On 8 July 2010 the front page of The Guardian newspaper featured an attractive colour drawing by the artist John Sibbick. It was entitled ‘Meet the Norfolk relatives’ and it depicted a pastoral scene of farmers and hunters going about their daily routines (figure 1). However, the image was not included to illustrate a gargantuan sum recently paid for an impressionist painting. Nor was it a taster for an article about a long-lost work of art. This drawing was slightly different from the kinds that one would normally see on the front of a leading British newspaper. Its subjects were naked. Their bodies were hairy. They were, in fact, an artist's impression of the early humans who lived on the Norfolk coast a million years ago. Thus, 200 years after Darwin, prehistoric minds are still front page news. Like so many newspaper stories, this one engendered interviews on the television, further articles and commentaries on blogs, all of which sought to discuss the recent finds in light of various disciplinary or ideological agendas. One Guardian reader, David Abbey of Egham, Surrey, was so annoyed by Sibbick's drawings that he wrote a note to the editor the next day saying, ‘Did you think Guardian readers would be incapable of understanding the latest archaeological finds … without the help of those large comic-book illustrations? I half expected the ancient Brits to have speech bubbles saying “Ugh! Ugh!”’ Although Abbey's comments surely reflect his own views about the relationship between nature and art, they also point to the complicated connections that often bind science to culture. Whereas he wished to make a point about the nature of scientific representation, other readers were not similarly troubled, and instead drew parallels between prehistory and politics. For instance, Malcolm Mort of Liskeard, Cornwall, wrote to The Guardian on the same day as Abbey and quipped, ‘For a moment, I thought the drawing of stone age times was a depiction of how Britain will look after this coalition government has finished with it.’
Regardless of their interpretation of the image, Abbey and Mort would no doubt be interested to learn that prehistoric topics have generated similar responses from the scientific community and the reading public for several hundred years.1 As today, images related to the antiquity of humankind were used to caricature foreigners in the Victorian press, and contemporary forms of scientific periodization were used to interpret the past. Notably, it was these very similarities that led to the five essays in this special issue of Notes and Records of the Royal Society. Its inception was facilitated by a chance meeting between Keith Moore, John Hedley Brooke and myself in the Library of St Chad's College, Durham University. We noted that there were exciting developments jointly taking place in the field of human history and in the history of the concepts that laid the foundations of such investigations. This led us to agree that some sort of meeting on the relationship between these two topics was needed. A few months later the details of the conference were settled. Although there have been numerous revisions since, early versions of the essays featured in the following pages of this issue were presented and then discussed by the conference's enthusiastic attendees. The original remit for the event was to use the notion of a ‘prehistoric mind’ as a focal point for investigating Victorian perceptions of human origins. One of our overarching goals, however, was to bring together historians and scientists in a public forum so that a longitudinal perspective could be gained on the continuities and divergences that existed between the state of the field today and the state of the field more than a century ago. In the end, we were delighted to find that this remit proved to be appealing to many professional, retired, postgraduate and lay scholars, and that the event attracted anthropologists, archaeologists, geologists, statisticians, curators, historians and a range of participants from the general public.
Prehistory and the ‘mind’
The original title of the conference included a reference to ‘Darwinism’, therein gesturing towards the recent bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth as well as the general impact of his On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871) on the emerging fields of prehistoric archaeology and anthropology. However, as it turned out, although Darwin's 1859 work is acknowledged as being important, many of the speakers were more interested in addressing the legacy of the another important event that occurred in the same year: the unearthing of a prehistoric hand-axe by Joseph Prestwich and John Evans from a gravel pit outside Amiens, France. This object had a special role in Victorian prehistoric accounts, especially those based on stone tools, and triggered a series of questions about the relationship between artefacts and the intentions of the minds that made them. On the whole, this interest in the interpretation of objects such as the Amiens hand-axe parallels a flurry of recent research on the history of archaeology as a discipline, with three notable books being Peter Rowley-Conwy's From Genesis to prehistory, Margarita Díaz-Andreu's A world history of nineteenth-century archaeology and Ann O'Connor's Finding time for the old Stone Age.2 Studies of this nature have emphasized the importance of establishing the practices and values that Victorians used to interpret the material evidence left behind by Palaeolithic cultures.
