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A Fragment Of History

( Originally Published 1918 )

"I UNDERSTAND," began Jules, "the usefulness of the dog to a man left to his own resources in a desert country in the midst of woods. With the help of this courageous friend he procures food and defends himself against animals that endanger his life. But in our countries around here, it seems to me, that wretched sort of existence can never have been known."

"In our countries things took their course just as everywhere else," his uncle replied. "Even in places now enjoying the most advanced civilization, man began with an era of misery of which it will be not unprofitable to give you some idea; then you will see better from what depths of barbarism the dog's services have helped to raise us.

"In the earliest times of which history has preserved some vague record, what was one day to be the beautiful country of France was a wild country covered with immense forests, where, living by the chase, there wandered some few tribes of Gaels; for thus the first inhabitants of our country were called. They were men of low stature, broad shoulders, white skin, long blond hair, and blue or green eyes. For weapons they had stone axes and knives, arrows tipped with fish-bones or a sharp piece of flint. Fastened to the left arm, they carried for defense a long and narrow wooden shield; with the right hand they brandished, as an offensive weapon, sometimes a stake hardened in the fire, sometimes a heavy bludgeon or club. For the perilous passage of rivers and of ocean inlets they had fragile little boats made of wicker, plaited as in our baskets, but covered on the outside with the hide of a wild ox to exclude the water."

"But those are the weapons and boats of savages !'' interposed Emile.

"Without doubt, my friend; and, equally without doubt, the first Gaels, ancestors of ours though they were, were veritable savages, differing hardly at all from those of our own day. They lived mainly by the chase, herds and agriculture being for ages unknown to them. In their gloomy forests, damp and cold, using only heir poor weapons of stone and pointed sticks, they attacked a terrible wild ox, the aurochs or urus, which is now almost extinct. This ox, nearly as large as the elephant, had enormous horns, a mane of curly wool on its head and neck, beard under its throat, a deep, hoarse bellow, and a ferocious look. Its extraordinary strength and indomitable fury made it the terror of the forests."

"And were n't they afraid," asked Louis, "to attack this fearful creature with their stone hatchets?"

"They fell upon the furious animal without other weapons than pointed stakes and stone hatchets; but they had the help of powerful dogs that seized the beast by the ears and got the mastery of it. The urns held the place of honor among game. The valiant huntsman who killed it had for a cup, at the banqueting board, one of the animal's monstrous horns."

"What did they drink from those horns?" Emile inquired.

"At first clear water from the fountains; then, after the race had made some little progress, an intoxicating drink called cervisia, made from fermented barley. That was the forerunner of our beer."

"Can it be," asked Louis, "that our peaceful ox came from that intractable beast, the urus, as you call it?"

`Not at all. The domestic ox is a different kind altogether, originating in Asia and not in the ancient forests of Europe. In our day there is hardly a urus left. Hunted century after century by growing civilization, the formidable ox with a mane has long since deserted these regions to take refuge in the solitudes of the North. But these solitudes in turn have been taken possession of by man, and the aurochs has found its last retreat in the swampy forests of Lithuania in Poland. There a few pairs still live in perfect security, for it is expressly forbidden to kill them."

"And why do they keep those ugly oxen" was Emile's next question.

"They are not numerous enough to do any harm, and it would really be a pity to exterminate the last one of these animals that afforded our ancestors such joy in the hunt.

"The Gaels hunted the elk also, a kind of large stag the size of a horse or even larger. The elk has under its throat a kind of goiter or fleshy pendant; its fur is short, stiff, and ash-colored; its horns, called antlers, are wide-spreading and flattened, and they extend in a vast triangular expanse with a deeply indented outline; the weight of each antler may amount to as much as thirty kilograms. That must, as you see, be a fine specimen of game : an animal that bears on its forehead, without effort, an ornament weighing a hundred weight and more."

"A stag as large as a horse must really be a noble prize for a hunter," said Louis.

"Without his companion, the dog," Jules put in, "man certainly could not have caught such an animal in the chase."

