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APPENDIX: THE MIST MONSTERS



 

AS WILLIAM HOWELLS HAS EMPHASIZED, IT IS A rather rare event that causes any living animal to die in such a way that he will be preserved as a fossil for centuries to come. This is especially true of a small, fragile, ground-living animal such as man, and the fossil record of early men is remarkably scanty.

Textbook diagrams of “the tree of man” imply a certainty of knowledge that is misleading; the tree is pruned and revised every few years. One of the most controversial and troublesome branches of that tree is the one usually labeled “Neanderthal Man.”

He takes his name from the valley in Germany where the first remains of his type were discovered in 1856, three years before the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species . The Victorian world was displeased with the skeletal remains, and emphasized the crude and brutish aspects of Neanderthal man; until now the very word is, in the popular imagination, synonymous with all that is dumb and bestial in human nature.

It was with a kind of relief that early scholars decided that Neanderthal man had “disappeared” about 35,000 years ago, to be replaced by Cro-Magnon man, whose skeletal remains were presumed to show as much delicacy, sensitivity, and intelligence as the Neanderthal skull showed monstrous brutishness. The general presumption was that the superior, modern Cro-Magnon man killed off the Neanderthals.

Now the truth of the matter is that we have very few good examples of Neanderthal man in our skeletal material-of more than eighty known fragments, only about a dozen are complete enough, or dated carefully enough, to warrant serious study. We cannot really say with any certainty how widespread a form he was, or what happened to him. And recent examination of the skeletal evidence has disputed the Victorian belief in his monstrous, semihuman appearance.

In their 1957 review, Straus and Cave wrote: “If he could be reincarnated and placed in a New York subway-provided he were bathed, shaved, and dressed in modern clothing-it is doubtful whether he would attract any more attention than some of its other denizens.”

Another anthropologist has put it more plainly: “You might think he was tough-looking, but you wouldn’t object to your sister marrying him.”

From here, it is only a short step to what some anthropologists already believe: that Neanderthal man, as an anatomical variant of modern man, has never disappeared at all, but is still with us.

A reinterpretation of the cultural remains associated with Neanderthal man also supports a benign view of the fellow. Past anthropologists were highly impressed with the beauty and profusion of the cave drawings that first appear with the arrival of Cro-Magnon man; as much as any skeletal evidence, these drawings tended to reinforce the notion of a wonderful new sensibility replacing the quintessence of “brute benightedness.”

But Neanderthal man was remarkable in his own right. His culture, called Mousterian-again, after a site, Le Moustier in France-is characterized by stoneworking of quite a high order, much superior to any earlier cultural level. And it is now recognized that Neanderthal man had bone tools as well.

Most impressive of all, Neanderthal man was the first of our ancestors to bury his dead ritually. At Le Moustier, a teenage boy was placed in a trench, in a sleeping position; he was provided with a supply of flint tools, a stone axe, and roasted meat. That these materials were for the use of the deceased in some afterlife is undisputed by most anthropologists.

There is other evidence of religious feeling: in Switzerland there is a shrine to the cave bear, a creature worshiped, respected, and also eaten. And at Shanidar Cave in Iraq, a Neanderthal was buried with flowers in the grave.

All this points to an attitude toward life and death, a self-conscious view of the world, which lies at the core of what we believe distinguishes thinking man from the rest of the animal world. On existing evidence, we must conclude this attitude was first displayed by Neanderthal man.

The general reassessment of Neanderthal man coincides with the rediscovery of Ibn Fadlan’s contact with the “mist monsters”; his description of these creatures is suggestive of Neanderthal anatomy, and raises the question of whether the Neanderthal form did, in fact, disappear from the earth thousands of years ago, or whether these early men persisted into historic times.

Arguments based on analogies cut both ways. There are historical examples of a handful of people with technologically superior culture wiping out a more primitive society in a matter of years; that is largely the story of the European contact with the New World. But there are also examples of primitive societies existing in isolated areas, unknown to more advanced, civilized peoples nearby. Such a tribe was recently discovered in the Philippines.

The academic debate on Ibn Fadlan’s creatures can be neatly summarized by the viewpoints of Geoffrey Wrightwood, of Oxford University, and E. D. Goodrich, of the University of Philadelphia. Wrightwood says [1971]: “The account of Ibn Fadlan provides us with a perfectly serviceable description of Neanderthal men, coinciding with the fossil record and our suppositions about the cultural level of these early men. We should accept it immediately, had we not already decided these men vanished without a trace some 30-40,000 years previously. We should remember that we only believe this disappearance because we have found no fossils of a later date, and the absence of such fossils does not mean that they do not, in fact, exist.

“Objectively, there is no a priori  reason to deny that a group of Neanderthals might have survived very late in an isolated region of Scandinavia. In any case this assumption best fits the description of the Arabic text.”

Goodrich, a paleontologist well known for his skepticism, takes the contrasting view [1972]: “The general accuracy of Ibn Fadlan’s reporting may tempt us to overlook certain excesses in his manuscript. These are several, and they arise either from cultural preconditioning, or from a storyteller’s desire to impress. He calls the Vikings giants when they most certainly were not; he emphasizes the dirty, drunken aspects of his hosts, which less fastidious observers did not find striking. In his report of the so-called ‘wendol,’ he places great importance on their hairiness and brutish appearance when, in fact, they may not have been so hairy, or so brutish. They may simply have been a tribe of Homo sapiens , living in isolation and without the level of cultural attainment manifested by the Scandinavians.

