How Man-Apes Became Men (Oct, 1931)
Unfortunately this article was written about twenty years before Piltdown Man was revealed to be a forgery.
How Man-Apes Became Men
A Startling Human Chapter in the Story of LIFE . . . The World’s Greatest Mystery
DR. WILLIAM K. GREGORY famous scientist of the American Museum of Natural History, has explained the origin of the earth and of life; how we got our face and other bodily parts, and man’s descent from apelike ancestors. When our earth was about one billion years old, life appeared as little specks of jelly in primeval puddles. Growing into cell-groups, then wormlike creatures, and later into air-breathing fishes that eventually crawled out onto land, these early life germs gave rise to all animals and at last man. Last month, Dr. Gregory traced man’s descent from monkeylike forbears that lived in the trees more than ten million years ago, and explained why we are still monkeys.
MR. MOK: Dr. Gregory, you promised to tell me this time about our primitive human ancestors. There are a few things I have always wanted to know: Were they really the lowbrows they are made out to be? Is it true that they were forever clubbing each other over the head?
Dr. Gregory: Yes, clubbing was one of their favorite outdoor sports.
Mr. Mok: What made them so vicious? I suppose they inherited that trait from their gorilla grand-uncles?
Dr. Gregory: I don’t think so. The manlike apes are models of innocence and without guile, for the simple reason that they haven’t brains enough to be wicked.
Mr. Mok: You mean it’s our brains that make us wicked?
Dr. Gregory: Certainly. We invented wickedness. The earliest men had just enough brains to be devilish. Wickedness and brutality are mostly the products of fear and greed. There is no reason to suppose that primitive people were less fearful and less greedy than our immediate ancestors, not to speak of such contemporaries as the gangster and the racketeer.
Mr. Mok: When did we start being good?
Dr. Gregory: About the same time. The brains that enabled early men to misbehave, also led them to discover the principles of social uprightness and service, at least in a groping, primitive way.
Mr. Mok: How do you know that?
Dr. Gregory: The Neanderthal men, who lived from 20,000 to 100,000 years ago, buried their dead, showing they had some sense of social obligation. I will tell you more about them after a while. The fact that several types of primitive men made weapons in profusion indicates that they fought alien races and tribes, as well as animals, to protect their own kind, just as we do. Besides, you can infer their probable social conduct from that of the primitive peoples of today, whose lives are full of service and loyalty.
MR. MOK: Then, wickedness on the one hand and a sense of social obligations on the other, marked the first men off from the apes?
Dr. Gregory: Those were among the things that distinguished them from their apelike ancestors. But the great dividing line is speech. That really is man’s divine gift. It set him apart from the brutes.” However, it is one of the laws of nature that we must pay a penalty for each * advance. Speech freed man from the mark of the beast, but it committed him to another form of slaveryâ€”conscience.
Mr. Mok: Cannot conscience exist apart from speech?
Dr. Gregory: I do not believe it can. Conscience is the accumulated memory of our mothers’ scoldings.
Mr. Mok: As I understand it, man left the apes behind and became a real man when he began to talk?
Dr. Gregory: Exactly.
Mr. Mok: Who was this original orator?
Dr. Gregory: That is difficult to say. As I told you last month, the trouble in this business of the first men is that there are too many “missing links.”
Mr. Mok: What do you mean by that?
Dr. Gregory: I mean that we now have so many different kinds of fossil men â€”that is, fossilized remains of pre-human typesâ€”that it is hard to determine their relationships to each other and to their ancestors. Paradoxically, there are too many and, at the same time, there are not quite enough of them. In other words, their present number is so large as to be confusing, but not sufficiently large to settle the question. Among these various specimens of skulls, jawbones, teeth, and thighs of his earliest human ancestors, the investigator must pick his way gingerly. Nature is full of booby traps to catch the unwary scientist.
Mr. Mok: Booby traps?
Dr. Gregory: Yes. Take, for example, the famous Java Ape Man, or, to give him his official name, Pithecanthropus Erectus, discovered in 1891 by a Dutch scientist, Professor Dubois. His remainsâ€”I mean the Ape Man’s, of courseâ€”were not found nicely tied up in a package like an Egyptian mummy, with a gold name plate on the outside of the tomb giving his name and address. They were scattered along the ancient stream bed of the river Solo. First, the top of his head was found; then, his thigh bone; further on, three teeth; and, finally, a bit of the chin region.
