Arthur Nicols.

The puzzle of life, and how it has been put together : a short history of the formation of the earth, with its vegetable and animal life, from the earliest times, including an account of Pre-historic man, his Weapons, Tools, and Works online

. (page 5 of 8)
Online LibraryArthur NicolsThe puzzle of life, and how it has been put together : a short history of the formation of the earth, with its vegetable and animal life, from the earliest times, including an account of Pre-historic man, his Weapons, Tools, and Works → online text (page 5 of 8)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


examine it in a powerful microscope we see
that it is made almost entirely of tiny shells,
so small that myriads of them could be
packed in a nut-shell. How long must they
have been working to make all the stone beds
of which Paris is built ? We cannot measure
the time, we can only know it must have
been enormous !

All kinds of animals both of sea and land
increased in numbers and perfection. The
ammonites were dead, but their even more
beautiful relation, the nautilus, was living as
it is now. The trilobite was gone, but his
next relation, the lobster and crab, appeared.
Fishes abounded. Whales which suckle their
young ones appeared, and the numbers of ver-
tebrata, or animals with backbones, were more
numerous than they had ever been before.
Just as animals with bones are more perfect
than those with only skins or shells, so animals
which suckle their young ones are more perfect
than those which only lay eggs. Thus the
whale is a more perfect animal than the shark,
though both inhabit the water ; and elephants
and even rats and mice more perfect still ; and


because there were so many of these "sticklers,"
or mammalia as they are called, in the Tertiary
period, we know that all living creatures were
becoming more perfect. It will interest you
too to learn that monkeys began to appear
now, and that they were common in France,
while at the present time the only part of
Europe where they are to be found is on the
rock of Gibraltar.

But I want particularly to tell you of the
giant animals the Mammoth, Mastodon,
Megatherium, Dinotherium, and others, and
first let us see what the mammoth was like.

In former times, when people accidentally
found the bones of these animals, they actually
thought they had belonged to giant men,, and
we can scarcely wonder at that : but we know
better. If only one small bone is shown to
Professor Owen or Professor Huxley, he can
tell at once whether it belonged to a man or
an animal, a fish or a bird, and very often
the particular animal too. Well, the bones of
the mammoth were found in the north of
Russia on the banks of the river Lena in
1 800 : but the Russians knew of them before


that, and the name they gave the animal
means " earth," because they supposed it
burrowed in the earth like a mole. This one
is now in the Museum at St. Petersburg, and
its brownish coat and long black hairs, and
even the hoofs and some of the flesh, can be
distinctly seen. The drawing in the frontis-
piece is taken from it. It was strange that
any people could have supposed that this
huge creature, larger than an elephant and
with great curved tusks ten feet long and
weighing 160 Ibs., could have got under-
ground of its own accord : but that was the
only way in which they could account for
finding it buried in the earth on the banks of
the rivers. Look at the picture in the frontis-
piece ; what a splendid animal he was, this old
elephant ; larger and stronger than any living
elephants ! Immense quantities of their bones
are found in Siberia, and the tusks and teeth
are brought in ship-loads to England, where
they are sold for their ivory. Their skeletons
have been found in most countries of Europe,
in many parts of Asia, and in North America,
and these animals must have been common


at one time near London, for their bones have
been dug up in the brick earth at Ilford in
Essex and other places near the Thames.
There is a skull with tusks set up with iron
supports in the British Museum. 1

There was besides another animal very
much like this called the Mastodon ; but it had
tusks in the lower jaws as well as the upper,
four in all, and the lower tusks dropped out
when the animal grew old. The whole
skeleton of one of these is also put up in the
Museum, which you ought to go and see.' 2
Mastodons' bones have been discovered in
England and other parts of Europe, and in
North and South America and India, so that
they were spread pretty well all over the world.
They had very curious pointed teeth rather
like a lot of fir cones piled together, not flat
grinders like those of the mammoth and all
living elephants, and perhaps they fed upon
fruits and nuts, and boughs, as I do not think
they could have managed well to chew grass
and leaves with such pointed teeth. The
teeth in their old dead jaws are still beauti-

1 Room VI., North Gallery. 2 In the same room,


fully white and look like china. Both the
mammoth and the mastodon had long trunks
of course, and they must have been grand look-
ing creatures marching about in the English
forests. We should be very much startled if
we were to meet one of them now in an Eng-
lish wood : but there is no chance of that,
they have all passed away, and the only
relations they have living are the elephants of
Africa and Asia.

