Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

American Museums.
Museums of American Pre-historic Archæology.
(S404: 1887)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: Printed in the 1 November 1887 issue of the Fortnightly Review. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page connect with:

     [[p. 665]] Few Englishmen have any adequate idea of the present condition of the study of prehistoric archæology in America, or are at all aware of the vast extent and interesting character of the collections which illustrate the early history of that continent. The recognition of the antiquity of man in Europe, and the establishment of the successive periods characterised by the palæolithic and neolithic implements, are events within the memory of many of us; while even at the present day the existence of man before the glacial period is vehemently denied by some geologists, and all the evidence brought forward to establish the fact is sought to be explained away with as much misspent ingenuity as was exerted in the case of the early finds of McEnery and Boucher de Perthes. Notwithstanding that almost every fact of the early discoveries has now been proved to have been a reality, every new fact which goes to show that man is only a little older than we have hitherto supposed, is still received with incredulity or neglect, although it is universally admitted that not only is there no antecedent improbability in these new discoveries, but that the theory of evolution, if it is worth anything, demands that the origin of man be placed very far back in the tertiary period.

     While such has been the frame of mind with which each new discovery in Europe has been met, it was natural that comparative ignorance should prevail as to the course of discovery across the Atlantic; more especially as there was a common notion that America was really a new world as regards man, and that except a few puzzling facts, like the ruined cities of Central America, Mexico, and Peru, its native races were comparatively recent immigrants from Asia by the northwestern route, and that their prehistoric history was brief, simple, and altogether unimportant as compared with that of early Europe. The facts, however, point to an exactly opposite conclusion, the prehistoric remains of North America being really far more abundant, equally varied, and offering as numerous and as interesting problems for solution as are met with in the European continent. In no other part of the world has the use of stone for all the purposes of savage and barbarous life been so extensive and so highly elaborated; nowhere else has a race which has many features in common, and which was long held to be perfectly homogeneous, been found to present more diversities in customs, in arts, in language, and in physical characteristics.

     [[p. 666]] The study of prehistoric archæology and of man's antiquity has run almost a parallel course in America and in Europe. The early discoveries of Schmerling and Godwin-Austen compare with those of the Natchez human bones in the Mississippi loess, and of arrow-heads, pottery, and burnt wood in close connection with skeletons of the mastodon. The kitchen-middens of Denmark are far less extensive than the shell-heaps of New England, Florida, and Alaska; while the discoveries in the lake-dwellings, peat-bogs, and tumuli may be compared with the still more extensive finds in the "mounds" of the great valley of the Mississippi. Even the mysterious structures at Stonehenge, on Dartmoor, and in Brittany, are not more mysterious than some of the animal mounds or extensive systems of earthworks, nor offer more difficult problems than the sculptures and hieroglyphics of Central American and Mexican temples.

     Before giving a brief sketch of the varied specimens which illustrate the history of early man in America, it may be well to state the character of the museums in which they may be best studied--the Peabody Museum of American Archæology and Ethnology at Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Museum of Prehistoric Archæology at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. These two museums illustrate very distinct methods of arrangement, each of which has its advantages. At Cambridge the collections are arranged according to localities or areas. Everything found in one mound, or group of mounds, is kept together, so as to illustrate, as far as possible, the life history of the constructors. Surface finds are grouped according to states or districts; the instruments, bones, shells, &c., of the shell-heaps are similarly arranged; the same is done with objects found in caves, in stone-graves, in the old Pueblo villages, &c. In the words of the curator, Mr. F. W. Putnam, "A natural classification has been attempted, grouping together objects belonging to each people. By this method is brought out the ethnological value of every object in the museum, so that in the mind of the student each is put into the great mosaic of human history. Thus it is that throughout the arrangement of the museum the chip of stone and the polished instrument are side by side. There is no forcing into line, no selection of material, in order to illustrate a theory. Every object falls into its place with its own associates, and tells its part of the story of the efforts of man and the results which he has reached at different times and in different places. By this method of arrangement nothing is forced, and misconception is impossible. Separate the objects and classify them by their kind, independently of their source, and the result is simply a series of collections illustrating the development of the arts of man; and although such collections will find appropriate places in a museum like this, they [[p. 667]] should be secondary to the main collection, and be formed of duplicate material. Upon these principles and methods the arrangement of the collections in the present building has been carried on."1

