All discoveries and inventions (which in prehistoric times were no less prolific than in our own) would have been worth nothing had it not been possible to transmit them to later generations. Nothing is worth anything without tradition, which is the backbone of all civilisation. It is thus necessary to consider what are the conditions for the creation of tradition.
Primitive living conditions were not only unfavourable to its emergence, they were destructive. There were no durable relations and durability and stability are the basis of development. Among primitive peoples this matter appears desperate even today.
In Central Africa “roads are not to be recognised even after one year. Settlements are depopulated, new ones arise”. The famous Livingstone travelled for six days through completely deserted countryside where years before he had seen closely-set villages. On the other hand, Cameron found a populous and fertile countryside where Burton and Speck had seen waterless and unpopulated bush. In Nepal, in Barak, in Assam “every few years the village is transferred to another place, when the soil of the old settlement has become exhausted. Then they burn and clear the forest in a new area and a settlement arises nearby for another few years”. After the passage of a few years a map of the Arab settlements of Mesopotamia was of no use to Sven Hedin. Only a few decades — fifty to sixty years — divides the travels and scientific labours of Bastian from the most recent travel works, but there is no agreement on either ethnological or sociological data relating to these territories Much depended on the security of life and property. Round the great African lakes and in the basin of the Lualaba “it was sufficient for security to be more or less assured for people to assemble quickly from all sides, while another, less safe place, became depopulated. This process is so rapid that many travellers maintain that African states and towns grow like mushrooms after rain only to disappear again after a brief life”.183
For any community to become an ordered and differentiated society there must be a certain density of population. Yet, thousands of years after fire became generally known, vast areas have sparse populations. The Chukchi, who number 10.000 in the tundra between Kolyma, the Behring Sea and the Arctic Ocean, represent an exceptional rate of density. But the Koryaks in Northern Kamchatka on the shore of the Sea of Okhotsk and in the tundra of the interior numbered only 6,300 after 1920.184 On the average, an area equal to the “Congress Kingdom” in Poland has 2,500 inhabitants. “The Australian lived in the company of only two or three dozen fellow-clansmen, on a few occasions in his life he might be present at a gathering of a few hundred persons, but never saw a crowd of thousands”.185
These primitive peoples have died out and are dying out at an alarming rate. For example, in 1850 the Kurnai people of Australia numbered fifteen hundred, in 1880 barely 140.186 During the First World War, in 1918, “half the nomad population of Turkestan died of starvation”.187 But the danger of complete extinction was much greater in proto-historic times. For primitive man was less hardy, less able to endure, helpless in face of his environment and beyond comparison more susceptible to illness.
Even the nervous diseases are more common at lower levels of civilisation. Among the Yakuts, madness is well known and hysteria widespread. Deniker lists a whole string of these diseases, often infectious. Malayan and Indonesian men suffer from amok, a kind of dementia with epileptic symptoms, while the women, affected by the disease latah, strip naked before the men and throw their children about like balls. The uncontrolled imitation of others’ movements common in many parts of Asia is well known there. Fear of certain expressions (for example, tiger, crocodile) occurs in Malaya, among the Tagalog in the Philippines and the Sikhs in India. Similar illnesses are miritim of the Ostyak and autochthonous Siberians, and the bakchi of the Siamese. At sea Eskimos show a kind of agoraphobia. Charcot’s major hysteria has been reported among negro women in Senegal, among Annamite, Hottentot, and Kaffir women as well as in Abyssinia and Madagascar. Full-scale nervous epidemics are known among the Hurons and Iroquois.188
Diseases known in Europe appear in more dangerous degree among the Yakuts. Ninety per cent of them die of smallpox. Tapeworm is general, there is rarely someone who is not tormented by rheumatism, the terrible illness of the narrowing of the throat is frequent and syphilis is widespread.189 In some parts of Portuguese Angola “apparently 75 per cent of negroes suffer from venereal diseases”.190 When smallpox breaks out among Indians “hundreds of corpses poison the area”. Leprosy is almost universal among primitive peoples even in Ecuador. Even under the civilised Belgian Government, the Congo is threatened with depopulation because of disease.191
Peoples whom nobody persecutes also die out. In 1906, a Government Commissioner, D. Francesco Matana, sent to the Government of Ecuador a register of 9,750 Jivaros (“observing that their number was constantly declining”.192 The Yukagirs, once rulers of all the land between the Lena and Anadir and south to the Verkhoyansk Hills had melted by 1928 to four hundred souls.193
