Origins of the "Caveman" Myth

The general public has held a distorted view of our prehistoric ancestors for many decades, believing they were ignorant, brutish people living in dark recesses, with men clubbing women for mating and even fighting off dinosaurs - the classic CAVEMAN myth. Early antiquarians had little understanding of this period, with most of their ideas based on a few stone tools or bones found - often in remote places, such as the Red Lady of Paviland discovered by Rev. William Buckland during a dig at Goat's Hole Cave in South Wales in 1823.

Before the late 19th century, it was commonly thought that the earth was much younger than we understand today. Most of the scientific community believed that humans had been on the Earth for only around 6,000 years; the age of the universe created by God, as described in Archbishop James Ussher's Creationist Doctrine published in 1654.

Ussher calculated creation as the nightfall preceding 23rd October 4004 BC and provided key dates for events in the Bible:

  • 4004 BC - Creation of the World
  • 48 BC – Noah’s Great Flood
  • 921 BC - God's conversation with Abraham
  • BC - The birth of Jesus

Around 1188, Gerald of Wales (c. 1146 – c. 1223) archdeacon of Brecon and chronicler of his times, believed he saw evidence of the great flood when he first recorded a submerged forest scene in South Wales:

"We then passed over Niwegal sands, at which place (during the winter that king Henry II. spent in Ireland), as well as in almost all the other western ports, a very remarkable circumstance occurred. The sandy shores of South Wales, being laid bare by the extraordinary violence of a storm, the surface of the earth, which had been covered for many ages, re-appeared, and discovered the trunks of trees cut off, standing in the very sea itself, the strokes of the hatchet appearing as if made only yesterday. The soil was very black, and the wood like ebony. By a wonderful revolution, the road for ships became impassable, and looked, not like a shore, but like a grove cut down, perhaps, at the time of the deluge, or not long after, but certainly in very remote ages, being by degrees consumed and swallowed up by the violence and encroachments of the sea."

When the Rev. William Buckland's (1784-1856) small group found the Red Lady, they also discovered the bones of a mammoth close by. As a creationist, Buckland believed no human remains could have been older than the great Biblical flood and concluded that they were from the Roman era and that the extinct mammoth remains had been deposited there as a result of the flood. Buckland admired the work of Georges Cuvier (1769–1832), the French naturalist and zoologist who  believed there was no evidence for the evolution of organic forms, but rather evidence for successive creations after catastrophic extinction events. Buckland's own view was that account of Genesis actually referred to two separate episodes of creation separated by a lengthy period - known as the Gap Theory.

The popular caveman stereotype probably came from a number of different sources; the most influential was Charles Darwin's 1859 theory of evolution (On the Origin of Species) in which he established the concept that all living species evolve. This clearly suggested that an earlier version of man existed in the past and prejudices regarding primitive peoples added to the caveman myth. Many people shared the view of the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) in that the life of a human being without civilisation was "...solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short".

Living in Caves Myth

In 1829, the first Neanderthal remains were found in Engis Cave (Liege) by Philip Carel Schmerling (1790-1836). In August 1856, more Neanderthal remains were discovered by workman in a limestone quarry of the Neander Valley in Erkrath near Düsseldorf - this brought the term "caveman" into popular culture.

In 1861 French Paleontologist Édouard Lartet (1801–1871) published New Researches on the Coexistence of Man and of the Great Fossil Mammifers characteristic of the Last Geological Period, in which he made public the results of his discoveries in the cave of Aurignac, where evidence existed of man and extinct mammals.

The majority of people now started to accept the existence of dinosaurs, ancient mammals and human life before James Ussher's creationist theory. The first debates about the nature of human evolution arose between biologists Thomas Huxley (1825-1895)  and Richard Owen (1804-1892). In 1860 Huxley conducted a famous debate with CoE Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (1805-1873), which followed a chance meeting with Roberts Chambers (1802-1871), who was a highly influential mid-19th century scientist and the anonymous author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), that outlined fashionble ideas of stellar evolution with the progressive transmutation of species.

Huxley argued for human evolution from apes by showing many of the similarities in his 1863 book Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature. This lead some scholars to believe that a new species branched off from the apes and evolved from ape-like to modern man - the so-called Missing Link. Although scientists searched for evidence of the Missing Link, all discoveries at this time (such as Piltdown Man and Java Man) have since been discredited or significantly reassessed.

The earliest recorded use of the term "prehistoric" was in the 1851 book by Daniel Wilson (1816–1892) The Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland. Wilson was in correspondance with the  Danish National Museum in Copenhagen, during their exhibition of prehistoric material organised in the Three Age System; Wilson probably translated it from the Danish word "forhistorie" as used by Thomsen and Worsaae.

