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Address on Anthropology

[Delivered to the Anthropological Department of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1875 Bristol; Ch. XLIV of Rolleston's Scientific Papers ...]

Some few weeks ago Mr James Parker, of Oxford, invited me to visit your Somersetshire caves, in the company of the Warwickshire Naturalists' and Archaeologists' Field Club. It struck me that I should do well, as I was to preside over the Anthropological Department of this British Association Meeting, if I tried to learn as much as I could of the relics and of the surroundings of the Prehistoric inhabitants of your neighbourhood; and for this, as well as for other reasons I gladly accepted the invitation. During that pleasant midsummer excursion, I was more than once impressed with the similarity which its incidents bore to those of the undertaking in which we are now engaged, and, indeed, to those of the study of Anthropology generally. First, the organisation of the expedition had entailed some considerable amount of labour upon those who had charged themselves with that duty; and, secondly, a through exploration of the recesses and sinuosities of the several caves which we explored devolved upon us not only a good deal of exertion, but even some slight amount of risk; for the passages and galleries along which we worked our way were sometimes low and narrow, often steep, and nearly always slippery. Thirdly, the outline of the regions explored bore quite different aspects accordingly as we lighted them up or had them lit up for us in one or in another of several different ways.

If in any segment of these caves the outside daylight could anyhow find a zigzag way down some shaft into the interior, that segment wore a general aspect more comfortable to the eye, and so to the mind, than others not so illuminated. These latter regions, again, varied greatly inter se, according to the various artificial means employed for lighting them up. The means ordinarily used for this end made their outlines look a little colder and harder than the reality itself, cold and hard though this was; whilst under certain other modes of illumination employed (it is true, only occasionally, and for purposes of effect, not ex necessitate) the self-same outlines looked somewhat lurid. But, howsoever produced and howsoever affecting us, the light was light nevertheless, and, on the whole, we preferred it a good deal to the darkness. It is never well to press a metaphor too far nor too closely; so I will now lay aside my parable, though it admits of some further extension, and take up the actual business of the Department.

It may be well to lay before the Department, first of all, the titles of a few of the principal subjects upon which we have papers prepared for us; and after, or indeed during the enumeration of these specimens of what will prove, I can assure you, a very valuable series of memoirs, we can proceed, as will be naturally suggested, to those general considerations with which it is customary to open the transactions of such assemblages as ours.

First among our contributors I must mention the President of the London Anthropological Institute, in which the Institute the Ethnological Society of 1844 and the Anthropological Society of 1863 are united. Colonel Lane Fox has told us ('Archaeologia,' xlii. p. 45, 1869) that it was whilst serving on the Sub-committee of Small Arms in 1851 that he had his attention drawn to the principle of continuity by observing the very slow gradations of progress that were taking place at that time in the military weapons of our own country. Out of these labours of his on that Sub-committee other benefits have arisen to the country at large, of which it is not my province to speak. What I have to speak of is his suggestion, put out with greater definiteness in his invaluable Lecture on Primitive Warfare, delivered before the United Service Institution, June 5, 1868 (p. 15), to the effect that his find at Cissbury furnishes the links which were wanting to connect the Palaeolithic with the Neolithic Celt types. Sir John Lubbock and Mr Evans have told us that they do not see their way to accepting this view; and Mr James Geikie, who holds that the palaeolithic deposits are of pre-glacial and inter-glacial age, is almost necessitated, ex hypothesi, to repudiate any such transition. He does so (pp. 436-438 of his work on the Great Ice Age) in language that shows us that Colonel Lane Fox's lecture just referred to, with its diagram No. 1 (printed, it is true, for private circulation), could not have met his eye. Colonel Lane Fox's paper will relate to further explorations carried on at Cissbury during the present year by a Committee of the Anthropological Institute with kind permission of Major Wisden, the owner of the soil. It will raise more than one large question for us to address ourselves to. I shall, when Colonel Lane Fox's paper comes before the Department, contribute towards its discussion by showing a number of flints from Cissbury, given me by my friend Mr Ballard, of Broadwater. [1]

Mr Pengelly will, on Monday, give us an account of the 'Anthropological Discoveries in Kent's Cavern.' A more interesting subject will not often have been treated in a more interesting manner.

Polynesia and Australasia generally have always been an interesting field for the anthropologists. Our recent acquisition of Fiji makes it doubly interesting to us just now; and a flood of literature has burth forth upon us to meet that interest. ... I do not hesitate, however, at all in saying that the most important contributions to the ethnology of Polynesia which has been made recently is the article on that subject in the 'Contemporary Review' for February 1873, by the Rev. S. Whitmee, of Samoa. And I may say that I am not without hopes that we shall be favoured with some papers upon the ethnology, anthropology, and future prospects of the Polynesian race by other persons eminently qualified to speak upon the subject, as having spent many years usefully among them, and on the spot. I observe that writers who have little respect for most things else, and by no means too much for themselves, speak still with something like appreciation of the work done in those regions by the London Missionary Society; and we here shall value highly any papers which we may be favoured with from men who have had such long and such favourable opportunities for forming opinions on matters which touch at once our national and our scientific responsibilities.