Mr. Mok: What was wrong with that? I should think you scientists would have been delighted.
Dr. GREGORY: Not so you could notice it. Immediately, a big, worldwide fight started on this question: Did these fragments belong to one creature and had they been scattered by running water, or were they the remains of several creatures of different kinds?
Mr. Mok: What was the answer?
Dr. Gregory: I am coming to that in a minute. Another distressing feature of the situation was that the skull-top was so primitive that many experts did not believe it was human at all. Some said it simply was the toppiece of a giant gibbon. As a matter of fact it was extremely gibbonlike, for it indicated that its owner had jutting eyebrows, a low brain-case, and an excessively low forehead. So, at first, poor Pithecanthropus was banned from the sacred precincts of the human family.
Mr. Mok: When was he readmitted?
DR. GREGORY: Don’t make me run ahead of my story. One circumstance that caused much doubt as to whether we were dealing with one or more creatures was the puzzling combination of his characteristics. The skull-top was extremely apelike. On the other hand, the thigh bone was entirely human. But the most baffling feature was the teeth. Two of the three were molars, and these presented a fine confusion of mixed resemblances. In some ways, they were like the molars of the orang-utan, and in others like those of living primitive humans, such as the Australian bushmen.
Mr. Mok: How will we laymen ever find out whether this creature was an ape or a man when you experts can’t make up your minds?
Dr. Gregory: Our minds happen to be made up as far as Pithecanthropus is concerned. But the fact that experts can scarcely distinguish between the apelike and manlike features of fossils of this kind is due to the close relationship of ape and man. If it were not so close, there would be little difficulty. That is what I meant when I said that nature is full of booby traps. As for the Java Ape Man, the poor lowbrow for many years was the defenseless butt for the attacks of those who refused to believe that he was a man. However, after a Thirty-Years’ War, the matter was finally settled. Mr. Mok: How?
Dr.. GREGORY: In 1921, Professor Dubois, the Ape Man’s discoverer, came forward with a plaster cast of the inside of the skull. It gave a very close approximation of the shape of the brain, and showed to the complete satisfaction of the foremost brain experts that Pithecanthropus doubtless had been one of humanity’s great pioneers.
Mr. Mok: What caused the thirty-year delay?
Dr. Gregory: It actually took Dubois that long to remove the rock that during thousands of centuries had accumulated inside the skull. He had to pick it out literally a needleful at a time. When he finally got it free, there was the imprint of the brain inside the skull, as it always is, and all he had to do then was to pour plaster of Paris into it.
Mr. Mok: Why did this brain cast remove the doubts as to the Ape Man’s status?
Dr. Gregory: Because there is no living ape that can be compared with Pithecanthropus in the development of certain parts of the brain.
Mr. Mok: Does that mean that he could speak?
Dr. Gregory: Yes, it is the strongest possible evidence that he could.
Mr. Mok: What prevents you, then, from assuming that he was the missing link and the world’s first possessor of the gift of gab?
Dr. Gregory: I am afraid your early training is responsible for your insistence that one definite individual must have been the first human being. You see, there are several of these fossil men of approximately the same age, one about as primitive as the other. Each one is a link in the chain that connects man with his apelike ancestors.
Mr. Mok: When did these old chaps walk the earth?
Dr. Gregory: There are various opinions as to their age. My view is that they lived about the beginning of the Great Ice Ageâ€”that is, in the neighborhood of 1,000,000 years ago. However, if by “missing link” you mean a specimen that seems to bridge the gap between the highest ape forms and the most primitive humans, then, in my opinion, the little South African fossil man-ape comes closest to filling the bill.
Mr. Mok: A man-ape?
DR. GREGORY: Yes. It is the most manlike ape ever discovered. This is the opinion of the majority of scientists who have studied the matter closely, though Dr. Raymond Dart, of South Africa, who discovered this remarkable skull and made his find public in 1925, holds the opposite view. He is convinced we have to do with a direct ancestor of man.