As Martin Rudwick has shown in his work on the history of Victorian palaeontology, the movement from Enlightenment mineralogy to Victorian geology was facilitated by a recalibration of the language that scientists used to discuss the emerging notion of deep time. The new chronological framework, the stratigraphic column, was constructed from terms linked to concepts drawn from their disciplinary use in the field and not primarily their use in classical sources. However, as several essays in this special issue of Notes and Records intimate, this terminological shift took time and played out in unique ways within different disciplines so that, even by the early twentieth century, core terms such as ‘origins’, ‘mind’, ‘primitive’ and ‘history’ still retained vestiges of their Enlightenment legacy. For instance, the Oxford English Dictionary's etymological history of ‘prehistoric’ suggests that the word was first used in 1836 when the Foreign Quarterly Review employed it to describe the unlettered ancestors of the Romans. By the 1860s the word had gained wider circulation, most notably in 1865 with the publication of John Lubbock's Pre-Historic Times as Illustrated by Ancient Remains. His use of ‘prehistoric’ firmly linked the word to material evidence such as tools and fossils that fitted into the newly emerging geochronology offered by geology. Yet his definition took some time to settle, and the literary connotations of the word remained influential in academic and public domains well into the twentieth century.3 The main point to note here is that many of the key terms used to understand ‘prehistoric minds’ carried different meanings at different points in time. This means that any account of the historical emergence of the origin of a prehistoric mind must pay close attention to the kinds of language used in discussing the emergence of the concept.
Like the definitions and concepts associated with the word ‘prehistoric’, the word ‘mind’ is also a historical artefact, with nuanced meanings and usages lying buried in archival collections as well as published sources. There are many ways to approach the characteristics or attributes that a given culture attaches to the concept of ‘mind’. Although numerous historians, philosophers and sociologists have written about the notion of Enlightenment and Victorian ‘minds’, the underlying canon of texts employed by such works often reflects the values and ideologies evinced in the work of late-Victorian intellectuals such as John Stuart Mill, Leslie Stephen and Bertrand Russell. The ‘cast of mind’ that guided their discussion about the nature of thought, and, by extension, their views on the canon used to study prehistoric minds, was forged in the fire of high modernism out of an alloy of liberalism and naturalism. The thoughts of these and other like-minded men—and they were mostly men—reinforced contemporary views of progressivism; that is, the idea that various attributes of human culture ‘progress’ through a series of periodical units. Yet, as all the essays in this volume show, there were multiple conceptions of ‘progressivism’, and the only way to see this point is to look at the books and artefacts actually being defended or attacked at a given point of time. There were, in fact, different kinds of ‘progressivist’ framework, many of which did not have the liberal endpoint that intellectuals such as Bertand Russell held so dear. Thus, one of the recurring points percolating through this volume is that, when researching the history of the mental traits attributed to prehistoric humans, the traditional canon used by historians of ideas oftentimes does not speak directly to the cognitive issues being faced by early archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists and ethnologists who engaged with the question of human origins.
As inferred above, one of the main changes that occurred in Victorian prehistoric anthropology and archaeology was the reconfiguration of chronologies based on language and the rise of models based on artefacts, especially hand-axes, eoliths and funerary items such as trinkets and necklaces. Yet, despite this shift in evidentiary priority, the notion of a ‘prehistoric mind’, or the older term ‘primitive mind’, was used consistently to interpret the apparent advances or regressions in the story of the human race. In addition to the increased focus that Victorians gave to material culture, the study of the minds that made such objects was based fundamentally on theories of cognition that were available at the time. Such theories, as historians of colonialism and psychiatry have so amply revealed during the past two decades, were deeply influenced by longstanding commitments to mental states or attributes that emerged out of deeply held metaphysical, racial, gendered and classist beliefs. Although they are sometimes not explicitly flagged, these immaterial beliefs framed the material evidence for human origins from the eighteenth to the twentieth century and have exercised an important influence within the history of anthropology. This point was emphasized in the 1980s and 1990s in the influential works of George Stocking, Henrika Kuklick and Misia Landau.4 Recent studies such as David Livingstone's Adam's ancestors and the essays in A new history of anthropology, edited by Kuklick, continue to explore how the historical context of anthropology affected the ways in which the nascent discipline approached the minds of early humans.5
The questions guiding the five essays in this issue are a fusion of the archaeological and anthropological issues addressed from the works outlined above. All five of them use the notion of a prehistoric mind to investigate the cultural influences that affected the theories used to understand human origins from the late Enlightenment to the interwar period in Europe. This collection is by no means a definitive study of how the prehistoric mind was understood in the past. Instead, the essays are signposts meant to direct future scholars towards an important category which guided the disciplinary concepts and public perceptions that laid the foundation for the ways in which we view human origins today. All of the essays show that the prehistoric mind was a composite of concepts circulating in wider psychological, social and philosophical discourse. One of the strongest themes that emerges, however, is the importance of dichotomies. This was true for those living in the time under consideration and it still is the case for twenty-first-century scholars writing histories of anthropology and archaeology. Like today, eighteenth to twentieth-century dichotomies were drawn between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and were expressed in divisions between ‘progress’ and ‘decline’, ‘savage’ and ‘modern’, ‘children’ and ‘adults’, and ‘monogenism’ and ‘polygenism’, to name but a few. Of course these never encapsulated all the known data relevant to human antiquity at any one time; however, they did function as helpful thinking tools for those interested in systematizing the history of human origins.