During this Tertiary period, or at least
the early part of it, besides the mammoth and
mastodon, the hippopotamus and rhinoceros
were plentiful about the Thames. Those
same Ilford marshes in Essex have been a
complete storehouse of the remains of these
animals. The bones of a hundred different
mammoths and eighty rhinoceroses have been
dug up lately from the damp, black soil, as
well as many belonging to the hippopotamus,
and we can have no doubt that all the
swamps along the north side of the river
were inhabited by large herds of these huge
beasts, or so many of their skeletons could
not have been collected in one place. It is


very likely they were overtaken in a flood of
the river and drowned, and their bodies sank
down in the mud of the river bank : but any-
how, there they are to tell us that they
lived and died almost within sight of the
Tower of London, if it had been built then,
as of course it was not.

Long long ago too, before there was a
single brick where London stands, and when
the few human beings who were living were
obliged to hide themselves in caves, great
lions might have been heard roaring at night
in the forests of the Thames Valley. The
bones of this lion have been found in many
different parts of England, and a terrible
fellow he must have been, for some of his
canine teeth (the long sharp teeth in cats and
dogs) were more than six inches long. Indeed
they were like small swords, and this is why
he has been called the " sabre-toothed " lion.
There were also bears, like the great grisly
bear of America, and leopards, hyenas, and
wolves, and besides two kinds of ox far larger
than those we have now. But one of the
handsomest animals was the great Irish stag.



When standing upright the top of his horns
would be as high as two tall men. He was
indeed a fine fellow with his immense spread-
ing antlers. The deer in our parks would
look dwarfs beside him. He inhabited both
England and Ireland : but, being found more
often in Ireland, he has got the name of the
Irish stag. As many as thirty of the
skeletons of these stags have been found to-
gether under a bog in Ireland, and in some of
the bones the marrow is still preserved, and
they burn well. Fences have been made of
these bones in Ireland, and when the people
of a small village .in the county of Antrim
heard of the battle of Waterloo they made a
great bonfire of the bones and horns of the
Irish stag to rejoice over the victory. I dare
say these stags were hunted by wolves, and
perhaps driven on to the ice of ancient lakes,
where they broke through and got drowned,
for so many of their skeletons are found to-
gether. I could not pass this magnificent stag
by without giving you a picture of him. 1 He

1 Complete specimens of male and female in the middle
of Room V.


was a much nobler looking animal than the
reindeer, which lived along with him at the time
in England, and from his appearance I should
say he was a swift runner and great fighter.
Some antlers have been found locked together,
just as these stags died in mortal combat, and
I never see Sir Edwin Landseer's beautiful
picture of two red- deer stags fighting without
thinking what a grand sight it would have been
to see two of these great Irish stags rushing
at each other with their powerful horns.

Not one of those animals is living now,
and none of them is mentioned in any history
or tradition whatever, and though there is no
doubt that men living in Europe saw the
mammoth alive (as you will find in the next
chapter), they knew of no kind of writing in
which to tell us of them ; these fossils are
the only records left, but they speak plainly
enough of the time when England and the
whole of Europe were inhabited by these
races of huge animals.