     The great collection in the National Museum at Washington, on the other hand, is arranged to illustrate the development of prehistoric industry and arts. First we have cases filled with the rudest chipped implements, many quite as rude as the palæolithic flints of Europe, and closely resembling them in form. These are of the most varied materials--calcite, chalcedony, obsidian, quartzite, slate, sandstone, or trap. Many are scrapers, rude knives, spears, &c., and come from every part of the continent. In other cases we find leaf-shaped, arrow-shaped, and spear-shaped stones; passing on successively to all the varied uses to which stone has been applied, through a long gallery containing probably a hundred large floor-cases. Besides this progressive series there are some special cases containing the whole of the contents of certain mounds or graves, or the weapons and implements from some specially interesting locality or island. This method of arrangement has the advantage of enabling a visitor more easily to appreciate the endless variety in the forms of each class of articles, and to compare the development of the stone age in America with that of Europe. As in the case of zoological collections, a great national museum should combine both methods of arrangement; and it is therefore fortunate that in the present progressive condition of the study the two great museums of American prehistoric archæology should have adopted different systems.

     The first thing that strikes the visitor is the immense number and variety of forms of stone weapons, implements, and ornaments, far exceeding anything known in Europe. The arrow and spear heads vary in the most curious and fantastic manner, some having very deep basal notches, others with the lower points greatly lengthened out, while others again are deeply and symmetrically notched along their edges in a variety of curious patterns. Many of these are chipped as finely and regularly as the beautiful Danish neolithic flints. Some fine quartzite spear-heads from Louisiana are nine inches long by three wide, while from California and Oregon there are some curious weapons with parallel sides, and over a foot long; others pointed at both ends and narrower in the middle, from fourteen inches up to two feet long. Among the curious forms of arrow and spear-heads are some which have one strongly bevelled edge on opposite sides of the weapon, having to some extent the effect of a spiral twist. These are from the mounds of Ohio and Wisconsin, and may possibly have been designed to produce a revolution of the arrow about its axis during flight.

     [[p. 668]] Scrapers are innumerable, some resembling our common European types, while others are most fantastically shaped, offering five or six hollows of different curvature; while borers are equally numerous and strange in form. Numbers of round or oval pebbles have a shallow groove cut round them, evidently to fasten them firmly to a handle or to a cord, and these were probably used either as hammers or as bolas for catching game. Other elongate irregular pebbles have a groove round one end, probably to serve as sinkers, or as weights for spinning.

     Great numbers of stone knives are found, many spear-shaped implements being thus used by modern Indians and by the Esquimaux; while there are also many large semi-circular or semi-oval knives, which were fixed in a wooden handle by the straight back, the curved edge forming the knife, thus admitting of the full power of the hand being exerted in the act of cutting. Some very large nearly circular stones seem to have been hoes, occasionally having a projection at the back to fasten to the handle with a hole to secure it by a cord or thong, while others are elongate, sometimes fifteen inches long, and seem to have been used as spades or diggers. Both these classes have frequently an exquisite glossy polish on the edge for an inch or more, gradually diminishing upwards, just as might be supposed to be produced by long use in a fine loamy alluvial soil. As connected with agricultural work, may be mentioned the numerous heavy rudely globular stones, pierced through the middle with a round hole an inch or more in diameter. These were at first thought to have been used as war-clubs, but it has now been found that digging or planting-sticks are used by some Indian tribes, with similar stones on their lower ends as weights to assist their entrance into the earth.

     The extensive use of roots, nuts, acorns, maize, &c. as food required facilities for cracking, crushing, or grinding; and hence some of the most common implements, both of modern Indian tribes and throughout all prehistoric ages, are hammers, grinders, pestles, and mortars, of varied sizes, forms, and workmanship. The pounding, crushing, and grinding stones are of very varied forms, from the unworked pebble up to the most elaborate grinder with a broad handle, something like a tailor's iron, but carved out of solid stone. Corresponding to these are the grinding-stones and mortars, of equally varied forms and sizes. Some are flat, some slightly hollowed; some have numerous small pits or cups in them, probably to hold nuts of various kinds, so as to prevent them from flying away when being cracked. From these we pass on gradually to shallow basins and large deep mortars, some of the latter found in California being a foot or eighteen inches wide, and having corresponding stone pestles, some of which are two and a half feet long. In California [[p. 669]] also, we find many bowls and dishes of stone, some shallow, some deeper, either round or oval or boat-shaped, some with pointed and some with flat broad handles.