"The elk," resumed Uncle Paul, "though common at that period in our forests, is found to-day only in the wooded marshes of Russia and Sweden. It also inhabits, and in greater numbers, the northern part of America.

"You will notice that these two animals, the aurochs and the elk, which were formerly spread over our own regions, are now settled in climates much colder than ours. The few aurochs that have survived the general destruction of their species graze in the woods of Lithuania; the elk inhabits the extreme north of Europe and America. Transported to our warmer climate, they would soon perish, being unable to endure a temperature too high for them. Since they flourished here in ancient times, the climate of our regions must at that distant epoch have been colder, more severe, than it is today. Immense forests, always damp and full of shade, were doubtless one of the causes of this more rigorous climate. When these woods, impenetrable to the rays of the sun, were felled by the ax of nascent civilization, the soil warmed up freely and the temperature rose. But then the aurochs and elk, harassed besides by man, who explored all their retreats, fled a country too warm for them and took refuge in the cold fogs of the North.

"Despite this change of climate some animals have remained with us the same as in the old time of the Gaels. In our day the same wolf still howls with hunger in the woods, the same bears haunt the mountain caves, the same wild boar, beset by a pack of hounds in some bushy thicket, pokes its bristly snout out of the brake, sharpens its tusks, and gnashes its teeth as formerly when a band of tattooed hunters flung their stone hatchets at its head."

"Those first inhabitants of France were tattooed like island savages?" asked Jules.

"Yes, my friend. They decorated their bodies with designs in blue, a pigment extracted from a plant called woad; and to make the decoration ineffaceable they forced the coloring matter into the skin by pricking themselves till the blood flowed.

"This practice, called tattooing, is still found in our day in many countries, among tribes unacquainted with the benefits of civilization. At the other end of the world, at our antipodes, the natives of New Zealand are most expert in this kind of decoration. With a sharp awl, impregnated with divers colors, they prick themselves with little stabs and trace, point by point, fanciful designs which turn their skin into veritable living embroidery. Red and blue spirals turn in inverse directions from both sides of the forehead and continue in rose-work on the cheeks. Little palm-leaves spread over the nostrils; a sun darts its rays all around the chin; two or three little stars give a blue tinge to the lower lip. The rest of the body is ornamented in the same lavish manner: fantastic animals cover the middle of the back; a tortoise pokes out its head and four feet in the hollow of the breast; the hands and feet, pricked in fine tracery patterns, look as if covered with open-work gloves and stockings. Our ancestors of the stone-hatchet age decorated themselves very much like this."

"Those poor New Zealanders," remarked Emile, "must hurt themselves dreadfully, disfiguring them-selves like that."

"The operation is indeed most painful, and yet they bear it without a murmur. A single needle-prick makes us recoil; those rude savages remain unmoved while the tattoo artist punctures their bodies with his awl."

"Why do they submit to such a torture?"

"Chiefly that they may cut a more dashing figure, present a more formidable aspect, before the enemy. In certain archipelagoes of Polynesia we should find still stranger customs. One tribe, for example, gashes the face by removing narrow strips of skin so that the cicatrized wounds form various patterns in hideous little red weals. Others pass a small pointed stick through the cartilage of the nostrils; others make a large hole in the lower lip and set a shell in it.

"Had the ancient Gaels similar customs? It is quite possible; at least it is certain that they tattooed themselves with woad. Certain customs are sometimes so tenacious that after many centuries in the midst of the most flourishing civilization tattooing has not entirely disappeared even with us. On the strong arms of some of our laborers are seen, any day, tattooed in blue, trade emblems and other devices. They are, without doubt, the survivals of primitive customs.

"The Gaels had long, silky hair, like flaxen tow, and they gave it a tinge of bright red by frequent washing in lime lye. Sometimes they smeared it with rancid grease and let it hang down over their shoulders in all its length; sometimes they gathered it above the forehead in a high tuft or mane, to make themselves look taller and to give themselves a more terrifying aspect."

"In a book of travels," said Jules, "I saw pictures of some North American Indians with a tuft of hair like that on top of the head. The Gaels, then, had the same custom?"