Now I must carry you away to South
America, where there are more wonders. If
I were to tell you of all the singular monsters


people have found in the beds of the rivers
there it would make a book of itself. You
know what large rivers there are in that
country, and how they run for thousands of
miles through almost flat plains called
" Pampas." Well, these rivers have often
changed their beds by cutting new channels
in the soft soil. The old dry beds of the
rivers are the burying-places of some most
curious animals, but I have not room to tell
you about more than one of them at present.
He is called the Megatherium, which means
" great beast." His size and strength were
enormous. The largest hippopotamus looks
small by his side. His leg bones are bigger
than your body. He was more like the
sloth than any other living animal, but he
could not climb. He stood on those huge,
broad hind feet, with his strong tail as a sort
of third leg, and tore down the branches of
the trees to feed on, or even rooted them up
to get at the leaves. Standing by his skeleton
in the British Museum 1 one feels quite a
shrimp, and he looks strong enough to walk

1 Room VI.



away comfortably with an elephant on his

Another immense animal inhabited South
America at the time, which geologists have
called Dinotherium, or "dreadful beast." 1 He
was a relation of the mastodon, but his tusks
were very curious. Instead of being in the
upper jaw and turned upwards they stuck out
from the lower jaw and curved downwards,
giving him a very odd appearance. He most
probably had a trunk like the mammoth or
mastodon, but perhaps not so long. All these
of course were vegetable feeders.

The Tertiary period is so remarkable for
the numbers of animals more or less related
to elephants and spread all over the world,
that we might almost call it the " elephant
age," as the oolite has been named the " reptile
age." These elephantine animals abounded
in Europe, Asia, and North and South
America, and though none of this kind have
yet been found in Australia and Africa, I
cannot help thinking they will be discovered
in Africa at all events, for there is no doubt
that Africa and Europe were once joined.

1 Head and tusks in Wall-case No. 2, Room VI.


Australia you know possesses that animal
so unlike all others that when we first see it
we are quite astonished the kangaroo. The
bones of a huge fossil kangaroo have been
found in Australia which must have stood
fourteen or fifteen feet high I should think
when on its hind legs, or more than twice as.
large as any living now. 1 Then there were
giant birds in New Zealand (something like
the ostrich) called dinornis or " dreadful bird."
These fellows had no wings, and they must
have been very much taller than the ostrich
or emu. To look at their leg bones you
would think they were the bones of oxen
instead of birds, they are so immensely thick
and strong. I do not think any of these are
living now, because they have been sought
for carefully, and none of the natives even
can say that they have seen one. But their
skeletons are common in the surface earth,
and their bones, cracked to get the marrow
out of them, are often dug out of the heaps
of refuse collected about ancient cooking-


places. So that they were used for food, and

1 Skull in Wall-case No. I, Room VI.

I 2


perhaps they have not been extinct that is
to say, died out more than a few hundred
years ; and this is more likely because feathers
are sometimes attached to the remains, and
undecayed sinews on the feet. A human skele-
ton has been found in a grave in New Zealand,
too, with the egg of one between its arms, and
little piles of pebbles are often seen among
their bones, where the stomach would be, which
the bird swallowed to digest its food, just as
many birds do now. The natives called it the
Moa, and they have some traditions about it,
and, all things considered, it is probably one
of the most recent fossil animals, and that is
the reason why I have left it to the last. 1

Now I dare say you will wish to know
when the animals living now took the place
of those I have described, and which have all
passed away. This cannot be told with cer-
tainty, but you will see in the " Human Part "
that Men were living when the mammoth,
mastodon, and some other extinct animals, in-
habited the Earth, and that the reindeer, ox,
bear, wolf, hyena, &c., have survived to the
present day.

1 Several specimens in Wall-case No. n, Room III.


Throughout these immense periods of
time there are gaps which we cannot yet
fill up. No one can yet say, for instance,
when the last of the mammoths disappeared,
and the first of their near relations, the In-
dian and African elephants, took their place.
These are the missing parts of " the puzzle
of life " which you may perhaps one of these
days find when you come to study the subject,
and when you have learned all that is known
at present. But you may be sure of this, that
throughout all time there has been progress^
the lower forms of animal life have been fol-
lowed by more perfect forms as the Earth
grew older. It is true the lower forms of
life have not all died out. These imperfect
animals have run through all the ages the
chalk builder of the Cretaceous age lives in
the ocean now and there are many other
simple animals which lived in Old Red Sand-
stone times, and are not extinct yet, but
wherever a superior kind of animal has passed
away another more perfect has taken its place.
This will be seen at once if we compare the
" Reptile Age " with the Tertiary. The great
ichthyosaurus, plesiosaurus, and pterodactyl