     In many parts of the country there are found, in mounds and elsewhere, curious flat stones cut to definite forms, usually more or less elongate and symmetrical, and bored with either one or two holes. These were first regarded as gorgets or other ornaments, but have since been supposed to have been used in twisting or spinning thread or string to make the textile fabrics which have been found in some of the mounds. Some of these stones are said to be used by modern Indians as guards to protect the wrist against the rebound of the bowstring, but this is probably a mere chance application, since a leather guard would be more useful and more easily made. Another set of stones, even more puzzling, are somewhat boat-shaped, hollowed above and curved or sometimes triangular, below, and usually with a hole near each end. Some few are very elongate and pointed with the hollow in the centre only, very like the decked canoes used on our rivers, and having a small hole at each end of the hollow portion. These look very like shuttles, and may have been used as such, or the whole set may only be other forms of thread-twisters.

     Genuine tools for various purposes are exceedingly abundant--celts and axes, from the rudest to the finest workmanship; long, beautifully-formed chisels, adzes, and even gouges, deeply hollowed out on one side and with a cutting edge of great perfection. Many of the tools are formed out of the hardest fine-grained rocks, such as syenite or hæmatite, and are sometimes highly polished.

     Besides these varied implements and weapons, whose uses are known from observation of modern savages, or may be fairly conjectured, there are many others which appear to be either personal ornaments or objects used in favourite games, or for ceremonial purposes. Of the former class are small stones of various forms, and more or less decorated with pits or incised lines, some of which were probably ear ornaments, others gorgets. Great numbers of stone discs have been found, of various sizes, from two or three up to eight inches in diameter, some of which are worked beautifully true and smooth. They are usually hollowed on one or both surfaces, and many have a central perforation. Some are formed of hard quartzite, three or four inches diameter, and must have required an enormous amount of labour to cut and polish them without a lathe or any of the appliances of the modern lapidary. These were probably used in a game called chungke, practised among some Indian tribes, and resembling a combination of bowls and spear-throwing; and the Creek Indians had chungke yards kept smooth and level on purpose for the game. The supposed ceremonial stones have been found from Connecticut to Florida, mostly in mounds, and are of very [[p. 670]] varied symmetrical forms, and all have a central hole sufficiently large to admit a small stick. One has a form closely resembling the "key" of the maple, others are cylindrical, but slightly curved; some are like triangles joined by a narrow connecting bar at the centre of their opposite bases; others, again, like the longitudinal section of a dice-box, with many more which could only be understood by means of figures.

     Sculptured objects are numerous, and some have considerable artistic merit. Among the modern Indians the Sioux carve animal and human figures on pipes of catlinite or red pipe stone, some of which are well executed and of fanciful design. The Haida Indians, of Queen Charlotte Island, are celebrated for their skilful carving in wood and slate, the latter being very elaborate, highly polished, and having the appearance of black marble. These are grotesquely idealised into more or less symmetrical designs, and bear a considerable resemblance to some of the Mexican sculptures, while in language and physiognomy these tribes differ from all the Indians of the adjacent regions. It is, however, in the mounds that the greatest variety of sculptures have been found, and among them are some of a very remarkable character.

     The pipes from the mounds of Ohio and Illinois are often carved into the form of human heads, some of which have Indian characteristics, while others seem quite distinct. Animal forms are also abundant, and among them are seen the dog, bear, otter, prairie-dog, beaver, tortoise, frog, serpent, hawk, heron, coot, duck, woodpecker, owl, &c. The supposed tropical animals carved by the mound builders, such as the manatee and the parrot, are errors of identification. There is, however, a curious carving representing some form of llama or camel found on the site of a mound in Ohio.2 [[p. 671]] Many carvings of animals, not on pipes, some rude, others more delicate, have been found in New York and other States. In Iowa two pipes, with rude carvings of an elephant or mastodon, but with neither tusks nor tail, have been found by two separate individuals; but suspicion has been thrown on their genuineness because they both passed through the hands of the same person, and because they resemble in general form the well-known elephant mound of Wisconsin. It is, however, absolutely demonstrated, by bones pierced with stone arrows and others burnt with fire, that the mastodon was coeval with man in America, and there is therefore no antecedent improbability in its being represented both in mounds and carvings.

