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. 



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

Neanderthals in the News: Illustrated London News, That Is.

The first two decades of the twentieth-century was an exciting time for Paleolithic archaeology.  Pleistocene sites with Neanderthal skeletons were popping up throughout Europe and anthropologists (like Henry Fairfield Osborn) were quick to offer interpretations for these sites, like Le Moustier and La Chapelle, and to fold these sites into a broader interpretive evolutionary schema.

Putting a face on a fossil characterizes the archaeological recovery – the reconstruction can humanize or distance the species.  The artistic reconstruction immediately gives a narrative – a story, if you will – about the fossil.

From Moser & Gamble, 1998;  Ancestral Images . 

From Moser & Gamble, 1998; Ancestral Images

The question of how to reconstruct Neanderthals – what face to give them – was debated at the beginning of the twentieth century, much as it is debated now.  Stephanie Moser’s brilliant Ancestral Images juxtaposes two examples of the changing interpretations of the La Chapelle Neanderthal (discovered in 1908) in the Illustrated London News – the first artist’s sketch appeared in 1909 and the second, a much more empathetic and nuanced interpretation, appeared in 1911.  That’s quite a difference between the two.

From Moser & Gamble, 1998.   Ancestral Images .

From Moser & Gamble, 1998.  Ancestral Images.

Interestingly, La Guerre du Feu (Quest for Fire) appears between these two illustrations.  The science fiction draws on the anthropological publications of 1909, but offers a literary genre for discussing Neanderthals.  One wonders if Amadee Forestier, the 1911 artist, was familiar with J. H. Rosny’s speculative fiction.

Quest for Fire  book cover, courtesy of WikiCommons.

Quest for Fire book cover, courtesy of WikiCommons.


Moser, S., & Gamble, C. (1998). Ancestral Images: The Iconography of Human Origins (1 edition.). Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press.

Rosny, J. H. (1982). Quest for Fire. New York: Ballantine Books, second edition.

Sommer, M. (2006). Mirror, Mirror on the Wall Neanderthal as Image and “Distortion” in Early 20th-Century French Science and Press. Social Studies of Science, 36(2), 207–240. doi:10.1177/0306312706054527

First Lines: Literature vs. History vs. Anthropology

First lines.  Literature revels in them.  But history?  Archaeology?  Paleoanthropology?  What kind of first lines do we see in those subjects?

I started thinking about first lines recently – what is expected from first lines when one writes history and what form these first lines can take.  In writing the history of material objects, I came to the conclusion that there is a strong tradition, realized or not, to begin with the discovery of that object.  History and anthropology ties the object (say, a fossil) to a moment in time and it’s easy to use “discovery” to situate a narrative in a timeline of sorts.

"Australopithecus" (the Taung Child) with its Raymond Dart.  Raymond Dart Archive, courtesy of the University of Witwatersrand.

"Australopithecus" (the Taung Child) with its Raymond Dart.  Raymond Dart Archive, courtesy of the University of Witwatersrand.

The development of human palaeontology has been marked by three essential stages: the discovery of Neanderthal Man in 1856, that of Pithecanthropus in 1891, and that of Australopithecus in 1925. Preface of Fossil Men (1957) by Boule and Vallois. 

Discovery seems to be a comfortable trope and an easy beginning to talk about fossils.  But I’m curious what other types of first lines could be out there. 

The following is a completely haphazard collection of first lines, pulled from whatever literature, history, and anthropology was in easy reach of my desk.  I was stuck by how deeply history of paleoanthropology is tied to the process and materiality of discovery.  And just how differently first lines function between disciplines.   (For those interested in Piltdown Man, check out Piltdown Man: Untangling One of the Most Infamous Hoaxes in Scientific History.)


This is the saddest story I have ever heard. —Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier (1915)

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo. —James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)    

Mother died today. —Albert Camus, The Stranger (1942; trans. Stuart Gilbert)

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

There is a setting, an anticipation, an expectation, and a story in these.


This volume [Men of the Stone Age] is the outcome of an ever-memorable tour through the country of the men of the Old Stone Age.  Henry Fairfield Osborn, Men of the Old Stone Age, Their Environment, Life and Art, (1915.) 

Les Hommes Fossiles has always ranked, and will doubtless long continue to rank, as the most comprehensive and authoritative general work on human palaeontology. – Maracellin Boule & Henri V. Vallois, Fossil Men (1957)

It is not so very long since Copernicus and Galileo first proved that the earth is only a satellite of the sun. – Henri Breuil & Raymond Lantier, The Men of the Old Stone Age (Palaeolithic & Mesolithic), (1959, translated by B.B. Rafter.)

There is a commitment to discovery or future discovery of fossils.


In the second century of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilised portion of mankind. —Edward Gibbons The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

The story of the Copernican Revolution has been told many times before, but never, to my knowledge, with quite the scope and object aimed at here. – Thomas Kuhn The Copernican Revolution, (1957.)


More Material Culture: the Navy, the Cavalry, and the Old Stone Age

Shipping label from this brilliant, brilliant bookstore "Wonderful Books By Mail."  Which is exactly what it is. 

Shipping label from this brilliant, brilliant bookstore "Wonderful Books By Mail."  Which is exactly what it is. 

I ordered a copy of Henry Fairfield Osborn's Men of the Old Stone Age which arrived today from "Wonderful Books By Mail" (via AbeBooks.)  The shipping label is a stratigraphy of text -- retro Western horse photo print and the bookstore's name taped over it. 

This copy of the 1925 printing is tagged as having belonged to the USNTS: United States Navel Training Station, Farragut, Idaho (1942-1946.)  Ah, books in motion.