The Descent of Man – Day 46 of 151

On the Extinction of the Races of Man

The partial or complete extinction of many races and sub-races of man is historically known. Humboldt saw in South America a parrot which was the sole living creature that could speak a word of the language of a lost tribe. Ancient monuments and stone implements found in all parts of the world, about which no tradition has been preserved by the present inhabitants, indicate much extinction. Some small and broken tribes, remnants of former races, still survive in isolated and generally mountainous districts. In Europe the ancient races were all, according to Shaaffhausen (29. Translation in ‘Anthropological Review,’ Oct. 1868, p. 431.), “lower in the scale than the rudest living savages”; they must therefore have differed, to a certain extent, from any existing race. The remains described by Professor Broca from Les Eyzies, though they unfortunately appear to have belonged to a single family, indicate a race with a most singular combination of low or simious, and of high characteristics. This race is “entirely different from any other, ancient or modern, that we have heard of.” (30. ‘Transactions, International Congress of Prehistoric Archaeology’ 1868, pp. 172-175. See also Broca (tr.) in ‘Anthropological Review,’ Oct. 1868, p. 410.) It differed, therefore, from the quaternary race of the caverns of Belgium.

Man can long resist conditions which appear extremely unfavourable for his existence. (31. Dr. Gerland, ‘Ueber das Aussterben der Naturvolker,’ 1868, s. 82.) He has long lived in the extreme regions of the North, with no wood for his canoes or implements, and with only blubber as fuel, and melted snow as drink. In the southern extremity of America the Fuegians survive without the protection of clothes, or of any building worthy to be called a hovel. In South Africa the aborigines wander over arid plains, where dangerous beasts abound. Man can withstand the deadly influence of the Terai at the foot of the Himalaya, and the pestilential shores of tropical Africa.

Extinction follows chiefly from the competition of tribe with tribe, and race with race. Various checks are always in action, serving to keep down the numbers of each savage tribe,–such as periodical famines, nomadic habits and the consequent deaths of infants, prolonged suckling, wars, accidents, sickness, licentiousness, the stealing of women, infanticide, and especially lessened fertility. If any one of these checks increases in power, even slightly, the tribe thus affected tends to decrease; and when of two adjoining tribes one becomes less numerous and less powerful than the other, the contest is soon settled by war, slaughter, cannibalism, slavery, and absorption. Even when a weaker tribe is not thus abruptly swept away, if it once begins to decrease, it generally goes on decreasing until it becomes extinct. (32. Gerland (ibid. s. 12) gives facts in support of this statement.)

When civilised nations come into contact with barbarians the struggle is short, except where a deadly climate gives its aid to the native race. Of the causes which lead to the victory of civilised nations, some are plain and simple, others complex and obscure. We can see that the cultivation of the land will be fatal in many ways to savages, for they cannot, or will not, change their habits. New diseases and vices have in some cases proved highly destructive; and it appears that a new disease often causes much death, until those who are most susceptible to its destructive influence are gradually weeded out (33. See remarks to this effect in Sir H. Holland’s ‘Medical Notes and Reflections,’ 1839, p. 390.); and so it may be with the evil effects from spirituous liquors, as well as with the unconquerably strong taste for them shewn by so many savages. It further appears, mysterious as is the fact, that the first meeting of distinct and separated people generates disease. (34. I have collected (‘Journal of Researches: Voyage of the “Beagle,”‘ p. 435) a good many cases bearing on this subject; see also Gerland, ibid. s. 8. Poeppig speaks of the “breath of civilisation as poisonous to savages.”) Mr. Sproat, who in Vancouver Island closely attended to the subject of extinction, believed that changed habits of life, consequent on the advent of Europeans, induces much ill health. He lays, also, great stress on the apparently trifling cause that the natives become “bewildered and dull by the new life around them; they lose the motives for exertion, and get no new ones in their place.” (35. Sproat, ‘Scenes and Studies of Savage Life,’ 1868, p. 284.)

The grade of their civilisation seems to be a most important element in the success of competing nations. A few centuries ago Europe feared the inroads of Eastern barbarians; now any such fear would be ridiculous. It is a more curious fact, as Mr. Bagehot has remarked, that savages did not formerly waste away before the classical nations, as they now do before modern civilised nations; had they done so, the old moralists would have mused over the event; but there is no lament in any writer of that period over the perishing barbarians. (36. Bagehot, ‘Physics and Politics,’ ‘Fortnightly Review,’ April 1, 1868, p. 455.) The most potent of all the causes of extinction, appears in many cases to be lessened fertility and ill-health, especially amongst the children, arising from changed conditions of life, notwithstanding that the new conditions may not be injurious in themselves. I am much indebted to Mr. H.H. Howorth for having called my attention to this subject, and for having given me information respecting it. I have collected the following cases.

When Tasmania was first colonised the natives were roughly estimated by some at 7000 and by others at 20,000. Their number was soon greatly reduced, chiefly by fighting with the English and with each other. After the famous hunt by all the colonists, when the remaining natives delivered themselves up to the government, they consisted only of 120 individuals (37. All the statements here given are taken from ‘The Last of the Tasmanians,’ by J. Bonwick, 1870.), who were in 1832 transported to Flinders Island. This island, situated between Tasmania and Australia, is forty miles long, and from twelve to eighteen miles broad: it seems healthy, and the natives were well treated. Nevertheless, they suffered greatly in health. In 1834 they consisted (Bonwick, p. 250) of forty-seven adult males, forty-eight adult females, and sixteen children, or in all of 111 souls. In 1835 only one hundred were left. As they continued rapidly to decrease, and as they themselves thought that they should not perish so quickly elsewhere, they were removed in 1847 to Oyster Cove in the southern part of Tasmania. They then consisted (Dec. 20th, 1847) of fourteen men, twenty-two women and ten children. (38. This is the statement of the Governor of Tasmania, Sir W. Denison, ‘Varieties of Vice-Regal Life,’ 1870, vol. i. p. 67.) But the change of site did no good. Disease and death still pursued them, and in 1864 one man (who died in 1869), and three elderly women alone survived. The infertility of the women is even a more remarkable fact than the liability of all to ill-health and death. At the time when only nine women were left at Oyster Cove, they told Mr. Bonwick (p. 386), that only two had ever borne children: and these two had together produced only three children!

With respect to the cause of this extraordinary state of things, Dr. Story remarks that death followed the attempts to civilise the natives. “If left to themselves to roam as they were wont and undisturbed, they would have reared more children, and there would have been less mortality.” Another careful observer of the natives, Mr. Davis, remarks, “The births have been few and the deaths numerous. This may have been in a great measure owing to their change of living and food; but more so to their banishment from the mainland of Van Diemen’s Land, and consequent depression of spirits” (Bonwick, pp. 388, 390).

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