What question can be of closer concernment than that of the possibility of rescuing the inhabitants of Polynesia from that gradual sliding into extinction which some writers appear to acquiesce in as the natural fate of such races? As a text for our discussion upon this subject, I will here quote to the Department a passage from the continuation of Waitz's 'Anthropologie' by Dr Garland ... 'The decrease of the Polynesian populations is not now going on as fast as it was in the first half of the century; it has in some localities entirely ceased, whilst in others the indigeneous population is actually on the increase. From this it is clear that the causes for that disappearance of the native races ... are now less or not longer operative. For, on the one hand, natives have adapted themselves more to the influences of civilisation; they are not so amenable as they were at first to the action of diseases, although we still from time to time have instances to the contrary at the present moment ... [... [for example] our own recent information as to the destructive outbreak of measles in Fiji]; they have become more able to respond to the efforts to raise their mental and moral status than they were; and, with the advance of civilisation, they have begun to avail themselves more of the remedial agencies which it brings with it. On the other hand, we cannot ignore the fact that the Europeans themselves, in spite of many important exceptions, have nevertheless done a very great deal for the natives, and are always doing more and more for them. Whilst in this matter the English Government deserves great praise ... the missionaries nevertheless stand in the very first rank amongst the benefactors of these races, with their unwearied self-sacrificing activity; and Russel ("Polynesia," Edinb., 1840) is entirely right in saying that all the progress which the Polynesians have made was really set on foot by the missionaries. They have the greatest influence upon the civilisation of the natives; they have taken their part and protected them when they could; they have further given them the fast foothold, the new fresh object, motive, and meaning for their whole existence, of which they stood in so much need. The Polynesians have often declared to the missionaries, "If you had not come, we should have perished;" and they would have perished if their country had not been so discovered. The resources of their physical life were exhausted; and they had none of the moral nor ideal support for the needs of their spiritual nature which they stood so urgently in need of, as they had already attained a grade of culture too high to allow of their living without some support of that kind. It is true that extraneous circumstances have often, especially in the outset, brought about their conversion--as, for example, the authority of their chiefs, the force of example, as also, on the other hand, the occurrence of misfortune ... after which they wished to make the experiment of worshipping a new god ... And it is also true that the missionaries have introduced them to an exceedingly bigoted and often little-elevated form of Christianity; but even this has been a fortunate circumstance; for just the comprehensibility, the plain appeal to the senses, of this new religion took hold of the imagination of these races ... Whatever the dogmas taught were, the ethics of Christianity were taught with them; and in most cases the missionaries gave, at the same time, in their lives striking examples of the value of those ethics; and the fact of their maintenance and exemplification was the main thing.'

Mr Bagehot has been quoted by Mr Darwin, in his 'Descent of Man,' ... as saying that 'it is a curious fact that savages did not formerly waste away before the classical nations, as they do now before the modern civilised nations; had they done so the old moralists would have mused over the event; but there is no lament in any writer of that period over the perishing barbarians.' On reading this for the first, and indeed for a second time, I was much impressed with its beauty and originality; but beauty and originality do not impress men permanently unless they be coupled with certain other qualities. And I wish to remark upon this statement, first, that it is exceedingly unsafe to argue from the silence of any writer, ancient or modern, to the non-existence of the non-mentioned thing. I do not recollect any mention in the ancient writers of Stonehenge ... These little omissions are much to be regretted, as, if they had been filled up, a great many very interesting problems would thus have been settled for us which we have not as yet settled for ourselves. But these omissions do not justify us in thinking that Stonehenge is an erection of post-Roman times, nor in holding that any of the strange races mentioned were devoid of a language. And, secondly, what we know of the classical nations dates from a time when the 'merciless bronze' had begun to give way to the 'dark gleaming' steel. But long before the displacement of bronze weapons by iron ones, the bronze had had abundant time to displace both stone weapons and the people who used them. And it is plain enough to suggest that one reason why the old moralists did not muse over the disappearance of the aboriginal races lies in the fact that these races had neither a contemporary Homer to sing their history, nor an Evans to interpret their weapons after their extinction. ... But, thirdly, let us ask, ... Are the facts about which we are to inquire really facts? ... I will just quote a few verses from a beautiful passage in Job which appear to me to give as exact a description of a barbarous race perishing and outcast, as could be given ...

'For want and famine they were solitary, fleeing into the wilderness in former time desolate and waste. ... They were children of fools, yea, children of base men: they were viler than the earth' (Job, chap. xxx. ver. 3-8)

... What is mysterious to me is not civilisation, but the fact that people who are in relation with it do not act up to its behests. And what is the mystery to me is not how an epidemic can, when introduced amongst helpless Polynesians, work havoc, but how it is that epidemics should be allowed to do so here in England from time to time. We are but some four years away from the last small-pox epidemic, of the management, or rather mismanagement, of which I had myself some little opportunity of taking stock; and what we saw in England renders it a little superfluous to search for recondite causes to account for depopulation in countries without Local Boards. You owe much in Bristol to your able, energetic and eminently successful officer of health, Dr David Davies. ...