     Very strange are the stone collars, or "sacrificial yokes," found in great abundance in the island of Porto Rica, and more rarely in Mexico. These are in shape and size like small horse-collars, but carved out of single blocks of hard volcanic rock. They all have a curious ornamental projection on one side, as if to represent the junction of the material out of which the type collar was formed. Some are slender and comparatively light, while others are so massive that they would be a heavy load for a man. They are said to be found in surface deposits, and along with them are many finely worked and polished celts and axes.

     The long-continued use of stone in America for the most varied purposes, and the occupation of the country by Indian tribes down to comparatively recent times, is the obvious cause of the extreme abundance of stone weapons and implements all over the country. As indications of this abundance, the case of Dr. Abbott's farm at Trenton, New Jersey, may be mentioned. This gentleman has obtained on a very limited area, about twenty thousand stone implements and several hundreds of associated objects made of bone, clay, and copper, besides numerous pipes and carved stone ornaments. In a small field on the banks of the Potomac, near Washington, arrow-heads of quartz and quartzite have been collected for many years, and are sometimes still so abundant that hundreds may be collected in a few days. This is on the site of an Indian settlement abandoned about two hundred years ago. In California, the large stone mortars used for pounding the acorns, which seem always to have formed the food of the indigenes, are scattered over the country [[p. 672]] by thousands; while the beautiful little arrow-heads of jasper and chalcedony found abundantly in some districts, are systematically collected to be set in gold and used as ornamental jewellery.

     Next in interest and extent to the stone weapons and implements are the articles of pottery found abundantly in the various classes of mounds and sites of villages. These consist chiefly of cooking vessels, water jars, drinking cups, and mortuary urns, extremely varied in form, size, and ornamentation, and often exhibiting a considerable amount of artistic skill. In a group of mounds in New Madrid, in Missouri, over a hundred such vessels were found, exhibiting about thirty distinct types of form, from flat dishes to long-necked jars, vessels with or without handles or feet, and with the handles greatly varied in number, form, and position. Many of these are moulded above into the form of human heads or busts, and some of them are in strange attitudes, recalling the fantastic Peruvian pottery. Similar pottery has been found in the mounds of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio, as well as in the curious stone graves found extensively in the Southern States; but their various peculiarities can only be understood by examining the specimens or a good series of figures. Very numerous tools and utensils of shell have also been found in the mounds, a moderate quantity in copper, with many ornaments of mica and some of silver and of gold.

     The general character of the mounds and earthworks of various parts of the United States, and which are more especially abundant in the great valley of the Mississippi and its tributaries, is sufficiently known, though their vast numbers and the great variety of form and structure which they present is hardly understood in England. A voluminous memoir will shortly be published by the Bureau of Ethnology, which will give most important information on the entire subject. In some parts of Indiana and Kentucky a hundred mounds have been found in a hundred acres. The enclosed area of the ancient earthworks at Aztalan, Wisconsin, is more than fourteen hundred feet long and near seven hundred wide. The great mound of Cahokia, St. Louis, was ninety feet high, and covered an area of seven hundred feet by five hundred feet, with an inclined road up one side to reach the flat platform on the top. Another almost equally large mound exists at Seltzertown, Mississippi. In Louisiana are some curious platform mounds, in the form of squares or parallelograms, connected by terraces. Besides the wonderful Fort Ancient in Ohio, containing five miles of embankment, now, sad to relate, being gradually destroyed by cultivation, there are in Georgia and other southern states several fortified mountain-tops, recalling, in their inaccessibility, the hill-forts of India.

