We all know of our parents and grandparents, and perhaps we can go a few more generations back in time. But how far? Gradually or suddenly, the generational past dims into a nebulous nothing. Then we may switch to our community’s or nation’s past, and consider the history of a people which may extend to several centuries. And then what? How far back does human history go? In our own times we read about civilizations that existed more than five thousand years ago, about their relics and their worldviews. We speak of the Indus Valley civilization and the Babylonian and the Egyptian and so on. And then there are the jaw bones and skulls of the first humans and their immediate ancestors. Our knowledge of these is fairly recent on the time-line of human history.
We often think of modern science as having discovered this phenomenon or that force, but seldom realize that another major contribution of modern science is the discovery of our own past. For, even a couple of centuries ago, much of history consisted of rich memories and interesting speculations about the ancient world, based on rough translations of ancient documents.
And, of course, we knew next to nothing about prehistory. No one even seriously thought of very primitive human beings, sharpening stones and hunting creatures in the wild. It all changed after a customs officer in Abbeville in France, pursuing a work begun by Casimir Picard, also stumbled upon ancient splints underneath the gravel in the Somme Valley in the1830s. He had an unusually long name: Jacques Boucher de Crevecoeur de Perthes (born: 10 September 1788). He went about digging for more, and unearthed other pristine tools like hand axes amidst the bones of large animals. He reasoned that if these instruments were buried with the remains of animals long extinct, whose existence had been surmised by earlier naturalists like Georges Cuvier, then there must have been humans at that time also. Thus he concluded that humanity’s age must be much more than the then currently accepted 6000 years or so.
Boucher was convinced that these were remnants of human beings who had existed before the Big Flood. He referred to them as antediluvian man who invented stone tools. But he did not publish his findings right away. Even after he published them several years later, he had difficulty convincing the leading scientists of the time. Call it cultural inertia or scientific obstinacy or whatever, but it is always difficult to persuade a group to give up a worldview that it has collectively held to be true for a long time.
However, gradually there emerged more evidence for the antiquity of the human species. When Boucher reported the discovery of a couple of teeth of ancient human beings, some thought that this was a fraud. Gradually, however, the idea of human prehistory took form and foundation, and it has now become a respectable discipline.
Boucher had also explored and written on prehistoric art, for he had come upon very ancient sculptures too. If his idea of prehistoric man provoked opposition, his ideas on prehistoric art suffered benign neglect.
It is hard to believe that only two centuries ago most people, including the scientists of the period, thought that there have been humans for only about 6000 years. To this day most people subscribe to the view that Man was created from clay and in God’s image at about that time. Today we accept that Australopithecus ramidus walked upright some four million years ago. Excavators have unearthed human artifacts at least 2.5 million years old. This delving into human prehistory got a big boost from the work of Boucher de Perthes. Who knows from how much more collective ignorance we suffer today!
V. V. Raman
October 20, 2013