The structure of this issue
The first essay in this issue addresses the progressivist framework used by Professor Hugh Blair to interpret the origins of language and, by extension, the origins of the human race. Blair taught at the University of Edinburgh, one of the leading educational institutions in late-Enlightenment Britain. His understanding of the ‘primitive’ mind drew from a longstanding linguistic tradition that provided the framework for the ‘prehistoric’ minds discussed in many Regency and Victorian accounts of human origins, especially those that gave evidentiary priority to the primacy of language. The essay is an extension of my own work on how Enlightenment chronologies based on classical sources were slowly transformed into interpretive frameworks that were used to order material evidence. Whereas the ‘language model’ for the prehistoric mind has received due attention by scholars, my essay extends the work of social anthropologists such as Tim Ingold. More specifically, I argue that Blair's work evinces several spatial assumptions that were engrained in contemporary interpretations of print culture and, importantly, the role of rectilinearity in the emergence of human thought.
Whereas Blair drew his conclusions primarily from classical texts, the early decades of the nineteenth century witnessed an increase in the number of savants and professionals who felt that exchanging their pens for shovels provided a more rewarding approach to human origins. However, as Paul B. Pettitt and Mark J. White explain in the second essay, the progressive frameworks of lettered authors such as Blair were modified by people working in the field. The authors' interest in this topic stems from their previous work on the cultural and scientific context of Victorian and Edwardian palaeoarchaeology.6 Building on this research, their essay shows how excavations from the 1840s to the 1870s led to the belief that early humans were cognitively different from modern humans. To establish this point, they concentrate on the work of John Evans, John Lubbock and General Pitt Rivers, three personalities who used archaeological evidence to consider, often indirectly, the nature of prehistoric minds. Focusing on the interpretation of material objects, Pettitt and White suggest that the lineage models used to understand human evolution, both unidirectional and divergent, would have been very difficult to develop had it not been for the use of the concept ‘primeval savagery’, a view that drew from the mental traits that Victorians attributed to children and ‘savages’. Here Britain's imperial past, so rightly criticized by colonial historians, reveals itself to be part of the disciplinary framework of palaeoarchaeology.
The importance that Pettitt and White attribute to Evans and Lubbock is reinforced in Clive Gamble and Theodora Moutsiou's essay, the third in this issue, on the prehistoric mind attributed to the ancient humans who made the St Acheul hand-axe that was discovered in 1859. Their paper unfolds several important issues arising from their research on the social and geographic factors that contributed to the evolution of human society. As mentioned above, the 1859 St Acheul event is seen by many historians of palaeoarchaeology and palaeoanthropology as having been just as important as the 1859 publication of Darwin's Origin. Gamble and Moutsiou reaffirm the fact that the Victorian dichotomy between ‘savage’ and ‘civilized’ served as an analogue for ‘prehistoric’ and ‘modern’ humans; however, they qualify this link by explaining that the latter analogy took time to gain currency. To understand this emergence, they draw attention to the different kinds of people promoting the analogy and, crucially, to the places where the analogy gained acceptance. Groups such as Thomas Henry Huxley's X-Club, London's Ethnological Society and its Anthropological Society are given particular attention. These institutional examples serve to establish the socio-geographic facet of the progressivist frameworks used to approach human origins in Victorian London, presenting further avenues of enquiry relating to the social basis of prehistoric knowledge.