In 1865, John Labbock (1834-1913) - a student of Charles Darwin - published his works Pre-historic times, as illustrated by ancient remains, and the manners and customs of modern savages which contained the earliest known printed usage of the term "Cave-Man". In 1897, two other books used the term "Caveman": Travels in West Africa by Mary H. Kingsley ("These pots have a cave-man look about them; they are unglazed unlidded bowls.") and The Story of Ab: A Tale of the Time of the Caveman by Stanley Waterloo.

Dumb "Caveman" Myth

Cavemen were typically depicted as large, hairy brutes, wearing smock-like garments made of animal skin and held up by a shoulder strap on one side and carrying clubs. A common misconception was they were ignorant, but some, like John Wilson (1785-1854) in his works Why Savages Acquire Extensive Knowledge, argued that intelligence is about fulfilling needs through innovation and resourcefulness:

“Then add to this; his observations of air and the skies, from his dependence on their changes, and I think, my lads, if you have imagination to represent to yourselves one-twentieth part of the knowledge which a savage will thus be driven to possess by his mere physical necessities, you will be astonished to find how much liker a learned man he is than you be.”

The first near complete skeleton of a Neanderthal was found at La Chapelle aux Saints, bordering the Sourdoire valley in southern France, by Amadee and Jean Bouyssonie and L. Bardon in 1908. It was the remains of a male aged around 40 years old at death who suffered from various ailments. The skeleton was reconstructed by paleontologist Marcellin Boule (1861 – 1942); who depicted the figure, known as the ‘Old Man of La Chapelle’ in a stooped position, with bent kneed in 1911. An illustration he commissioned that was published (1909) in the L'Illustration and  Illustrated London Times, characterised the Neanderthal as a hairy gorilla-like figure with opposable toes.

"Caveman" clubbing "Cavegirl" Myth

Another cultural myth's is the vaguely humorous notion that cavemen clubbed cavegirls to marry or mate. One of the earliest prehistoric novels "Paris avant les hommes. L'Homme fossil" ("Paris Before Man") by Pierre Boitard in 1861 included the storyline:

"The female ran to the depths of the cave, carrying away her kid clinging strongly to her breast. But the male let loose a guttural and ferocious roar, flashed a look at me, rose up on his hind legs, seized with his front the tomahawk of flint, and, with a furious jump, launched himself at my side while raising the terrifying weapon at my head"

Andrew Lang extended this idea by writing "ladies being knocked on the head and dragged home, according to the marriage customs of the period", in his short story, In the Wrong Paradise and Other Stories published in 1886. This theme reappeared in Stanley Waterloo's 1899 novel, The Wolf's Long Howl in which he wrote:

"They did not have marriage ceremonies 200,000 B.C. Wolf, who had evidently been informed of Fangs's desire and who was himself in favor of the alliance, seized the girl and began dragging her off to the new home and the honeymoon. She resisted, and shrieked, and clawed like a wild-cat. Her mother, She Fox, came running out, club in hand, but was promptly knocked down by Fangs, who then dragged her into the cave again. Meanwhile the bridegroom was hauling the bride away through furze and bushes at a rapid rate"

It was revisited on 16th March 1922 in a poem by Helen Rowland:

"O Caveman, in thine hours of ease Insensate, dull, and hard to please When spring thine heart began to stir. Didst thou, too, dream of some fair "Her." And, with an amatory grunt. Steal softly forth upon the hunt. To grasp the "Cutie" by the hair. And drag her gently to thy lair??

"Caveman" fighting Dinosaurs Myth

Edward Tennyson Reed (1860-1933) is thought to be the first person to create the genre of placing prehistoric cave dwelling men and dinosaurs into comic situations through his series Mr. Punch's Prehistoric Peeps (1894 Bradbury, Agnew & Co.). He drew modern sports and affairs with his Peeps in various situations, such as 'No Bath Time To-Day' showing scenes of cavemen watching sea-monsters splashing about and 'A Cricket Match' showing cavemen playing cricket using Stonehenge.

Prehistoric Peeps

In 1905 the cartoon was adapted into a silent movie Prehistoric Peeps, that is believed to be the first film depiction of dinosaurs, using simple pantomime costumes. The four minute short was directed by Lewin Fitzhamon and starring Sebastian Smith, Hetty Potter and Lottie Martin. The early pioneers of movies furthered this concept by creating numerous storylines of cavemen fighting dinosaurs.


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