     Another curious class of works are the ash-pits, discovered a few years since near Madisonville, Ohio. M. Putnam, curator of the [[p. 673]] Peabody Museum, has opened no less than one thousand of these pits, and has obtained from them a large amount of implements, ornaments, pottery, and other articles. They are found on a plateau which is covered with a remnant of the virgin forest. There is a surface deposit of twelve to eighteen inches of leaf-mould, below which is hard clay. These pits are found to be circular in form, from three to four feet in diameter, and from four to seven feet deep. At the bottom there is often a small circular excavation, either in the centre or at one side. They are usually filled with ashes, in more or less defined layers, the bottom portion being very fine grey ashes, while the upper part may be more or less mixed with gravel or sand, with occasional layers of charcoal. Throughout the whole mass of ashes and sand, from the top of the pit to the bottom, are bones of fishes, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Those of the larger species of mammalia, such as the elk, deer, and bear, are generally broken, and appear to have been those of animals used for food. Half a bushel of such bones are sometimes taken out of one pit. Shells of many species of Unio are also found. There is also much broken pottery, but rarely any entire vessels. Numbers of implements of bone or horn are found, some of large size and apparently used for digging, as well as awls, beads, harpoon-points, and small whistles. Arrow-points, drills, scrapers, and other stone instruments are common, with some polished celts and rough hammer-heads. Stone pipes and copper beads and finger-rings are also found. In some of the pits a considerable quantity of charred corn has been found, together with nuts and other articles of food, and in one case only a human skeleton was found at the bottom of a pit. A considerable area, including that occupied by the pits, seems to have been used as a cemetery, both before and since they were constructed. A great number of skeletons are found buried just beneath the layer of leaf mould, and in some cases these skeletons lie across a pit, while in others skeletons already buried have been evidently disturbed by digging the pit.

     In the same district, but at a little higher elevation, are a number of earth-circles, from forty-three to fifty-eight feet in diameter, which prove to be sites of houses, with a central fire-place of clay, and with implements and utensils agreeing with those found in the pits. After an extensive and most laborious investigation of this locality, the only explanation of the peculiar feature of the pits is, that at certain times or on certain special occasions the whole contents of a house were burned, and the remains and all the ashes buried in a pit, while the quantity of bones found indicates that the ceremony was accompanied by feasting. The thick layer of leaf-mould covering the pits, graves, and house-sites would indicate an antiquity much greater than that of the large forest-trees which grow on the present surface, while the enormous number of the pits and the extent of the [[p. 674]] cemetery, covering over fifteen acres of ground, and from which over five hundred skeletons have been obtained, indicates that the place was permanently occupied by a large population.

     Another class of remains, the shell-banks, are far more numerous and extensive than the kitchen-middens of Europe. They are found from Nova Scotia to the Gulf of Mexico, and on the west coast they have been discovered in Alaska and in California, while similar mounds, composed entirely of fresh-water shells, occur in the valleys of the Mississippi, Ohio, and other rivers. These accumulations are often of great extent. One on the coast of Georgia covers ten acres to a depth of from five to ten feet. In Florida, on Amelia Island, a shell-heap extends a quarter of a mile inland by a hundred and fifty yards along the shore; and many others are found thickly scattered over a district a hundred and fifty miles long. An immense number of works of art and animal and human remains have been found in them, some of which indicate a considerable antiquity.

     America also has its cave dwellings, with characteristic remains of their human inhabitants; its cliff-houses, forts, and towns, partly excavated and partly built up with good stone walls, so as to resemble mediæval castles or eastern rock-cities; and its ruined towns of the Zuni and Pueblo Indians scattered over the vast desert-regions of Arizona and New Mexico. Some of these are highly interesting and remarkable. The ruined pueblo of Penasca Blanca in the Chaga Cañon, New Mexico, forms a regular oval of about five hundred by four hundred feet, the houses being symmetrically placed around the outside so as to enclose an open area, which contains a depression, probably a pond for storing water. The walls of the houses are regularly and solidly built of stone. Equally remarkable is a large round tower about forty feet in diameter with double walls, the space between which is divided into numerous small rooms. This is in ruins, but was evidently well constructed of good stone masonry. Accurate models of these and many other structures exist in the National and Smithsonian Museums.