are gone, but now we have the more perfect
crocodiles and birds. The mammoth is gone,
but we have the elephant. There are no
giant mosses or towering tree ferns, but our
forest trees are more perfect and more varied.
The plants which formed the coal forests and
once clothed the Earth with beauty have
dwindled away to the lowly forms which we
must stoop to examine in swamps, and these
humble plants are all the surviving relatives
of their once noble family. The lordly oaks,
and elms, stronger, and even more lovely in
the sweet drapery of their foliage, and much
better fitted for our use, have succeeded all
those soft-stemmed plants which grew so fast
and were the best possible kind for forming

When you are able to study what is called
comparative anatomy you will see how wonder-
ful the plan of creation is, and how beautifully
it has been worked out by its great Designer.
You will see in the bones of the reptiles of the
oolite rocks a prophecy as it were of the birds
and animals which were to come. What
could be more prophetic of animals with the


power of perfect flight than the leather-winged
pterodactyl, half lizard and half bird ? In
some of these animals you will see bones only
half formed, and useless to that creature, which
were brought to perfection in later times, and
became the most important part of the body.
It is very difficult for me to make all this
plain to you, but if you are really interested
in it you will go to a museum where the fossils
are collected, and then I am very much mis-
taken if you do not find a new and strange
world opened to you.



THE history of the human race is of course
even more interesting than that of the plants
and animals which lived so long before man
and prepared the way for him, because man
is the "crown of creation."

When first placed on this Earth he must
have been but little superior to the animals in
his outward life, though he had very different
powers within him. He could gather the
fruits of the Earth like them, and perhaps
used some of the smaller creatures as food,
but he could do little more. He scarcely
knew that he possessed the faculties which
would in time make him lord of the Earth
and the creatures inhabiting it. By slow
and painful experience he was to gather
those stores of knowledge that were to enable
him to overcome difficulties, to provide him
with shelter from the weather and protection
from dangerous animals, give increasing com-


fort and power, and set him so far above all
other created things. He found plants and
animals for his use, and the dwellings in caves
and holes ready made by Nature. He could
neither build houses nor make weapons.
The first weapon he ever used probably was
a stone, which he could throw at small animals.
Then he would find out that long, sharp-
pointed sticks could be thrown like spears,
and he also found that a long pliant piece of
wood when bent would fly back, and in this
he would see a means of throwing smaller
pointed sticks like arrows, and I dare say the
discovery of the way of making a bow with
a string of twisted animal skin was a great
invention, and it certainly would be a very
valuable one. Many generations must have
passed away before he got even as far as this.
It is very easy for us, who see bows and arrows
from our childhood, to understand their use at
once : but the first human inhabitants of the
world had to find them out for themselves.
They began with no knowledge at all. The
beasts of the field and the fruits of the Earth
were given them, but they could MAKE nothing.


They had not even the natural covering of
hair, or wool, or feathers, which animals and
birds have, and they must first have clothed
themselves with skins of these. The wants
of their daily life were so great that they had
no time to think of anything else, but when
it became easier to satisfy these bodily wants
their minds turned to other things. They must
have seen that when the seeds and fruits of
plants fall upon the ground they grow and pro-
duce the same kind of plant, but they did not
at first think of gathering a great number of
these seeds and sowing them in one place and
making a garden. They could wander about
and gather all they needed as they became
ripe, for there were few people then. Their
life was like that of the lilies of the field, they
" toiled not neither did they spin," as Christ
says of the flowers, but when they began to
increase in number something more was
wanted. People began to feel something
within them which we call " intellect," and
this must be satisfied. It was not enough to
live as if they were no nobler than the animals.
Something stirred in their minds which told
them thev must not stand still.