Mr. Mok: Why do you call it a little man-ape? Was it an especially small species?
Dr. Gregory: No, it was a young one, probably about three years old. The size of the head is that of a one-year-old human baby, but the forehead is less bulging. It is one of the finest and most helpful fossil specimens ever found, for three reasons. First, the bony structure of the face and the brain case both have been preserved. Second, the head exposes the skull on one side and the interior of the brain case on the other. Third, all the milk teeth are in place, as well as the first permanent molars on both sides, above and below. Through study of the teeth the approximate age of the creature was established.
MR. MOK: What makes you think that it wasn’t just a young ape?
Dr. Gregory: The face is distinctly more like a human infant’s than like an ape young’s. The shape of the palate also is much more manlike than that of the highest apes, so that the tooth-line is rounded in the human fashion, instead of jutting out. On the other hand, these teeth, when studied individually, show an amazing mixture of human and ape characteristics. And mind you, this time they were not found scattered in a woods or along a stream, but in two neat rows right in the little fellow’s head, so there is no doubt that they belong to the one individual. Finally, the brain is slightly but distinctly more advanced than it is in most chimpanzees and gorillas of the same tooth-age, and the brow-ridges do not project as much. Whatever this youngster’s exact place on our family tree may be, he shows the first structural steps by which these humble creatures struggled out of the ape stage into the human. But certain features of the place where the skull was found convince me, even more than these structural characteristics, that we are dealing with one of the great intermediate stages between the apes and man.
Mr. Mok: Where was it found?
Dr. Gregory: At Taungs, in Bechuana-land, eighty miles north of Kimberley and 1,000 miles south of the nearest home of any known living ape. This would be remarkable enough in itself, but there is more. It is a region which is arid now and has been for long geological periodsâ€”a million years or more. Mr. Mok: What is so striking about that?
Dr. Gregory: The striking part is that it is in just such a semidesert, far away from any forest, that scientists look for the birthplace of humanity.
Mr. Mok: Why?
Dr. Gregory: Because many authorities believe that, if the forest had remained intact, there would have been no incentive for our apelike ancestors to come out on the plains, and you and I would still be living in the trees. But no matter where humanity arose, I feel confident that it was this kind of creature that heralded the advent of man.
Mr. Mok: Where do you believe this great event occurred?
DR. GREGORY: There are hosts of things I am not sure of, but of one thing I am absolutely certain. That is that man originated in the Old World; I mean in the Eastern Hemisphere, but not in Australia. There are two historic schools of opinion as to where in this wide region it may have happened. Darwin hinted that man might have emerged from the apes in Africa, but all other scientists, with few exceptions, look to Central Asia as man’s most likely birthplace. As you know, the expedition of the American Museum of Natural History, now exploring Mongolia under the leadership of Roy Chapman Andrews, is constantly searching that country for clues of man’s origin. Dr. Dart is one of the exceptions. He believes his little man-ape shows that Africa must have been the cradle of humanity.
Mr. Mok : How long ago did the African man-ape live?
Dr. Gregory: In any case, more than a million years ago; perhaps five or six million years.
Mr. Mok: Then the Java Man is more recent ?
Dr. Gregory: Very probably.
Mr. Mok : You told me there were several of these fossil men, all about the same age. What are some of the others?
DR. GREGORY: One of the most famous is the Piltdown Man, so called because he was found, about twenty years ago, on Piltdown Common, at Fletching, in Sussex, England. When I say “he,” you must realize that all that was found at first was a number of skull fragments. A workman, digging in a gravel deposit, smashed the skull with his pickax, scattering pieces over the road. The fragments were gathered up by an English geologist, Charles Dawson, and taken to the British Museum. Immediately, another big scientific fight flared up. Mr. Mok: What was the trouble this time?
Dr. Gregory: The skull was restored, meaning that scientists, after careful measurements and calculations, reconstructed the head, much in the same way in which you can reconstruct a circle from one or more segments of the circumference. This was done independently by several experts. The results ranged all the way from the moron to the intellectual!
Mr. Mok : How did each man picture the old citizen?