Erazm Majewski described all this shortly and pithily: “Let us combine in a single whole scarcity of population, the transitoriness of its centres, the short duration of its families, the poverty and chaos of primitive tongues, the short duration of common experience, whence the level and very restricted range of its ideas — and we have factors which necessarily kept the human race in the proto-social state of existence for a very long time”. For the consequences “of the small and short-lived character of social circles was the perpetual wastage of common experience and constant fresh-beginnings. The discovery of bow, boat, weaving, pottery, was made a hundred times in different parts of the globe”.194 The only lever of tradition was speech, the bond of society which made permanent understanding possible.195 But even the tradition of speech was interrupted and whole ages passed before the effort was made to perfect language. “Poor methods of communication were evolved in the course of generations a hundred times over”.196
Fundamental scientific discoveries in the field of the origin and meaning of language as a social bond are continued in the most recent studies of infant prattle. The genesis of speech lies in each smallest human child as in almost every animal. A child makes its own babbling, stuttering, exclamatory language — very varied sounds usually comprehensible to the parents alone. Where one child shouts tilipiti, and another elebele, the third, youngest, learning from its elders, mixes the two languages in an independent, original linguistic creation. If allowed to develop without hindrance, with the years such prattle would develop into a language and . . . every man would speak his own. This is prevented by life in society. At the very beginning of the child’s life parents check the development of an original childish tongue, imposing their own, which their parents once imposed on them and the latters’ parents on them.
There would be too many kinds of speech even if only every family possessed its own. It seems that this was the position in pre-fire times. By language we understand speech which has already become common to a community of some size. Without such grouping there is no language, and in this sense it can be asserted outright that there were no languages without fire. Conversely, fire without speech would not have served much purpose, for its management and manifold uses would not have been known. On the other hand, without fire we should have perished even with the most highly perfected language. But the utilisation and control of fire, the whole long series of discoveries which made possible its conservation, quite apart from the process of kindling, as well as the discoveries relating to its uses — all would have been impossible without the preservation of tradition, and so without the progression from speech to language.
On this basis it may be deducted that the use of fire and the use of speech were developed and perfected simultaneously, although not with the same swiftness. Beyond doubt the perfecting of speech required an even longer sequence of centuries than the spread of the use of fire. While the discovery of fire acted quickly, radically, the shaping of speech led upwards, but slowly. It was more difficult to perfect speech than to employ fire. The quicker a common tongue evolved in a given group, the more rapid and many-sided was its ability to ensure itself stable existence and enduring relationship. Language fulfils a double role for tradition, which it not only preserves, but creates. Language is the perpetuation of thought.
The emergence and perpetuation of tradition was aided by the consciousness of death. But awareness of mortality did not come quickly. Primitive man was killed by murderers, cannibals and beasts of pray; to die a natural death in the ripeness of years a community able to ensure its members a considerable degree of security was required. Primitive man did not know that he was by nature, mortal.197 Death from disease is ascribed by Oceanic tribes to enemies, and every case of natural death provides grounds for a new war of revenge. In Korea the superstition still persists that anybody dying before completion of the cycle (sixty years) dies as the result of the activity of evil spirits.198 Thus primitive man organises only for battle and fights without cease. When he grows aware that he is mortal, one of the causes of struggle lapses, as well as an impediment to the uniting of very small groups into somewhat larger ones.
With realisation of his mortality, man felt the need to hand on his experience to his descendants — and he began to create tradition. Only then did the backbone of civilisation begin to form. Fireside, domestic animals, salt, corn growing would all have gone for nothing, availing nothing to create permanent communities had not tradition emerged, with its prerequisites of permanence and stability, (relative) density of population and security. Without these conditions community life can only be short-lived, with insufficient time to develop and method in its system.