The Creator has made both us and the
wood and stone and metals, and has given
to us the power to make other things out of
them. Thus we are nearer to Him in power
than any of the animals who cannot change the
rough materials into other forms. We admire
the simple and really beautiful nest of the
bird, but we feel that our power is greater
when we consider our splendid buildings and
steam-engines, our ships, and our many con-
quests over difficulties. But if we did not
use these greater powers of mind and hand
well, we should find them grow weaker and
weaker until we might almost lose them.

You may easily suppose that there was a
time when men could not write, and there
were no books of any kind, nor any other
means of exchanging thoughts except through
spoken language. The earliest histories
about the human race always speak of men
who lived before those histories were written.
We have nothing about the earliest men
written by themselves. It is always someone
else who writes of them, referring to their
deeds, and to events which happened long


The art of writing has grown up gradu-
ally and very slowly, for when the inhabitants
of the Earth became numerous they felt the
need of some way of expressing themselves to
those at a distance from them, and for making
a record of things that happened and might
be forgotten. Some of the earliest means
of writing were by pictures, like the picture
writings of Mexico 1 found by the Spanish
conquerors, and something of the same kind
is even now used by the Chinese and
Japanese. Their writing is made up partly
of pictures and partly of queer signs which
stand for the names of things, as you know if
you have ever seen one of their books. One
of the oldest forms of writing known is the
hieroglyphic, which is said to have been first
used by the Egyptians about 2,100 years
before Christ, and another is the arrow-shaped
writing of the Assyrians. These were cut on
stone and metal tablets, and most of them are
the histories of their kings. But there are
some writings on stone in India which are
thought to be older still. The Egyptians

1 A fine Mexican MS. on diapered cloth, with figures and
mystical signs, has lately been added to the MS. department
of the British Museum.


made great progress in writing afterwards
when papyrus was invented. 1 This is a kind
of paper made from a reed which grows
abundantly in the river Nile, and many of
these papyrus writings are preserved in the
British Museum, as well as the writings on
stone of the Egyptians and Assyrians, and
learned men have spelled out a great deal of
the history of these nations from them, though
the language is quite different from any
spoken or written now.

Picture writing was most likely one of
the earliest inventions in this way : but it
was so troublesome that signs were used to
express the same things as the picture. For
instance, suppose a history of a king was to be
written. The word "king" would be shown
by something he always wore, such as his
crown, and this sign would become more
simple until at last it might not be anything
like a crown ; but it would be remembered
that the sign stood for a king all the same.
The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph,
means an ox, and the letter is something like

1 Some fine examples of papyrus writings on the North-
west Staircase, Upper Floor.


the shape of the head of that animal with
its horns ; and another letter, called shin,
which in Hebrew means a tooth, is actually
very like a tooth with three points. In many
languages these signs have become so altered
that they do not now resemble the things
they at first stood for ; but the first steps in the
invention of written language were certainly
made by signs representing the thing of
which the person wished to give an idea.
But you will learn all about these ancient
writings from other books.

The men whose lives I am going to
describe lived long before any of these writ-
ings were invented. They spoke a language
of course, though there is nothing left to show
that they knew of any kind of writing, and they
are called Pre-historic men because they lived
before there were any histories either written
by themselves or about them. But they
could draw a little, as we know from the
pictures of animals, birds, and fishes scratched
upon pieces of slate, and bone, and stone found
in their graves. Perhaps these pictures were
memorials of their great or wise men, or showed
that they were clever hunters, or fishermen.


They knew the use of fire. Half burnt
bones and wood and ashes are plentiful in the
caves where they lived. They had none of
the means we possess for kindling fire, and
there are only two ways by which they could
have got it. They might have rubbed two
pieces of very dry wood together until the
heat lighted them, as many savages do at
the present time ; or they might have struck
sparks from flint upon rotten wood and blown
the spark into a flame. We may be sure that
when once a fire was lighted they would take

1 2 3 5 7 8

Online LibraryArthur NicolsThe puzzle of life, and how it has been put together : a short history of the formation of the earth, with its vegetable and animal life, from the earliest times, including an account of Pre-historic man, his Weapons, Tools, and Works → online text (page 5 of 8)