The Pleistocene Animals of 1879

In 1879, The Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute dedicated its thirteenth issue to the question of the “Antiquity of Man,” publishing a year's worth of papers and arguments in one fell swoop.   This publication included a paper by John Eliot Howard (F.R.S.) presented  3 February 1879, describing the results of his investigation of the geology and archaeology from Kent’s Cavern, South Devon – contributing archaeological evidence to the hotly contested question of Man's Antiquity in England.

I stumbled upon the 1879 Journal of Transactions thanks to Trevor Shaw’s catalog, Cave Illustrations Before 1900: A Catalogue of Non-Photographic Illustrations of Caves, published by the British Speleological Association.  In thumbing through the catalog, the section on “imaginary caves” caught my attention.  The “imaginary caves” indicated both fictional caves ( e.g. L.T. Meade’s Cave Perilous in children’s lit), but it also included caves that depicted reconstructions of long-extinct taxa.

A brilliant, fantastic, and unexpected catalog.

A brilliant, fantastic, and unexpected catalog.

 

Mr. Howard is nothing if not descriptive regarding his study of Kent’s Cavern in Devon – waxing rather eloquent (long-winded?) about the speleothems and the process of their formation.  The fauna, however, was another matter.  The descriptions are short and the imagination large.

Especially, should we desire information respecting one animal, the Machairodus latidens (Owen), a large lion-like animal, armed with double-edged teeth, in shape like the blade of a sabre and with two serrated edges.  This formidable creature seems to belong rather to the pleiocene [sic] than to the pleistocene [sic] age, and its remains are exceedingly rare, but were found by McEnery in the cave, giving rise to considerable controversy.

This considerable controversy revolved around what kind of animal this Machairodus latidens was, how to reconstruct it, and what it might have looked like bludgeoning its way across the landscape.  Originally, described as “bear-like” (known as Ursus cultridens, prior to 1871) it was later assigned “lion-like” qualities and eventually the fossils were taxonomically settled as Homotherium latidensFor John Howard, however, they were simply Machairodus – and they was fantastic. 

Sadly, the scan from Interlibrary Loan was a bit distorted from the 1879 article.  But the Bear-Lion-Slinky Mammal (with the mammoths in the background) provides a great sense of the imagined Pleistocene drama.

Sadly, the scan from Interlibrary Loan was a bit distorted from the 1879 article.  But the Bear-Lion-Slinky Mammal (with the mammoths in the background) provides a great sense of the imagined Pleistocene drama.

This taxonomic controversy of how to reconstruct an animal – ursid? feline? – based only on these recovered teeth is evident in the illustration that accompanied Mr. Howard’s article where we see the lion-bear-slinky mammal wrecking havoc across the rather Titan-esque Pleistocene landscape. 

 

References:

John Eliot Howard. 1879. “The Caves of South Devon and Their Teachings.” Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute 13: 163–80.

Lundberg, Joyce, and Donald A. McFarlane. 2007. “Pleistocene Depositional History in a Periglacial Terrane: A 500 K.y. Record from Kents Cavern, Devon, United Kingdom.” Geosphere 3 (4): 199–219. doi:10.1130/GES00085.1.

McFarlane, Donald A., and Joyce Lundberg. 2013. “On the Occurrence of the Scimitar-Toothed Cat, Homotherium Latidens (Carnivora; Felidae), at Kents Cavern, England.” Journal of Archaeological Science 40 (4): 1629–35. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2012.10.032.

Pengelly, Wm. 1871. “The Alleged Occurrence of Machairodus Latidens in Kent’s Cavern, Torquay.” Geological Magazine 8 (79): 42–43. doi:10.1017/S0016756800160959.

 

Further Reading About Fantastic Pleistocene Mammals:

Twilight Beasts Blog

Fossil Connections: Robert Broom & Charles Knight

This is one of the most interesting snippets of paleo-connections that I’ve come across in my research for Famous Fossils, Hidden Histories.  Celebrated artist, Charles Knight, meets prominent paleoanthropologist, Dr. Robert Broom.  