“There is internal evidence, within the body of the Ibn Fadlan manuscript, to support the notion that the ‘wendol’ are actually Homo sapiens . The pregnant female figurines described by the Arab are highly suggestive of the prehistoric carvings and figurines to be found at the Aurignacian industry sites in France and of the Gravettian finds in Willendorf, Austria, Level 9. Both Aurignacian and Gravettian cultural levels are associated with essentially modern man, and not Neanderthal Man.

“We must never forget that to untrained observers, cultural differences are often interpreted as physical differences, and one need not be particularly naive to make this mistake. Thus, as late as the 1880s it was possible for educated Europeans to wonder aloud whether Negroes in primitive African societies could be considered human beings after all, or whether they represented some bizarre mating of men and apes. Nor should we overlook the degree to which societies with vastly differing degrees of cultural attainment may exist side by side: such contrasts appear today, for example, in Australia, where the stone age and the jet age can be found in close proximity. Thus in interpreting the descriptions of Ibn Fadlan we need not postulate a Neanderthal remnant, unless we are fancifully inclined to do so.”

In the end, the arguments stumble over a well-known limitation to the scientific method itself. The physicist Gerhard Robbins observes that “strictly speaking, no hypothesis or theory can ever be proven. It can only be disproven. When we say we believe a theory, what we really mean is that we are unable to show that the theory is wrong-not that we are able to show, beyond doubt, that the theory is right.



“A scientific theory may stand for years, even centuries, and it may accumulate hundreds of bits of corroborating evidence to support it. Yet a theory is always vulnerable, and a single conflicting finding is all that is required to throw the hypothesis into disarray, and call for a new theory. One can never know when such conflicting evidence will arise. Perhaps it will happen tomorrow, perhaps never. But the history of science is strewn with the ruins of mighty edifices toppled by an accident, or a triviality.”

This is what Geoffrey Wrightwood meant when he said at the Seventh International Symposium on Human Paleontology in Geneva in 1972: “All I need is one skull, or a fragment of a skull, or a bit of jaw. In fact, all I need is one good tooth, and the debate is concluded.”

Until that skeletal evidence is found, speculation will continue, and one may adopt whatever stance satisfies an inner sense of the fitness of things.

 

SOURCES

 

 

I. PRIMARY SOURCE

Yakut ibn-Abdallah MS, a geographical lexicon,?A.D. 1400. Nos. 1403A-1589A, Archives University Library, Oslo, Norway.

Trans:

Blake, Robert, and Frye, Richard; in Byzantina -Metabyzantina: A Journal of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies , New York, 1947.

Cook, Albert S.; New York, 1947.

Fraus-Dolus, Per; Oslo, 1959-1960.

Jorgensen, Olaf, 1971, unpublished

Nasir, Seyed Hossein; 1971, unpublished.

St. Petersburg MS, a local history, published by the Academy of St. Petersburg, 1823. Nos. 233M-278M, Archives University Library, Oslo, Norway.

Trans:

Fraus-Dolus, Per; Oslo, 1959-1960.

Stenuit, Roger; 1971, unpublished.

Soletsky, V. K.; 1971, unpublished.

Ahmad Tusi MS, a geography, A.D. 1047, papers of J. H. Emerson. Nos. LV 01-114, Archives University Library, Oslo, Norway.

Trans:

Fraus-Dolus, Per; Oslo, 1959-1960.

Nasir, Seyed Hossein; 1971, unpublished.

Hitti, A. M.; 1971, unpublished.

Amin Razi MS, a history of warfare, A.D. 1585-1595, papers of J. H. Emerson. Nos. LV 207-244, Archives University Library, Oslo, Norway.

Trans:

Fraus-Dolus, Per; Oslo, 1959-1960.

Bendixon, Robert; 1971, unpublished.

Porteus, Eleanor; 1971, unpublished.

Xymos MS, a fragmentary geography,? date, bequest estate A. G. Gavras. Nos. 2308T-2348T, Archives University Library, Oslo, Norway.

Trans:

Fraus-Dolus, Per; Oslo, 1959-1960.

Bendixon, Robert; 1971, unpublished.

Porteus, Eleanor; 1971, unpublished.

 

II. SECONDARY SOURCES

 

Berndt, E., and Berndt, R. H. “An Annotated Bibliography of References to the Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan from 1794 to 1970,” Acta  Archaeologica , VI: 334-389, 1971.

This remarkable compilation will refer the interested reader to all secondary sources concerning the manuscript, which have appeared in English, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Russian, French, Spanish, and Arabic for the dates cited. The total number of sources listed is 1,042.

 

III. GENERAL REFERENCE WORKS

The following are suitable for the general reader with no particular archaeological or historical background. Only works in English are cited.

Wilson, D. M. The Vikings , London, 1970.

Brondsted, J. The Vikings , London, 1960, 1965.

Arbman, H. The Vikings , London, 1961.

Jones, G. A History of the Vikings , Oxford, 1968.

Sawyer, P. The Age of the Vikings , London, 1962.

Foote, P. G., and Wilson, D. M. The Viking Achievement , London, 1970.

Kendrick, T. D. A History of the Vikings , London, 1930.

Azhared, Abdul. Necronomicon [ed. H. P. Lovecraft], Providence, Rhode Island, 1934.

 







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