In the early 19th century, it was commonly believed that humans were a relatively new species, existing for only about 6,000 years.
However, the discovery of human remains alongside stone tools and extinct animals began to change some minds in the scientific community in the 1840s, leading to the now-commonly accepted belief in human antiquity.
Currently showing at the Linda Hall Library, Blade and Bone: The Discovery of Human Antiquity explores just that. Open until September 14th, the exhibit showcases both the historical texts describe these discoveries, as well as casts of skulls, extinct animal remains and the cave art of ancient species.
"The idea for the exhibit was a spinoff of an exhibit we did on Darwin several years ago," says Dr. Bill Ashworth, professor of history at UMKC and consultant to Linda Hall Library. "One of the interesting coincidences of history is that about the same time he is publishing 'Origin of the Species,' people are realizing really for the first time that humans have a prehistory."
Around the 1830s and 1840s, archeologists begin to discover human remains, stone tools, and extinct animal remains together. Around 1829, Philippe Schmerling, a Belgian physician and amateur archeologist, discovered this scenario in the Engis cave. He discovered three human skulls, stone flints that looked like tools, and the remains of the extinct cave bear. He published his finds, arguing that the existence of all three together proved that humans were much older than previously thought. However, his finds were largely discredited.
[AUDIO] Dr. Ashworth explains early discoveries of ancient human remains
Then, in 1859, discoveries at Brixham Cave in New England provided enough conclusive evidence to turn the tide and make human antiquity a respected scientific idea. Joseph Prestwich looked into claims of stone tools discovered, untouched, by extinct mammoth remains.
While traveling to meet the original discoverer of the Brixham remains, word was sent about a stone ax found nearby in Amiens. Prestwich hired a photographer to take pictures of the ax before it was removed. This is the first time a photograph was used to prove an archeological find. These artifacts were presented at a meeting of the Royal Society in May 1859. This is considered the turning point in scientific beliefs about human antiquity.
[AUDIO] Dr. Ashworth explains the turning tide of belief in human antiquity
CHANGING IMAGES OF EARLY MAN
In addition to showing artifacts and publications of ancient remains and tools, the exhibit focuses on changes in media perceptions of what 'early man' was like. Depictions of cavemen show stone tools and the species they encountered, and newspapers and books begin to adapt to the scientific discoveries of what early human life was like. A prime example is Louis Figuier's The Earth Before the Flood. The book's 1863 edition includes an 'Apparition of Man' depiction with only modern humans surrounded by domesticated animals, but the 1866 edition shows humans living in caves and amongst extinct animals.
[AUDIO] Dr. Ashworth describes the change in 'Apparition of Man'
PREHISTORIC MAN MAKES ART
In addition to the discovery of how ancient our species is, the exhibit shows several examples of the artwork of early man. In their version of scrimshaw, early man used mammoth tusks to engrave with examples of everyday life, including depictions of the mammoths themselves. Cave art, first discovered in Altamira Cave, Spain, was also hard to prove as a work of actual ancient humans. Only after years of intense study were the drawings deemed prehistoric art.
[AUDIO] Dr. Ashworth on the art of ancient humans
The exhibit, which runs through September 14th, contains many other examples of prehistoric animals, art, and ancient humans. Visit Linda Hall Monday through Friday, 9am to 5pm, and the second Saturday of each month from 10am to 2pm.