Towards a New Intellectual History: The Reception of the Antiquity of Man in Britain, 1859-1869

A.H. Thompson (Trans. of the Kansas Academy of Science, 1877) wrote that, in 1859, ‘the theory of the antiquity of man burst upon the scientific world with an irresistible force’. Although many gentlemen archaeologists had argued for decades, on the basis of paleontology, that man had lived with extinct mammals, and thus inferred great time depth for our species, most authorities were unpersuaded. Most gentlemen scientists (this was decades before the emergence of scientific disciplines at the turn of the century) continued to buy the Biblical interpretation; or if they suspected that our species originated through processes of natural history, continued to believe that mankind was no older than a few thousand years. In either case, the notion that men had walked with mammoths was marginal in scientific circles. It is also quite likely that the Biblical interpretation continued to exercise a stranglehold on the public mind at large. Before the annus mirabilis, few believed that our species was older than a few thousand years.

The story of how scientific opinion changed dramatically in 1859-1863 is now fairly well understood. Intellectual historians have looked with a fine-toothed comb at the scientific reception of Darwin’s Origin of Species, published on November 24, 1859, 160 years ago to the day. They have also looked at the scientific reception of Sir Charles Lyell’s The Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man in 1863. Much fuss has been made about the former. But, at the time, the latter was more important. LyellBasically what happened in the scientific community at the time is this: Lyell was the most respected scientific authority of the day on the subject. Until 1858, he had been skeptical of inferring great time depth because of the unreliability of stratigraphic dating of fossils found in caves. But new evidence from much more reliably dated open air sites on the continent, that he went to inspect first hand, led him to question his own skepticism in 1858-1859. In the latter year, Lyell underwent a personal conversion; a Warrenesque moment. Geological Evidences was a vast encyclopedic work that assembled all the evidence uncovered by midcentury scholars to bear on the question. As we shall see, the public reception in Britain was electric.

We are interested in asking whether and how intellectual innovations from up high percolated down to everyday understandings. The former is the traditional domain of the intellectual historian; the latter of the social historian. Intellectual historians pay careful attention to how everyday preconceptions condition the intellectual work of scholars. But can we identify causal vectors pointing downhill? from high to low? from high intellectual to everyday understandings? This is the hard problem that, what we call, the New Intellectual History, wants to solve. Can this be done? Perhaps not to complete satisfaction. But there are indeed ways to make progress on the hard problem.

Here we examine the Gale primary sources database. We distinguish between scientific monographs on the one hand and British newspaper articles on the other. The former is a barometer of scientific interest; a question of high intellectual history. The latter is a barometer of the attention of the reading public. In order to make causal inferences, we think of the Habermasian public sphere as an intermediary between the high intellectual history on the one hand, and the low socio-intellectual history of everyday beliefs and understandings on the other. By intercepting the downhill flow of ideas midway in this sense, we can perhaps solve half the problem raised by the New Intellectual History.

We find 12 newspapers articles that mention “antiquity of man” for the first time in 1860, 21 in 1861, 118 in 1862, and an absolutely gargantuan 498 in 1863. Press attention then falls rapidly. But it is sustained at a moderate level through the rest of the century. In 1870-1900, an average of 47 articles appeared every year in British newspapers with this phrase. The diachronic pattern in scientific monographs is manifestly different. Numerous monographs talk about the antiquity of mankind until the late-1870s. There is a revival of interest in the 1890s. Scientific interest flags after 1897, a very significant date in European geopolitics.


In the Western imaginary, the antiquity of man implied the antiquity of the races of man. This had been a long-standing obsession of the intellectuals; triggered by the discovery of the bewildering anthropological variation revealed by the collision of the continents.  But public attention became riveted on the question of ‘the races of man’ in the 1860s. By the end of the decade, it fell back to moderate levels. From there on, public attention followed a cyclical pattern with a pronounced negative trend.


But ‘the races of man’ was, in an important way, subordinate to the question of ‘the races of Europe’. The latter had implications for the national question on the continent. So, whereas attention to ‘the races of man’ declined after 1870, the discourse of ‘the races of Europe’ in the public sphere, saw a major revival in the 1880s; there are regimes and cycles in addition to a trend in both high and low ngrams. The scientific discourse had a different pattern. Interest revived at the end of the 1890s and, except for two brief revivals around 1890 and 1900, sustained at a modest level; finally collapsing in the late-1920s.


We find different patterns in Ngrams for ‘primitive races’. Usage of ‘primitive races’ in scientific monographs spiked around 1870 and again, to a lesser extent, in the mid-1880s. Usage of the same in the British newspapers undergoes an entirely different cycle, taking off after the annus mirabilis, and peaking in the late-1920s.


Even more important to high racialism was the beginnings of physical anthropology. Although Retzius had introduced the notion of the cephalic or cranial index, the ratio of the head length to head breadth, in 1842, it was until after 1860 that it entered the public imagination. References to ‘dolichocephalic’ and ‘brachycephalic’ in the newspapers begin in the late-1850s, spike dramatically in 1863-1869. And the interest was sustained. The pattern in scientific monographs is different. Mentions peak in 1890-1910, corresponding the birth of physical anthropology as a modern scientific discipline — in the sense of being subject to agreed-upon standards of evidence and argumentation, and with the full apparatus of peer reviewed journals, tenure-track positions, and PhD granting institutions.


As I’ve mentioned before, the logic of physical anthropology was seductive: Skeletal characters could help you track people in deep history, pots could be tied to people, so you could “show” that higher levels of civilization were achieved with the arrival of more vigorous races. Jon Røyne Kyllingstad explains in Measuring the Master Race: Physical Anthropology in Norway, 1890-1945:

Retzius and Nilsson’s migration theory was not only an account of the origin of the Swedes, it was also a grand theory about the rise of European civilisation. They proposed that the Sami and the Basques were the descendants of inferior Stone Age peoples that had originally inhabited all of Europe. These short-skulled autochthones had later been overrun by successive waves of Indo-European invaders who brought increased levels of civilisation to Europe: the Celts introduced the Bronze Age, and the Germanics the Iron Age. Thus, the growth of European civilisation was explained by the successive invasion of races with increasingly advanced brains. Retzius’ views were extraordinarily influential. The racial-succession scheme shaped linguistic, archaeological and ethnological debates on European prehistory from the 1840s to the 1860s, and the system of classifying skulls and human races into dolichocephalics and brachycephalics had an even greater and more long-lasting impact. Indeed, the cephalic index became a key factor in most of the numerous racial typologies that were put forward by European scientists over the next 100 years.

Going back to the motivating question of paleoanthropology, we can ask whether public interest in the antiquity of man temporally tracks scientific interest in the question. The answer is that it does. Contemporaneous scientific interest, as captured by the number of monographs raising the question, explains half the time-variation in the number of newspaper articles on the same. This is quite striking evidence of the propagation of the notion of the great time-depth of our species from the high intellectual world of science to the British public sphere.


We have documented a number of patterns in these two discourses. These are the basic comprehenda of the New Intellectual History. The task in front of us is to understand why we see these patterns. We’ll start off by diving into the reception of ‘the antiquity of man’ in the British public discourse. Here’s what I want to do: Dig into the British newspapers in the 1860s to get the story of how these discoveries were understood and relayed to the lay public. And, hopefully, how they were understood by the latter.

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