After having traced incidents of paleontological excavations in his Adventures of the Bones of a Giant, Samuel-Henri Berthoud produced, in 1865, in Chapter IV of Man since 5,000 years ago, one of the earliest prehistoric narratives in literature, entitled "The First Inhabitants of Paris."


Berthoud, Samuel-Henri [1804-1891]
Man since 5,000 years ago
Paris. Garnier Frères. ca. 1865.

translated from the original French
by Stephen Trussel

CHAPTER IV

THE FIRST INHABITANTS OF PARIS

 

Four thousand years ago, immense forests covered the land occupied today by Paris and its neighboring boroughs of Bondy, Ville-d'Avray, Marly, Bellevue, Meudon, and Chaville.

At the time my narrative begins, these forests, seeming all the more sinister as winter had stripped them of their leaves, were composed mainly of oak, elm, ash, willow, pine and fir. Their immense trunks, upright and powerful or eroded by the years, soared in the air or littered the earth with their debris, amidst an inextricable jumble of bushes, brambles and wild plants, covered everywhere with a frozen shroud of snow.

As for the stream that traversed these woods, a cold of seven or eight degrees had hardened its surface, its immobility increasing the gloomy aspect of the region.

Bears, lions, tigers, hyenas, badgers, bulls, aurochs, rams, reindeer, deer, antelopes, wild dogs, wolves, boars, horses, hares and rabbits alone disturbed the silence that reigned throughout — some in fleeing before bands of enemies, others in pursuing and devouring their victims — while birds of prey hovered above, awaiting their share of the slaughter.

The semi-darkness that covered the world was slowly dissipating, and the sun had begun to appear on the horizon when a troop of about a hundred people appeared on the banks of the Seine, before the islet that today carries the name of Cité.

They had been following the banks of the river for over a month. Here they stopped at an order given by an old man who seemed to be their chief.

The women and children piled up dead branches. These they lit by rapidly rubbing a piece of soft wood in a hole hollowed in a piece of hard wood that each carried around their neck on a leather thong. Meanwhile, the old man gathered around him his companions and addressed them in a rough and guttural language.

It was a strange spectacle, yet not lacking in a savage majesty, this council of men — for the most part of perhaps small size, but robust and solid — clothed in the rudely prepared skins of bears or reindeer. Their long red hair fell to their shoulders, their beards reached to their chests. In their hands they held lassos or clubs of thick pierced stone, attached to a long strap of leather, or flint-tipped spears, handled in a cleft stick, or stone axes fixed to a bone of horn by bands of leather applied wet, then dried and shrunk in the sun, as some natives manufacture them still in certain parts of North America.

Women, also clothed in skins, but softer ones, let their golden hair fall freely to their shoulders like their husbands. Their necklaces of petrified marine sponges and the teeth of wolves and oxen, arranged with a display of taste, resembled adornments still found today on girls of Africa, Polynesia and the New World. They wore coarse shoes of skins tied around their fine legs and remarkably small feet; the melancholic look of their large blue eyes softened the wild character given their tanned regular oval faces by deprivation and fatigue.

The chief of the tribe, handing to one of those who surrounded him his flint ax with a bull's horn handle, turned toward the women and gave them orders. They rose respectfully to listen and immediately hastened to execute them. In a few minutes they left the fire around which they had crouched down a short while earlier; and while some carried their children on their shoulders, others formed groups to carry bark canoes, sewn together, or made of a single trunk of oak rudely carved, or large baskets plaited from willow branches, containing frozen meats, acorns, and various-shaped utensils of wood or stone.

They proceeded then to cross the stream on the ice. The men walked at the head, women and children following, while some warriors, spears in hand, formed the rear guard.

Arriving on the island of the Cité, the women stopped to set up a temporary camp, while their husbands explored the surroundings. They came back to announce to their chief that they had soon found a cave, but that it apparently served as a den for bears or wolves, judging from the bones scattered about outside. Immediately they took up their weapons, lit torches from branches of trees, and began their assault on the cave.

Some threw firebrands into a narrow hole that opened up nearly level with the earth, while others climbed the heights above the cave to see if there were some crack that would permit them to continue the attack of that side. They weren't long in discovering a large crack through which they also launched their torches.

Hardly had this double siege begun than a howling arose from the cave, and a gigantic bear showed his thick head at the opening at the base, which only permitted him to leave while crawling. A heavy stone, launched by one of the attackers, hit him in the forehead, and, injured and bloody, before he could retreat, twenty spears pierced him, and the fight was over. With the help of one of those lassos which I mentioned a little earlier, one pulled the roaring animal out of the cave, and another finished it off.

Its mate and four cubs, similarly driven from their lair by fire, suffered the same fate.

Victory achieved, cries of triumph summoned the women, who carried the six carcasses to the fire they had lit while getting settled on the island, and set to cutting them up with as much skill as speed, using flint knives of all sizes. Some removed the skin, and others detached sections of meat, while their mates smashed bones and carried them to the warriors, so that they could eat the still-hot marrow from them.

to be continued

Prehistoric Fiction