Celebrating the Annus Mirabilis

By Evans, Christopher | Antiquity, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Celebrating the Annus Mirabilis


Evans, Christopher, Antiquity


We are grateful to Chris Evans for convening and introducing this imaginative archaeological tribute to the work of Charles Darwin, 150 years after the publication of his On the origin of species--the inspiration for an evolutionary concept of history in so many fields. June 2009 is also the 150th anniversary of a yet more momentous event in the history of archaeology, the endorsement of the antiquity of human tool-making by observations in the Somme gravels. Clive Gamble and Robert Kruszynski reconstruct the occasion and publish the famous axe for the first time. Chris Evans returns to present us with the bitter-sweet spectacle of the Darwin family as excavators and Tim Murray rediscovers a suite of pictures made for John Lubbock which show how prehistoric life was envisaged in polite society at the time. Lastly we are grateful to Colin Renfrew for his own reflections on the anniversary.

1859--Marking time

Anniversaries and the rough-and-tumble of calendrical juxtaposition: this year, among so many other red-letter dates, variously marks 150 years since the birth of Billy the Kid and the death of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and also the bicentenary of Charles Darwin's birth. Yet, for archaeologists, 1859--and, thereby, the 150th anniversary--must remain the benchmark, as it was then that 'the world changed'. In relationship to Bishop Ussher's short Biblical chronology, it was when the bottom effectively dropped out of time. It is an oft-told tale (for example Eiseley 1958; Daniel 1966; Stocking 1987; Van Riper 1993) that essentially coalesces around two dates. First, on 2 June, when Evans, on returning from the Somme to report on de Perthes flint-in-gravels findings, endorsed his results at a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of London. Following ensuing debate in the pages of The Athenaeum (and the public display of the hand-axes), thereafter came the consensual acceptance of 'high'/'deep' human antiquity (Figure 1). The second, of course, must be the publication of Darwin's On the origin of species on 24 November of the same year.

Invariably, such anniversary stories are effused with hyperbole, and all moments of sea-change have their schedules of both precedence and delayed uptake or rejection in certain quarters. A third date could, for example, be added to the year's listing--26 May--when the geologist, Prestwich, who had accompanied Evans on the French visit, gave his account of their findings to the Royal Society. But this would be hair-splitting; it is the year that counts, and its marking focuses attention on what are the subject's key issues and which of its achievements broadly matter to the world at large.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

This is not the first time that Antiquity has celebrated Darwin's The Origin and his theory of evolution by natural selection. In December 1957 (then anticipating the 1958 centenary of the Darwin/Wallace presentation at the Linnaean Society) it ran an 'Evolution' special number, introduced by Crawford (1957) and with contributions by Atkinson, Childe, Oakley, Singer and White. The papers appraised the impact of Darwinian evolutionary approaches on their wide-ranging themes--variously biological, technological and socio-cultural evolution/development, and diffusion. As was evinced in Childe's 'The evolution of society', it was not a matter of wholehearted endorsement:

'The doctrine of evolution has raised human history above the domain of miraculous revelation or romantic fiction. It has imposed on historians the rigorous methods of natural science ... It has not provided a new extraneous agency to replace discredited deities or fates, nor revealed a short cut to conclusions that should obviate the collection of facts' (Childe 1957: 213).

Leaving aside recent calls for a 'Darwinian archaeology' (for example Shennan 2003), in the light of the current resurgence of creationism and anti-scientism (see for example Dawkins 2006), the 'big issues' posed by evolutionary theory are, if anything, of increasing relevance today. …

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