A detail from Charles R. Knight’s giant mural “The Flint Workers of the River Vezere,” from 1920. The  painting of a Neanderthal family shows a scene at Le Moustier cave in southern France. (Bones of Neanderthals and stone artifacts were found in 1909.)

A detail from Charles R. Knight’s giant mural “The Flint Workers of the River Vezere,” from 1920. The  painting of a Neanderthal family shows a scene at Le Moustier cave in southern France. (Bones of Neanderthals and stone artifacts were found in 1909.)

When Dr. Robert Broom, the renowned paleontologist, arrived in  New York from the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria, South Africa, I was allowed to sit between him and Toppy [Charles K. Knight] in a large limousine, as my grandfather accompanied Broom to a radio studio. 

Broom was then in his eighties, making his first trip to the United States.  He later wrote to me from Africa with an invitation for Toppy and me to visit him.  Sadly, my parents felt that I was too young at five to travel to the other side of the world without them.  Was I angry!

 

“Remembering ‘Toppy,’ My Grandfather” by Rhoda Knight Kalt, pp. pp. 7

Charles R. Knight: The Artist Who Saw Through Time

Abrans, New York 2012

Pleisto-scenes and Paleo Art

It’s hard to not have a personal connection to Charles Knight’s artwork, whether you know you do or not.  In elementary school, I built a formidable dinosaur diorama on the in-shelf niche of my parents’ living room – build-it-yourself tyrannosauruses and stegosaurus skeletons traipsed across a Cretaceous landscape, completed by a faux philodendron.  The entire scene was backstopped with Knight’s famous 1897 Brontosaurus mural, familiar to many paleo-enthusiasts.

Brontosaurus , 1897. Charles Knight.

Brontosaurus, 1897. Charles Knight.

Even paleo-greats like Henry Fairfield Osborn and Stephen Jay Gould admired Knight’s work for decades and whether it’s museum murals or children’s books, many of us are introduced to the paleo-world through Charles Knight.  However, there are interesting subtleties of Knight’s work that operate beyond a simple cultural strata of familiarity.

In Knight’s dinosaur and Pleistocene scenes, his art opens up an interesting space.  In landscapes of the early nineteenth century, landscape artists painted idealized, romanticized, and, even somewhat faithful representations of what they were looking at.  But how would one do that for a landscape long-since extinct?  End-of-the nineteenth century landscape impressionists’ softened lines and colors allowed for a bit of imagined space – such techniques would be useful in the reconstructions and abstractions of a paleoenvironment.  In his landscape paintings, extinct species live in idyllic, Eden-esque environs.  The lines are soft, the colors muted, and the tone transcendental.

Smilodon , 1905. Charles Knight.

Smilodon, 1905. Charles Knight.

Knight’s work with prehistoric man, however, offers a more complicated narrative of hominin evolution.  In some scenes, there is a similar softening of line and color.  In other sketches, there is a dark, starkness that strips the hominin of humanity.  Knight’s sketch of the Old Man of La Chapelle (dated 1909) is cold, firm, and stiff.  Cro-Magnon artists painting in Font-de-Gaume, (dated 1920), is warm, yielding, and invites the viewer into the scene through the front-and-center point of view. 

Neanderthal Man , 1909. Charles Knight. (via Wellcome Images)

Neanderthal Man, 1909. Charles Knight. (via Wellcome Images)

Cro-Magnon artists painting in Font-de-Gaume,  1920. Charles Knight.

Cro-Magnon artists painting in Font-de-Gaume, 1920. Charles Knight.

There’s a subtle categorization of “human” and “not-human” juxtaposed between the Cro-Magnon, as a predecessor to modern humans, and Neanderthals – following the scientific paradigms of the early twentieth-century.  Even the Neanderthals in other pieces that are in color show the same bold, decisive lines.  (For those interested in Neanderthal portraiture, check out Portrait of a Neanderthal as a Young Hominin.)

The landscapes and murals of Charles Knight act as cultural touchstones, even as the science behind them evolves.