     The preceding brief outline of the materials which exist in American Museums for the study of prehistoric man are sufficient to show that they are not inferior in extent, variety, and interest to those of Europe; while if we extend our survey to the marvellous prehistoric remains of Mexico, Central America, Peru, and Bolivia, their pyramids and temples, their ruined cities, their cemeteries, their highways and aqueducts, their highly characteristic sculpture, their fantastic pottery, and their still undeciphered hieroglyphics, we may claim for the American continent a position, as regards the early history and development of the human race, hardly inferior to that of the whole of the Eastern hemisphere. A body of earnest and painstaking students are now engaged in the collection, preservation, [[p. 675]] and study of these various classes of remains; and at the same time a vast mass of most valuable material is being brought together relating to the manners and customs, the tools, weapons, and ornaments, the tribal relations, the migrations, the folk-lore, the religions, and the languages of the aboriginal inhabitants. Already much light has been thrown on the prehistoric remains by their comparison with objects still in use in some parts of the continent; and this study has resulted in the formation of two schools of American anthropologists. The one school, impressed by the very numerous resemblances to be found between existing Indians and the mound-builders, maintain the practical identity of race and continuity of habitation from the epoch of the earliest prehistoric remains down to the date of the European discovery. The other school, laying more stress on the differences between the remains left by the mound-builders and other prehistoric races and the works of modern Indians, and being convinced, further, that there are indications of great antiquity and successive occupation in many areas, believe that there has been a long series of changes in America as in the old world, that each group of remains and each area has its characteristic features, that there have been higher grades of civilisation succeeded by lower as well as lower by higher, and that the facts, no less than the probabilities, are all in favour of successive displacements of tribes or races, of which the displacement of the mound-builders by the ancestors of the historic "red men" was perhaps the latest.

     This divergence of opinion is probably the very best security for the ultimate discovery of the truth, since it assures us that no important evidence on either side will be neglected. The whole inquiry is in good hands; fresh material is continually being obtained and elaborated; and we may look forward with some confidence to a final consensus of opinion which shall disperse, by the light of accurate knowledge, some portion at least of the obscurity which has hitherto overshadowed the early history of the American continent.

Notes Appearing in the Original Work

     1. Nineteenth Annual Report of the Trustees of the Peabody Museum, vol. iii. p. 481. [[on p. 667]]

     2. The history of this remarkable piece of sculpture is as follows. Mr. J. F. Snyder, M.D., purchased it along with a few other prehistoric relics, flint arrow-prints, stone axes, &c., of a typical backwoodsman, who was migrating from Marion Co., Ohio, to the west, with his family and household goods. The man was rough and uneducated, and profoundly ignorant of archæology, but attached some value to the specimens, partly because others did, but chiefly because he had himself found them. He stated that he had ploughed up the llama, together with many Indian bones, and two of the stone axes, and some of the flints, from a low flat mound in his field, while preparing the ground for corn-planting. He sold the specimens because he needed money to prosecute his journey. These facts were communicated in a letter to myself from Dr. Snyder, in answer to an enquiry as to the history of the "llama." There can, I think, be no reasonable doubt of the genuineness of the find. A number of similar objects have been found in Peru, and several of them are figured in "The U.S. Naval Astronomical Expedition to the Southern Hemisphere during the Years 1845-52," but none of these exactly correspond with the Ohio specimen. It has been suggested that this relic was brought to Florida by one of De Loto's men, who had obtained it in Peru while engaged there under Pizarro, and that it reached Ohio from Florida by Indian conquest or by trade and barter. This purely hypothetical explanation seems highly improbable and quite unnecessary. There are many proofs of widespread intercommunication among most savages, and there can be no doubt that it existed among such ancient [[p. 671]] and comparatively advanced peoples as the inhabitants of Peru and Mexico and the mound builders. In an interesting paper published in the "Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society," in 1886, Mr. F. W. Putnam shows that jade ornaments have been found in a mound in Michigan, and also in burial mounds in many localities in Central America, which have evidently been formed by cutting up jade celts; and further, that the same material is nowhere found in situ in America, while it exactly corresponds with Asiatic jade, some of the specimens exactly matching the material of the jade celts of New Zealand. These specimens, as well as the carved llama, may therefore be considered to prove the widespread intercommunication between distant peoples at a very remote epoch. [[on pp. 670-671]]

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