Faces of the Human Past

By Milner, Richard; Tattersall, Ian | Natural History, February 2007 | Go to article overview

Faces of the Human Past


Milner, Richard, Tattersall, Ian, Natural History


Science and art combine to create a new portrait gallery of our hominid heritage.

Judging from their astonishing paintings and engraved images of animals on the walls of European caves-works that have somehow survived since prehistoric times-people have been making pictures for at least thirty millennia, and probably For a lot longer. In contrast, attempts by scientists and artists of our own day to make credible likenesses of the cave painters and their more remote evolutionary antecedents go back a mere 150 years. In fact, scientific evidence for prehistoric humans was not generally recognised much before then.

One of the earliest published reports was that of the English antiquarian John Frere, who in 1800 presented his Account of Flint Weapons Discovered at Hoxne in Suffolk. Workmen digging clay tor bricks had come across finely worked flint hand axes in a layer of gravelly soil, sealed beneath a sandy layer sprinkled with mammoth bones. Frere concluded that the tools were "fabricated and used by a people who had not the use oF metals. [They lived in] a very remote period indeed; even beyond that of the present world."

Although Frere's discovery went unnoticed until long after his death. Further evidence of early humans continued to accumulate. Following the lead of the French prehistonan Jacques Boucher de Perthes, who trained workmen to search for stone hand axes in the 1840s, others began to seek and find quantities of prehistoric stone tools all over Europe. Part of a fossilized Neanderthal skull was discovered in a cave in the Neander Valley, near Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1856, a find that brought the term "caveman" into popular culture.

Beginning in 1858, when rich prehistoric deposits were discovered at Brixham Cave at Torquay, in Devon, England, the archaeologist William Pengelly developed revolutionary new techniques for conducting excavations. His systematic work at Brixham and nearby Kent's Cavern over the next two decades yielded tens of thousands of fossil animal bones and early human artifacts, and established their association m time.

Charles Darwin's book On the Origin of Species shook the world in 1859 with its one-two punch: evolution by natural selection, coupled with the immensity of geologic time. The impact was seismic, but even before the book appeared, discoveries that ancient humans had lived with extinct mammoths and rhinoceroses in Britain had caused many to question traditional beliefs about human origins. In 1851 the art critic John Ruskin had lamented in a letter to a friend that his trust in biblical authority was being daily eroded by "those dreadful [geologists'] hammers." "I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses," he wrote. Now cavemen began to challenge Adam and Eve as primal ancestors in the popular imagination.

It turned out that some of the ancient "cavemen" were fine artists. In 1879 the first-known painted cave was accidentally discovered at Altamira, Spain; its images of extinct aurochs, bison, and horses stunned both the art and scientific worlds. Only rarely, however, had the ancient artists portrayed themselves, and never with the sophisticated realism they had applied to other animals. That state of affairs cried out for modern artists to reconstruct the appearance of what became an expanding roster of extinct humans and near-humans. The nascent genre of paleoart, which had originated to visualize dinosaurs and other fossil animals, expanded to portray extinct humans as well.

John Lubbock, Darwin's informal (and only) student, commissioned some of the first paintings in the new genre. The scion of a banking family that owned much of the Kentish countryside surrounding Darwin's home, Lubbock decorated his indulgent father's mansion with a collection of primitive stone tools, ethnographic artifacts, glass-enclosed colonies of social insects, and eighteen watercolor paintings of early humans going about their daily lives. …

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