One factor that played a key conceptual role for Victorians and Edwardians who contemplated prehistoric minds was the skill and forethought needed to shape a tool. The fourth essay, by Marianne Sommer, addresses this process by focusing on eoliths, that is, the very simple stone tools attributed to the earliest humans. Her approach extends the work of her recent book Bones and ochre, which gives the biography of a skeleton, the ‘Red Lady of Paviland’, interred in a burial site situated in a cave on the Welsh coast. Beginning with the discovery of the Red Lady's bones by the Oxford palaeontologist William Buckland in 1823, her book traces the different ways in which the skeleton was interpreted for the next two centuries. We learn that the Red Lady first started out as a human fortune teller from Britain's pagan past, moved on to be a Cro-Magnon man and ended up being cast again as a human who lived during the Upper Palaeolithic period. Throughout her book Sommer convincingly underscores the fact that the methods used to interpret the meaning of hominid remains and artefacts have consistently changed over time and that such changes have been notably influenced by gendered, disciplinary and nationalistic assumptions. In her essay, Sommer uses eoliths to expand this point. Concentrating primarily on the early twentieth century, she avers that the interpretation of eoliths was shaped by previously existing beliefs about the relationship between manual dexterity and mental capacity—assumptions that were drawn from contemporary theories about the relationship between brain size and intelligence, between adults and children, and between the sane and the insane.
Although several of the essays touch on various topics relevant to the history of evolution in general, their focus on material objects and interpretive frameworks implicitly turns the limelight away from the names and terms often mentioned in relation to the ‘Darwinian revolution’. This is not to say, however, that the Darwinian debates about human origins are somehow less relevant. Quite the contrary: they are also a key part of the story, especially when one considers that such disagreements received considerable coverage in the Victorian press. In the final essay of this issue, Peter Kjærgaard addresses this topic by looking at the many Victorian versions of the ‘missing link’ that shaped the reading public's view of prehistory. Many Darwinians at the time believed that bipedality, the ability to walk on two feet, was a material indicator of the superior mental capacity attributed to humans. Thus, this allowed them to use the dichotomy between quadrupeds and bipeds to establish the genesis of the modern human mind. However, as Kjærgaard's focus on the missing link shows, this form of classification, as well as other core evolutionary concepts, often became entangled with common metaphors and analogies that transmuted the kind of message that evolutionary thinkers wanted to communicate. Here social mores and religious mentalities, both powerful cultural forces, were important.
If we pause for a moment to consider the greater relevance of Kjærgaard's emphasis on the public's engagement with prehistory, it brings us back full circle to John Sibbick's depiction of prehistoric Norfolk. Since its publication in The Guardian it has captured the attention of several commentators. For example, it was subsequently used as an illustration for a Financial Times article published by Harry Eyers on 13 November 2010. Entitled ‘How far back can we go?’, the article used the Norfolk discoveries to reflect on the human condition:
Palaeontology doesn't offer any easy answers to our current predicament—to the fact that, as the social theorist Ulrich Beck glumly puts it, we seem to be rendering the earth uninhabitable. We have more knowledge (at least of certain kinds) than our ancestors, more of that god-like capability of looking before and after, deep into the past and far into the future, and more sophisticated technology; but all that knowledge and technics hasn't brought wisdom.
As with the Victorians and Edwardians, this sentiment shows that prehistory continues to be used as a stage for moral reflection. When considered in relation to the public reaction to Sibbick's drawings, this view points to the notable presence of prehistory in the cultural landscape of Western society. Put more simply, research on prehistoric minds retains a strong public appeal because it cuts to the very core of what it means to be a human being. This cannot be said for all scientific disciplines. Such a situation suggests that, for better or worse, accounts of early humans will most probably be discussed by diverse commentators for many years to come. As all the essays in this issue show, this has been the case for the past two centuries. Indeed, there have been many conceptual synergies and ruptures that deserve to be remembered by anyone interested in the history of how humans have pieced together their own prehistory. Thus, I return to David Abbey's reaction to Sibbick's Norfolk tableau. Did we beat our chests and say ‘Ugh! Ugh!’? Even though we will probably never have a definitive answer to such a question, it does not mean that we will be any less influenced by a deep-seated interest in the historical unfolding of the prehistoric mind.
