. The drift tools with a chipped curvilinear edge at one end, which were probably used for dressing leather and other scraping, are a good deal like specimens from America. The leaf-shaped instruments of the Drift differ principally from those of the Scandinavian shell-heaps, and of America, in being made less neatly and by chipping off larger flakes; and there are leaf-shaped instruments which were used by the Mound-Builders of North America, perhaps for fixing as teeth in a war-club in Mexican fashion, which differ rather in finish than in shape from the Drift specimens. Even the most special type of the Drift, namely, the pointed tapering implement like a great spear-head, differs from some American implements only in being much rougher and heavier. There have been found in Asia stone implements resembling most closely the best marked of the Drift types. Mr. J. E. Taylor, British Consul at Basrah, obtained some years ago from the sun-dried brick mound of Abu Shahrein in Southern Babylonia, two taper-pointed instruments of chipped flint, which, to judge from a cast of one of them, would be passed without hesitation as Drift implements. . . .

Beside the want of grinding, the average quality of the instruments of the Unground Stone Age is very low, notwithstanding that its best specimens are far above the level of the worst of the later period. These combined characters of rudeness and the absence of grinding give the remains of the Unground Stone Age an extremely important bearing on the history of Civilization, from the way in which they bring together evidence of great rudeness and great antiquity. The antiquity of the Drift implements is, as has been said, proved by direct geological evidence. The cave implements, even of the reindeer period, are proved by their fauna to be earlier, as they are seen at a glance to be ruder, than those of the cromlech period, and of the earliest lake-dwellings of Switzerland, both belonging to the Ground Stone, Age. To the student who views human Civilization as in the main an upward development, a more fit starting-point could scarcely be offered than this wide and well marked progress from an earlier and lower, to a later and higher, stage of the history of human art.

To turn now to the productions of the higher or Ground Stone Age, grinding is found rather to supplement chipping than to supersede it. Implements are very commonly chipped into shape before they are ground, and unfinished articles of this kind are often found. Moreover, such things as flake-knives, and heads for spears and arrows, have seldom or never been ground in any period, early or late, for the obvious reason that the labor of grinding them would have been wasted, or worse. Flake-knives of obsidian appear to have been sometimes finished by grinding in Mexico, but most stone knives of the kind seem to have been used as they were flaked off. This question of grinding or not grinding stone implements is brought out clearly by some remarks of Captain Cook’s, on his first voyage to the South Seas. He noticed that the natives of Tahiti used basalt to make their adzes of, and these it was necessary to sharpen almost every minute, for which purpose a stone and a cocoanut shell full of water were kept always at hand. When he saw the New Zealanders using, for the finishing of their nicest work, small tools of jasper, chipped off from a block in sharp angular pieces like a gunflint, and throwing them away as soon as they were blunted, he concluded they did not grind them afresh because they could not. This, however, was not the true reason, as their grinding jade and other hard stones clearly shows; but it was simply easier to make new ones than to grind the old. A good set of implements of the Ground Stone Age will consist partly of instruments made by mere chipping, such as varieties of spearheads, arrow-heads, and flake-knives, and partly of ground implements, the principal classes of which are celts, axes, and hammers.

The word celt (Latin celtis, a chisel) is a convenient term for including the immense mass of instruments which have the simple shape of chisels, and might have been used as such. No doubt many or most of them were really for mounting on handles, and using as adzes or axes; but in the absence of a handle, or a place for one, or a mark where one has been, it is often impossible to set down any particular specimen as certainly a chisel, an axe, or an adze. When, however, the cutting edge is hollowed aa in a gouge, it is no longer possible to use it as an axe, though it retains the other two possible uses of chisel and adze. The water-worn pebble, in which a natural edge has been made straighter and sharper by grinding, may be taken as the original and typical form of the celt. Rude South American tribes select suitable water-worn stones and rub down their edges, sometimes merely grasping them in the hand to use them, and sometimes mounting them in a wooden handle; and axes made in this way, by grinding the edge of a suitable pebble, and fixing it in a withe handle, are known in Australia. Moreover, the class to which this almost natural instrument belongs, that, namely, which has a double convex cross section, is far more numerous and universally distributed than the double-flat, concavo-convex, triangular, or other forms.

Where artificially shaped celts are found only chipped over, in high Stone Age deposits, as in Scandinavia, they are generally to be considered as unfinished; but when celts of hard stone are found only ground near the edge, and otherwise left rough from chipping, they may be taken as denoting a rude state of art. Thus flint celts ground only near the edge are found in Northern Europe, and even in Denmark; but in general celts of the hardest stone are found, during the Ground Stone Age, conscientiously ground and polished all over, and every large celt of hard stone which is finished to this degree represents weeks or months of labor, done not so much for any technical advantage, as for the sake of beauty and artistic completeness.