We have several philological papers promised us. I shall ... spare myself, and you the trouble of any remarks on that truly natural science, observing merely that Dr Farrar and Professor Häckel are both agreed upon one point, namely that the adoption of natural-history methods by the students of languages has opened up for them a fresh career of importance and interest and usefulness.

... I come now (perhaps I should have come before) to the consideration of the subject of craniology and craniography. Of the value of the entirety of the physical history of a race there is no question; but two very widely opposed views exist as to the value of skull-measuring to the ethnographer. According to the views of one school, craniography and ethnography are all but convertible terms; another set of teachers insist upon the great width of the limits within which normal human crania from one and the same race may oscillate, and upon the small value which, under such circumstances, we can attach to differences expressed in tenths of inches or even in centimetres. As usual, the truth will not be found to lie in either extreme view. For the proper performance of a craniographic estimation, two very different processes are necessary: one is the carrying out and recording a number of measurements; the other is the artistic appreciation of the general impressions as to contour and type which the survey of a series of skulls produces upon one. ...

I would venture to say that the way in which a person with the command of a considerable number of skulls procured from some one district in modern times, or from some one kind of tumulus or sepulchre in prehistoric times, would naturally address himself to the work of arranging them in a museum, furnishes us with a concrete illustration of the true limits of craniography. I say 'a person with the command of a considerable number of skulls;' for, valuable as a single skull may be, and often is, as furnishing the missing link in a graduational series, one or two skulls by themselves do not justify us (except in rare instances ....) in predicating anything as to their nationality. Greater rashness has never been shown, even in a realm of science in which rashness has only recently been proceeded against under an Alien Act, than in certain speculations as to the immigration of races into various corners of the world, based upon the casual discovery in such places of single skulls, which skulls were identified, on the ground of their individual characters, as having belonged to races shown on no other evidence to have ever set foot there.

... The largest result which craniometry and cubage of skulls have attained is, to my thinking, the demonstrations of the following facts, viz., first, that the cubical contents of many skulls from the earliest sepultures from which we have any skulls at all, are larger considerably than the average cubical contents of modern European skulls; and secondly, that the female skulls of those times did not contrast to that disadvantage with the skulls of their male contemporaries which the average female skulls of modern days do, when subjected to the same comparison. ... Philologists will thank me for reminding them of Mr Chauncey Wright's brilliant suggestions that the large relative size of brain to body which distinguished, and always, so far as we know, has distinguished the human species as compared with the species most nearly related to it, may be explained by the psychological tenet that the smallest proficiency in the faculty of language may 'require more brain power than the greatest in any other direction,' and that 'we do not know and have no means of knowing what is the quantity of intellectual power as measured by brains which even the simplest use of language requires.' [he goes on to discuss further the brain and head size of humans]

... Of the possible curative application of some of the leading principles of modern Anthropology to some of the prevalent errors of the day, I should be glad to be allowed to say a few words. The most important lesson as regards the future (I do not say the immediate future) which the modern study of Human Progress (for such all men who think, except the Duke of Argyll, are now agreed is the study of Anthropology) teaches is the folly and impossibility of attempting to break abruptly with the past. This principle is now enforced with persistent iteration from many Anthropological platforms; and I cannot but think it might advantageously be substituted in certain portfolios for the older maxim, 'Whatever is certainly new is certainly false,' a maxim which seems at first sight somewhat like it, but which, as being based on pure ignorance of the past and teaching only distrust for the future, is really quite different from it. ...

What answer can be made to all this by those who maintain that the old times were not better than these, who maintain the doctrine of Progress, and hold that man has been gradually improving from the earliest times, and may be expected to go on thus advancing in the future? An answer based upon the employment of simple scientific method, and upon the observance of a very simple scientific rule--upon, to wit, the simple method of taking averages, and the simple rule of enumerating all the circumstances of the case. Noble actions, when we come to count them up, were not, after all, so very common in the olden times; and side by side with them there existed, and indeed flourished, intertwined with them, practices which the moral sense of all civilised nations has now definitely repudiated. It is a disagreeable task, that of learning the whole truth; but it is unfair to draw dark conclusions as to the future, based on evidence drawn from an exclusive contemplation of the bright side of the past. ... [discussed various examples of bad behaviour in Classical sources]

... Under all these disadvantages men were still found who were capable of aspiration, of hope for, and of love of better things; and by constant striving after their own ideal, they helped in securing for us the very really improved material, mental, and moral positions which we enjoy. What they did before, we have to do for those who will come after us.

Transcribed by AP December 2012

Added Notes

[1] Fox, A.H. Lane. 1876. [a]. 'Excavations in Cissbury Camp, Sussex’, Journal of Anthropological Institute ..., 5 (1876), pp. 357-389 also Report: British Association for the Advancement of Science,(1875), p. 173, see: Rethinking Pitt-Rivers | Bibliography

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