A few words about those who made this volume possible. First and foremost, I thank the Royal Society for its dedication, both in principle and in practice, to the history of science. The meeting that engendered the following essays was hosted at its Carlton House Terrace site and was generously supported by its history of science fund. Its media officer, Felicity Henderson, and its librarian, Keith Moore, both had key roles in setting up the original conference. In addition to the essay authors, I thank all the conference participants, especially Joe Cain (University College London), Claudine Cohen (École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), Paris), Robert Fox (Oxford University), Felicity Henderson (Royal Society), Robert N. Proctor (Stanford University), Greg Radick (Leeds University), Pamela Jane Smith (Cambridge University) and Chris Stringer (Natural History Museum, London). I am also indebted to the collegiality of the following scholars who offered invaluable advice through their referee reports on the various essays: Daniel Becker (Durham University), Peter J. Bowler (Queen's University, Belfast), John Carson (University of Michigan), Matthew R. Goodrum (Virginia Tech), Ian James Kidd (Durham University), David M. Knight (Durham University), Riki Kuklick (University of Pennsylvania), Timothy Larsen (Wheaton College), David Livingston (Queen's University, Belfast), Daniel Lord Smail (Harvard University) and Brian Regal (Kean University). Finally, I thank John Sibbick for so graciously supplying a high-resolution copy of his ‘Happisburgh Scene’, which appeared in The Guardian on 8 July 2010.
↵1 The literature that addresses this topic is sizeable. My particular favourites, however, are David M. Knight, Natural science books in English, 1600–1900, 2nd edn (Portman Books, London, 1989); Martin J. S. Rudwick, Scenes from deep time: early pictorial representations of the prehistoric world (University of Chicago Press, 1992); and Lewis P. Curtis, Apes and angels: the Irishman in Victorian caricature (Smithsonian Institute Press, Washington DC, 1997). For a recent assessment of the relationship between Victorian natural history and pictorial representation, see Ralph O'Connor, The Earth on show: fossils and the poetics of popular science, 1802–1856 (University of Chicago Press, 2007).
↵2 Peter Rowley-Conwy, From Genesis to prehistory: the archaeological Three Age System and its contested reception in Denmark, Britain and Ireland (Oxford University Press, 2007); Margarita Díaz-Andreu, A world history of nineteenth-century archaeology: nationalism, colonialism, and the past (Oxford University Press, 2007); Ann O'Connor, Finding time for the old Stone Age: a history of Palaeolithic archaeology and Quaternary geology in Britain, 1860–1960 (Oxford University Press, 2007).
↵3 The uses of the word ‘prehistory’ are traced out in the following articles: Christopher Chippindale, ‘The invention of words for the idea of prehistory’, Proc. Prehist. Soc. 54, 304–314 (1988); Norman Clermont and Philip E. L. Smith, ‘Prehistoric, prehistory, prehistorian … who invented the terms?’, Antiquity 64, 97–102 (1990); Peter Rowley-Conwy, ‘The concept of prehistory and the invention of the terms “prehistoric” and “prehistorian”: the Scandinavian origin, 1833–1850’, Eur. J. Archaeol. 9, 103–130 (2006). The fundamental importance of etymology in the history of science is addressed in Robert N. Proctor, ‘“Logos,” “-ismos,” and “-ikos”: the political iconicity of denominative suffixes in science (or, phonesthemic tints and taints in the coining of science domain names)’, Isis 98, 290–309 (2007).
↵4 George W. Stocking, Victorian anthropology (Macmillan, New York, 1987); Henrika Kuklick, The savage within: the social history of British anthropology, 1885–1945 (Cambridge University Press, New York, 1991); Misia Landau, Narratives of human evolution (Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1991).
↵5 David N. Livingstone, Adam's ancestors: race, religion and the politics of human origins (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, 2008); Henrika Kuklick, A new history of anthropology (Blackwell, Oxford, 2008).
↵6 Mark J. White and S. J. Plunkett, Miss Layard excavates: a Palaeolithic site at Foxhall Road, Ipswich, 1903–1905 (Western Academic & Specialist Press, Liverpool, 2004); Mark J. White and Paul B. Pettitt, ‘The demonstration of human antiquity: three rediscovered illustrations from the 1825 and 1846 excavations in Kent's Cavern (Torquay, England)’, Antiquity 83, 758–768 (2003).
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