The primitive hammer, still used in some places, is an oval pebble, held in the hand. Above this comes the natural pebble, or the artificially shaped stone, which is grooved or notched to have a bent withe fastened round it as a handle, as our smiths mount heavy chisels. Above this again is the highest kind, the stone hammer with a hole through it for the handle. This is not found out of the Old World, perhaps not out of Europe; and even the Mexicans, who in many things rivalled or excelled the stone-workers of ancient Europe, do not seem to have got beyond grooving their hammers. The stone axe proper, as distinguished from the mere celt by its more complex shape, and by its being bored or otherwise fitted for a handle, is best represented in the highest European Stone Age, and in the transition to the Bronze Age. . . .

The Ethnographer who has studied the stone implements of Europe, Asia, North or South America, or Polynesia, may consider the specimens from the district he has studied, as types from which those of other districts differ, as a class, by the presence or absence of a few peculiar instruments, and individually in more or less important details of shape and finish, unless, as sometimes happens, they do not perceptibly differ at all. So great is this uniformity in the stone implements of different places and times, that it goes far to neutralize their value as distinctive of different races. It is clear that no great help in tracing the minute history of the growth and migration of tribes, is to be got from an arrowhead which might have come from Patagonia, or Siberia, or the Isle of Man, or from a celt which might be, for all its appearance shows Mexican, Irish, or Tahitian. If an observer, tolerably acquainted with stone implements, had an unticketed collection placed before him, the largeness of the number of specimens which he would not confidently assign, by mere inspection, to their proper countries, would serve as a fair measure of their general uniformity. Even when aided by mineralogical knowledge, often a great help, he would have to leave a large fraction of the whole in an unclassed heap, confessing that he did not know within thousands of miles or thousands of years, where and when they were made. . . .

To turn to an easier branch of the subject, I have brought together here, as a contribution to the history of the Stone Age, a body of evidence which shows that it has prevailed in ancient or up to modern times, in every great district of the inhabited world. By the aid of this, it may be possible to sketch at least some rude outline of the history of its gradual decline and fall, which followed on the introduction of metal in later periods, up to our own times, when the universal use of iron has left nothing of the ancient state of things, except a few remnants, of interest to ethnologists and antiquaries, but of no practical importance to the world at large.

In the first place, there are parts of the world whose inhabitants, when they were discovered in modern times by more advanced races, were found not possessed of metals, but using stone, shell, bone, split canes, and so forth, for purposes in making tools and weapons to which we apply metals. Now as we have no evidence that the inhabitants of Australia, the South Sea Islands, and a considerable part of North and South America, had ever been possessed of metals, it seems reasonable to consider these districts as countries where original Stone Age conditions had never been interfered with, until they came within the range of European discovery. . . .

If we now turn to the history of the Stone Age in Asia, Africa, and Europe, we shall indeed find almost everywhere evidence of a Stone Period, which preceded a Bronze or Iron period, but this is only to be had in small part from the direct inspection of races living without metal implements. The Kamchadals of north-eastern Asia, a race as yet ethnologically isolated, were found by the Kosak [Cossack] invaders using cutting-tools of stone and bone. It is recorded that with these instruments it took them three years to hollow out a canoe, and one year to scoop out one of the wooden troughs in which they cooked their food; but probably a large allowance for exaggeration must be made in this story. It is curious to notice that, thirty or forty years ago, Erman got in Kamchatka one of the Stone Age relics found in such enormous numbers in Mexico, a fluted prism of obsidian, off which a succession of stone blades had been flaked; but though one would have thought that the comparatively recent use of stone instruments in the country would have been still fresh in the memory of the people, the natives who dug it up had no idea what it was. Stone knives, moreover, have been found in the high north-east of Siberia, on the site of deserted yourts of modern date, said to have been occupied by the settled Chukchi, or Shalags.

Chinese literature has preserved various notices of the finding and use of stone implements. Such is a passage speaking of arrows with stone heads sent as tribute by the barbarians in the reign of Wu-Wang (about B.C. 1100), and two which mention the actual use of such arrows in China, whether by Chinese or Tatars, up to the 13th century of our era. Again, referring to Nan-hiu-fu, in the province of Kwan-tong, in Southern China, it is stated, "They find, in the mountains and among the rocks which surround it, a heavy stone, so hard that hatchets and other cutting instruments are made from it." It is to be remembered that China is not inhabited only by the race usually known to us as the Chinese, but by another, or several other far less cultured races; the mountains of Kwan-tong and the other southern provinces being especially inhabited by such rude and seemingly aboriginal tribes. There is, besides, a Chinese tradition speaking of the use of stone for weapons among themselves in early times, which implies at least the knowledge that this is a state of things characterizing a race at a low stage of culture, and may really embody, a recollection of their own early history. Fu-hi, they say, made weapons; these were of wood, those of Shin-nung were of stone, and Chi-yu made metal ones. . . .