"Yes, my child. Thousands of years apart, in the forests of the Old World and those of the New, the Gael and the Indian adopt the same headdress, a coil of hair over the forehead. When he dresses for the combat, the Indian fastens to his top-knot of hair divers ornaments, such as the wing of a hawk, the claw of a leopard, the teeth of a bear. Thus doubtless the Gael likewise adorned his person when he made himself fine for the urus-hunt or for battle with some neighboring tribe.

"The Indian's top-knot is an audacious defiance, a horrible bravado. When the enemy is thrown to the ground, beaten down by a blow of the club, the conqueror seizes him by his top-knot, cuts the skin all round the head with the point of a sharp flint, then with a jerk pulls off the bleeding scalp all in one piece."

"Oh, how horrible!" cried Jules.

"This scalp is a trophy which he will dry in the smoke of his hut and will wear hanging from his waist as token of his exploit. His position in the tribe, his weight in the council, are proportioned to the number of scalps taken from the enemy. Now you understand the fierce bravado of the Indian with his top-knot of hair all gathered up and ready for the horrible operation. Let any one offer to touch it, and he will soon feel the weight of the wearer's club."

I hope the Gaels did not have that abominable custom."

"They had one that was worse : they carried not only the scalp, but the whole head, which they dried in the sun, after nailing it by the ears to the entrance of the hut in the midst of hunting trophies, boars' heads and wolves' heads. Those were their titles of nobility."

"And we are descended from those frightful savages?"

"The tattooed Gaels with red hair, nailing the enemy's head to their door, are, as far back as history can show, the first inhabitants of our country; we count them as among our earliest ancestors. Some of their barbarous customs have come down to us, greatly modified, it is true. I have just given you an example, in tattooing; I give you another in the mat-ter of trophies of the chase. After the manner of the ancient Gaels, it is still the custom in the country to nail to the big barn-doors wolves' and foxes' heads and the dead bodies of hawks and owls."

"Those who do that," said Louis, "little suspect to what horrible custom their practice is related."

"Your tattooed hunters interest me very much," Emile declared. "Their houses, dress, furniture—how about all those things?"

"In those wretched times a shelter under rocks, a natural excavation, a grotto, were the first dwelling-places. But there came a day when those wild retreats were found insufficient, and human ingenuity made its first attempts in the art of building. To provide oneself with a shelter was not enough; it was necessary above all to maintain an unremitting state of defense. The forests were overrun with formidable animals, and there was perpetual warfare between neighboring tribes. As a safeguard against surprise, wherever there were lakes, the houses were built on piling in the middle of the water.

"It must have taken a prodigious expenditure of energy for man, as yet so poorly provided with tools, to build these lake villages, or lacustrine villages, as they are called. With a stone ax the tree that was to be felled was laboriously girdled at the base, and then the application of fire completed the process. Whole days and perhaps the united efforts of a number of workers were necessary to obtain one joist such as a wood-cutter would now turn out with a few strokes of his steel ax. But with their tools of flint, hardly hitting the wood and falling to pieces with the slightest maladroit blow, it was an enormous undertaking for them. They were in about the same plight that our carpenters would be in if the latter were obliged to cut down and trim an oak with nothing but an old rusty knife. I leave you to imagine, then, the labor and patience expended in obtaining the thousands of joists needed in this piling. Apparently each head of a family furnished one as his share, which gave him the right to erect his hut on the common building-lot. At a later period, perhaps, in order to extend the area of the straggling village as the population increased, the furnishing of a new pile was required of each adult male inhabitant. It was the extraordinary contribution, the sacred debt, that he was obliged to pay once in his life-time.

"The piles, pointed and hardened in the fire at one end, were dragged to the edge of the lake, where canoes of plaited wicker towed them to the chosen spot. There they were stood on end and driven into the soft mud until the tops were on a level with the water. Finally the spaces between the multitude of piles were filled with stones. The whole formed an artificial islet of great solidity, or rather a shoal sub-merged and covered with several feet of water. On the tops of the piles, just above the general level, cross-beams were laid, then boughs of trees, and on top of these beaten earth. Finally, on this artificial soil, beneath which circulated the waters of the lake, dwellings were erected.

