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The Geological Position of the Human Skeleton Found at Tilbury

Nature volume 29, pages 440441 | Download Citation



IN a paper on this subject read by Mr. T. V. Holmes, F.G.S., at the meeting of the Essex Field Club on Saturday, February 23, at Buckhurst Hill, the author pointed out that the Tilbury skeleton was found in recent alluvium. The section at Tilbury, consisting of blue clay with peaty bands, above sand and gravel, strongly resembles those given by Prof. Sollas of the alluvial deposits of the estuary of the Severn; the amount of subsidence, as shown by the present position of the lower peaty band, being also nearly the same. Mr. Holmes considered the notions promulgated in the brief newspaper reports regarding the antiquity of the remains to be entirely misleading. If any strata were entitled to be styled “recent,” those at Tilbury must be so; for their deposition would now be going on but for the embankment of the Thames during the Roman occupation of Britain. Yet the newspaper reports described these beds by the extremely vague term “Pleistocene,” while the skeleton was styled “Palæolithic.” The remains of man, however, have been found in alluvial deposits fifty feet above the present level of the Thames, and remains found in such beds must be immensely more ancient than any discovered in recent alluvium. Geological position furnishes the only absolute test of relative age. The test of association with extinct mammalia is largely dependent on negative evidence. A hint on this point was given by the results of the drainage of Haarlem Lake thirty years ago. Excellent sections were made in all directions across its bed, and carefully examined by skilled geologists. Hundreds of men were known to have perished in its waters three centuries before, and it had always been the centre of a considerable population. Yet no human bones were found, though works of art were. Thus hundreds or even thousands of mammalia, incapable of producing works of art, might be interred in particular strata, and yet leave no signs whatever of their former existence two or three centuries afterwards. And, on the other hand, were extinct mammalia present in the Tilbury Dock beds no additional antiquity would thereby be conferred on the beds themselves, but the period at which the animals became extinct would be shown to be later than had been supposed. Similarly as regards the rude implements known as Palæolithic; their presence could confer no antiquity on recent beds. Still, as the skeleton was found thirty-two feet below the surface, in alluvium that has received no additions since Roman times, it is unquestionably prehistoric. And the extreme rarity of prehistoric human skeletons gives to this discovery an interest greater than could have been claimed for that of a bushel of flint implements. The age of the Tilbury skeleton may possibly be not far removed from that of the Neanderthal man, to which it is said to have a strong resemblance: a resemblance which, if as great as it is stated to be, goes far to show that we have in each a normal type of prehistoric man.

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