Though history gives but partial means of proving the existence of a Stone Age over Asia and Europe, the finding of ancient stone tools and weapons, in almost every district of these two continents, proves that they were in former times inhabited by Stone Age races, though whether in any particular spot the tribes we first find living there are their descendants as well as their successors, this evidence cannot tell us. How, for instance, are we to tell what race made and used the obsidian flakes which were found with polished agate and carnelian beads under the chief corner-stone of the great temple of Khorsabad? All through Western Asia, and north of the Himalaya, stone implements are scattered broadcast through the land; while China, to judge from the slender evidence forthcoming, seems to have had its Stone Age like other regions.

Japan abounds in Stone Age relics, of which Van Siebold has given drawings and descriptions in his great work, and his own collection at Leyden is very rich in specimens. . . .

In India an account of the discovery by Mr. H. P. Le Mesurier of a great number of ancient stone celts was published in 1861. He found them stored up in villages of the Jubbulpore district, near the Mahadeos, and in other sacred places; and since then many more have been met with by other observers. India has now to be reckoned among countries which afford relics not only of the Stone Age, but of its ruder period of unpolished implements, preceding the more advanced period of the ground celt. . . .

Before drawing any inference from these pieces of evidence, it will be well to bring together other accounts of the use of cutting instruments of stone, glass, etc., by people who, though in possession of iron knives, for some reason or other did not choose to apply them to certain purposes. Thus the practice of sacrificing a beast, not with a knife or an axe, but with a sharp stone, has been observed on the West Coast of Africa during the last century. . . .

An often quoted instance of the use of a stone knife for a ceremonial purpose, where iron would have been much more convenient, is the passage in Herodotus which relates that, in Egypt, the mummy-embalmers made the incision in the side of the corpse with a sharp Æthiolpic stone. The account given by Diodorus Siculus is fuller: "And first, the body being laid on the ground, he who is called the scribe marks on its left side how far the incision is to be made. Then the so-called slitter (parachistes), having an Æthiopic stone, and cutting the flesh as far as the law allows, instantly runs off, the by-standers pursuing him and pelting him with stones, cursing him, and as it were, turning the horror of the deed upon him," for he who hurts a citizen is held worthy of abhorrence. There are two kinds of stone knives found in excavations and tombs in Egypt, both of chipped flint, and very neatly made; one kind is like a very small cleaver, the other has more of the character of a lancet, and would seem the more suitable of the two for the embalmer’s purpose.

Noteworthy from this point of view, is another description by Herodotus, that of the covenant of blood among the Arabians, where a man standing between the parties with a sharp stone made cuts in the inside of their hands, and with the blood smeared seven stones lying in the midst, calling on their deities Orotal and Alilat. A story related by Pliny, of the way in which the balsam of Judea, or "balm of Gilead," was extracted, comes under the same category. The incisions, he says, had to be made on the tree with knives of glass, stone, or bone, for it hurts it to wound its vital parts with iron, and it dies forthwith.

With regard to the reason of such practices as these, it has been suggested that there was a practical advantage in the use of the stone knife for circumcision, as less liable to cause inflammation than a knife of bronze or iron. From this point of view Pliny’s statement has been quoted, that the mutilation of the priests of Cybele was done with a sherd of Samian ware (Samiâ testâ), as thus avoiding danger. But the idea of a stone instrument having any practical advantage over an iron one in cutting a living object, and even a dead body or a tree, will not meet with much acceptance. I cannot but think that most, if not all, of the series are to be explained as being, to use the word in no harsh sense, but according to what seems its proper etymology, cases of superstition, of the "standing over" of old habits into the midst of a new and changed state of things, of the retention of ancient practices for ceremonial purposes, long after they had been superseded for the commonplace uses of ordinary life. Such a view takes in every instance which has been mentioned, though the reason of iron not being adopted by the modern Jews in one case as well as in another is not clear. As to Pliny’s story of the balm of Gilead, I am told, on competent authority, that the use of stone and such things instead of iron for making incisions in the tree, if ever it really existed, could be nothing but a superstition without any foundation in reason. It may perhaps tell in favor of the story being true, that it is only one of a number of cases mentioned by Pliny, of plants as to which the similar notion prevailed, that they would be spoiled by being touched with an iron instrument. There seems, on the whole, to be a fair case for believing that among the Israelites, as in Arabia, Ethiopia and Egypt, a ceremonial use of stone instruments long survived the general adoption of metal, and that such observances are to be interpreted as relics of an earlier St one Age; while incidentally the same argument makes it probable that the rite of circumcision belonged to the Stone Age among the ancient Israelites, as we know it does among the modern Australians.


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Chicago: Early History of Mankind in Source Book in Anthropology, ed. Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1920), Original Sources, accessed December 2, 2023, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3YUL9E9EH6K1L7E.

MLA: . Early History of Mankind, in Source Book in Anthropology, edited by Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T., Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1920, Original Sources. 2 Dec. 2023. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3YUL9E9EH6K1L7E.

Harvard: , Early History of Mankind. cited in 1920, Source Book in Anthropology, ed. , University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. Original Sources, retrieved 2 December 2023, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3YUL9E9EH6K1L7E.