"They were round or oval huts, made of a frame-work of interlacing branches and a layer of rich earth. A single opening, very low, through which one had to crawl, gave access to an interior, not unlike our baker's oven.

`The furnishing corresponded with the rudeness of the dwelling. Big tun-bellied pots of black clay variegated with grains of white sand held the provisions, which consisted of aurochs-flesh dried in the sun, beech-nuts, and hazel-nuts. These pots were rudely made by hand without any potter's wheel to give them a regular outline. Thick, misshapen, unsteady, they had an uneven surface and bore the finger-marks of those who had molded them. Some attempts at ornamentation appeared on the best jars, and took the form of a row of imprints made with the end of the thumb on the still soft clay, or a line of angular marks engraved with a thorn. The rest of the work was not less simple. To give our pottery, however slight its value, more consistency and hardness, we bake it in a very hot oven; we also coat it with a glaze to make it impermeable. The inhabitants of the lake villages were content to expose their pieces of wet clay to the rays of the sun until dry, without baking or glazing. Hence it was a sorry kind of pottery, good for the keeping of provisions, but incapable of holding water or of being used over the fire."

"How did they manage, then," asked Jules, "to get hot water and cook their food I"

"When one is unprovided with the invaluable saucepan, when one is without even those homely utensils that we think so little of, despite the inestimable service they render us, one imitates the Eskimos of Greenland, who cook their viands in a little skin bag."

"But that queer kind of pot would burn on the fire," asserted Emile.

"They are very careful not to put it on the fire. Stones are heated red-hot in the fire, and after they are thus heated they are popped into the little bag containing water and food to be cooked. After cooling off they are taken out to be reheated and dropped once more into the water, which finally boils. The result of such cooking is a mixture of soot, mud, ashes, and half-raw flesh; but with their hearty appetites the Eskimos are not over-particular. Besides, if they entertain a guest of distinction they begin by licking off with the tongue all the dirt on the pieces destined for him. Whoever should refuse to accept what was offered him after this extraordinary act of courtesy in cleaning it, would be regarded as an impolite, ill-bred person."

"Bah! the dirty things ! " cried Emile. "I will take good care never to be one of their guests."

"And the tattooed hunters cooked in that way?" Jules inquired.

"For want of proper utensils they apparently employed similar means. But let us finish our inspection of the inside of the aquatic hut.

"The highest point in the roof is pierced for the passage of smoke from the fireplace situated in the center of the hut, between two stones on a bed of beaten earth, which prevents the floor, made of branches, from catching fire. On the walls are hung the hardwood tomahawk, flint hatchets, bone arrows, and the net of bark thongs, still damp from fishing in the lake and ornamented on the edges with round pierced stones. On the branching antlers of a stag the clothes are hung, consisting of leopards' and wolves' skins with the hair on. In the most sheltered corner rush mats and furs carpet the floor for the night's rest. Finally, in front of the door the little wicker boat bobs up and down. Into this boat its owners can step right from their threshhold.

"The straggling village, in fact, instead of being built on a continuous artificial soil, is cut up into numerous passages of open water; the village streets are canals. To pass from one quarter to another, or merely to visit one's neighbor, one must go by water. So all day long there is a continual coming and going of boats from one group of huts to another. There is no less movement between the village and the shores of the lake, whither the men go a-hunting and whence they return with their boats laden with venison, when the aurochs or elk has succumbed to the combined exertions of men and dogs.

"Thus, in prehistoric times, were settlements established on the various lakes of France, and, still more, of Switzerland—lakes large enough to hold these villages by the hundred. Today the fisherman whose line ripples their limpid waters sees in the blue depths, amid a great mass of stones, the tops of piles carbonized by the centuries, and large, bulging pieces of earthenware, which he breaks with his oar without suspecting their venerable origin. That is what is left us of the ancient lake villages."

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