Dr. Gregory: Sir Arthur Smith-Woodward, foremost English fossil expert, put the pieces together in such a way as to produce a very small brain-case, almost apelike in its restriction. Sir Arthur Keith, the eminent British scientist, went to the other extreme. His restoration showed a balloonlike head as large as that of many modern men. For a time, scientists, taking sides with either of these men, were at daggers’ points. Then Professor Elliot Smith, of the University of London, and Professor J. H. McGregor, of Columbia University, New York, made restorations that struck a happy medium between the two. McGregor’s reconstruction has been adopted officially by the American Museum. It gives the Piltdown Man a somewhat higher type of skull than that of the Java Man.
Mr. Mok: Did that satisfy everybody?
DR. GREGORY: Pretty well. Mean- while, a yard from the exact spot where one of the skull fragments had been picked up, part of the lower jaw was found, with two molar teeth in place. Still, all was fairly peaceful. But a couple of years later, the Rev. Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest, one of the world’s greatest authorities on fossil men and mammals, found a single, long, apelike canine tooth in the same gravel deposit. This started the battle afresh.
Mr. Mok: What caused the new disagreement ?
Dr. Gregory : The canine tooth obviously belonged in the jaw, which was very apelike. Here, then, was a creature with a human skull, though primitive, and an apelike jaw and tooth, while the Java Man apparently shows these features more in reverse. As I told you, the Pithecanthropus skull outwardly is so apelike that many at first dismissed him as a gibbon. The contrast between the Piltdown skull on the one hand and the jaw and teeth on the other was so striking that Dr. Gerrit S. Miller, distinguished American authority on mammals, flatly declared that what we were dealing with were the remains of a primitive man and those of an extinct species of chimpanzeelike ape. As a matter of fact, the question isn’t really settled yet, though the majority now agree that the Piltdown Man was actually one creatureâ€”a man with apelike jaws and teeth.
MR. MOK: Are the apelike teeth of the Piltdown Man another example of what you call “booby traps for scientists?”
Dr. Gregory: This certainly looked like one, and Dr. Miller still thinks it was. But I will tell you of a much more striking instance. Have you ever heard of the million-dollar pig-tooth mystery?
Mr. Mok : I have not.
Dr. Gregory: That is the worst booby trap case on record. I ought to know, for I was one of those caught in it. Some years ago, a Nebraska archeologist found a half-inch, badly worn down fossil molar tooth in a rock deposit which placed its age at several million years. Delighted with his find, he sent it on to Professor Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the American Museum, who handed it over for study to his scientific assistants. After much research, all of them agreed that it was the tooth of a very ancient primitive man or of a manlike ape. Professor Osborn thereupon christened it Hesperopithecus, meaning the ape of the western world. But there were a number of scientists, both in this country and in England, who, when they got a look at the molar, didn’t at all agree with this conclusion. That started the excitement.
Mr. Mok: What was their opinion?
Dr. Gregory : There were about as many opinions as there were experts. The poor little tooth was ascribed to a zooful of animals. One thought it belonged to a bear, a second said it was the milk tooth of a fossil horse, a third believed it was the middle-ear bone of an extinct giant mammal, and so on. In preparation for a response to these criticisms, Professor Osborn turned the tooth over, for further study, to some of his associates in the Museum, including myself.
Mr. Mok: What did you do with it?
Dr. Gregory: We worked on the thing for months. We compared it with the teeth of every known animal. We had X-ray photographs made of it from every angle, and also of the teeth we compared it with. Then we published two scientific papers, in which we completely endorsed Professor Osborn’s viewâ€”that is, we decided it was the tooth of a high form of apelike creature, though we were not sure whether of an ape or of a man. Still, the criticisms continued.
Mr. Mok: What was the next step?
DR. GREGORY: The next step was a jump! I personally went to Nebraska, where I joined an expedition sent out by the Museum to gather corroborative material. We sifted tons upon tons of sand and fossil fragments, and found about a dozen similar teeth, some of which had the crowns preserved, which our specimen had not.
Mr. Mok : Did that settle it ?
Dr. Gregory: Indeed, it did. To our horror, we discovered in this way that our “treasure” was a molar of a fossil species of peccary, a remote relative of the ancient pig!
Mr. Mok : But why did you call it the “million-dollar” pig-tooth?
Dr. Gregory: When the X-ray photographs were about to be taken, I handed the tooth to the operator and jokingly told him: “Please be very careful with this; it is worth a million dollars.” The poor fellow took me seriously and got so nervous that he promptly dropped it on the stone floor. It broke into a thousand tiny pieces, and a colleague of mine and I had a fine time picking up the pieces and putting them together again. Later on, I published a paper correcting our Hesperopithecus error, but still I often was reminded, sometimes far from gently, of the “value” I had placed on the tooth. Thus ended ignominiously the one hundred percent American ape. But science profits from its mistakes, for, had this been true, it would have cast serious doubt on one of Darwin’s most important conclusions; namely, that man belongs to the Old World Division of the manlike apes, and did not cross to America until many centuries after he had reached man’s estate.
Mr. Mok: Are there any other real fossil men?
DR. GREGORY: Several. The most recent find is the so-called Peking Man, and it is probably the most important so far. As a matter of fact, there are two. One skull was found in December, 1929, and a second only last year. The discoveries were made by a group of students exploring a cave thirty-seven miles southwest of Peking, China, under the direction of Dr. Davidson Black, professor of anatomy at Peking Union Medical College, who had just issued a great scientific book on the subject. There is a pretty little romance connected with these skulls.
Mr. Mok: A Chinese Ice Age romance?
Dr. Gregory: Yes. One of the skulls is that of a young man, and the other that of a woman.
Mr. Mok: Do you suppose they really were man and wife? Dr. Gregory: I rather like to think of them as the Chinese counterparts of Adam and Eve in their paradise. Originally, it was suggested that the skull that was found first was that of a young girl, but when a comparative study was made with the second one, it was believed more probable that the first was a young male and the second a female.
Mr. Mok: Why was this find so important?
Dr. Gregory: Because the structural characteristics of these thick and primitive but unmistakably human skulls absolutely vindicates the humanity of the Java Man, and tend to prove that the Piltdown Man really was one human creature. The brain-cases are more advanced than that of the Java man. The jaws still are apelike, but the teeth are decidedly more human than those of the Piltdown Man. The Peking Man, as the two skulls are collectively known, moreover shows an intermediate stage between the Java Man and the Piltdown Man on the one hand, and the Heidelberg Man and the Neanderthal Man on the other.
Mr. Mok: Who was the Heidelberg Man?
DR. GREGORY: He really is nothing but a huge lower jaw. The name derives from the fact that this remnant was found at Mauer, Germany, near Heidelberg. Though definitely in the manlike stage, he still is quite apelike in certain features. He was the first glacial man in Europe.
Mr. Mok: What do you mean by “the first glacial man?”
Dr. Gregory : I mean that he lived in the first interglacial period. There were four Ice Ages. Picture them as a great seasonal drama in four acts, played over a period of a million years. Four times bitter winter descended on the world, spreading a vast ice sheet over the entire north of Europe and driving south the animals, with the exception of a few hairy mammals. With each retreat of the great ice sheet, the animals surged back north. The Heidelberg Man came in the first “intermission,” which means that he lived from 500,000 to 750,000 years ago. All authorities agree that he was an ancestor of the Neanderthal Man.
Mr. Mok : Were the Neanderthalers civilized?
DR. GREGORY: While they buried their dead and made fine stone implements, they still were very low in the scale of civilization. They were absolutely dependent on wild animals for food and clothing. The later Stone Age men, among them the Cro-Magnons, who lived about 20,000 years ago and left us mural paintings in the caves of southern France, were much more advanced. Civilization in our sense, however, did not really begin until people invented ways of storing up a food supply. In other words, it came in with agriculture and the domestication of cattle. These arts were perfected by three streams of invadersâ€”one from the Mediterranean, one from the southeast, and one from the Baltic. These three races, roughly, are the direct ancestors of the modern white man, and you can recognize their definite characteristics in people today.
Mr. Mok : How is it possible for definite characteristics, such as those of the Mediterranean and Nordic races, to be preserved and handed down for such tremendous stretches of time?
Dr. Gregory: Now you are getting onto the subject of inheritance, and that is another story.