OBAN TROGLODYTES., W. A. Smith (Feb., 1895), pp.95-103.

“We have little to help us in our efforts to arrive at a decision as to the little ways of our fore-runners – we will not say our ancestors – in the West of Scotland. Not until we arrive at times that may be considered historic, although we have little knowledge and less “history” regarding them, do we meet with many remains. While the age of the Brochs was ignorant of the use of lime or other cement, and may be considered stone age, it was yet an age of comparative advance and structural knowledge. The terms “new” and “old” stone ages are wholly comparative and misleading, and we require to deal with every instance on its own merits, seeing the highest civilisation – as at Stornoway – may co-exist with the shieling life, and indeed the even more wretched and semi-savage life of the black hut. We have seen in the Hebrides whole townships into which crockery and cutlery had but just begun to penetrate a generation ago, and where the “stone age” of a kind was still prevalent. In Sir Arthur Mitchell’s Past in the Present we have admirable instances of this continuation into our own times of archaic ways and implements, such as should lead to great caution in our deductions from isolated finds. At a time when our cotton mills were at their greatest height of prosperity, the spinning wheel was being introduced into the Outer Hebrides to replace the distaff and spindle. It would therefore be unwise to generalise from the Cave at Oban, recently accidentally opened by the blasting of the rock face, were it not that the balance of evidence points to a series of such caves along the elevation of the old beach, some 48 to 50 feet above sea-level. The latest find on many accounts is the most important, not only from the fact that the remains shew lengthened occupation, but from the characters of some of the articles exhumed. The cave as occupied was low in the roof, but with at least 24 feet square of floorage, over the bulk of which the shell deposit, or kitchen midden, interspersed with bones and fragments of formed implements, extends to a depth of 2 feet to 2 feet 9 inches. 

Oban 1

The first question to arise is, whether the cave in question was a veritable sea-cave at the water side when the cave-dwellers occupied it? We will not enter into the geographical question of the lapse of time since it was a sea-cave. It was not occupied, so far as can be judged, under Arctic conditions. The shells are all recent, and that, too, in a district where Arctic shells are plentiful in the glacial clay all about. From the charcoal left amongst the shell deposit, the vicinity was probably wooded. So far, we know of no bones of extinct or Arctic animals. Were these great deposits of shells left in the cave to save trouble, or for fear of discovery should they be thrown out? It would rather appear to us that the shells were carried to their present position from the shore, that the cave had a downward entrance, and a second narrow exit for smoke. The shells once taken in were easier left than carried out again. Had the cave been by the water when inhabited, the contents could readily have been thrown down the shelving beach into deepish water. Although animals were captured and eaten, they were not very plentiful apparently, for the main food was shell-fish. No proof of the use of the bow and arrow has yet been forthcoming, although large deer were undoubtedly brought into the cave. The chalk flints found are as yet too few and unfinished to say that they were fashioned into weapons; and yet their mere presence points to some connection with distant regions. Whether they were traded, or brought by the cave-dwellers themselves, does not appear. Although the earliest Irish records and traditions point to a superior race coming hither from Ireland, to a land that is not considered “inhabited” in the proper sense of the term, yet they may have neglected a sparse population of aborigines skulking in hiding-places, like the Australian or ruder African savages.* In traditional and semi-historic times the presence of skin-clad savage people alongside the lords of the soil has been noted. So that this cave area may not have been beyond a more civilised concurrent existence alongside.

Oban 2

There is, however, no sign of any such higher life; and the balance of probability is that we have here the earliest inhabitants, ignorant of construction, mainly fishermen, fashioning their bone weapons with care, and without even a knowledge of the rude pottery that has survived in the Hebrides to the present day. At the same time their bone weapons shewed skill of a kind, and suggest aquatic habits, whether in river or sea. Harpoons would suggest a marine creature – whether fish or mammal – that required to be followed. Osier coracles, skin-covered, would be from analogy the likeliest means of conveyance, and no trace of these would remain in gravel, or under such conditions as we find here. But we might reasonably expect to meet with a paddle or other means of propulsion were it not that the soil has not been sufficiently air-proofed to preserve any uncharred wood whatever. On the other hand, the drip from the roof, lime-impregnated, should have preserved any hard wood article should it have come under its influence. The flints obtained have been few and unformed. Were they brought by these people from Ireland on an invasion previous to the historic one, or even the traditional prior invasion? The large harpoon (Fig. 1), well made with four barbs on each side, and seven inches in length, with a slot for a thong to bind it to the shaft or a float, is a weapon for a large animal. This so-called “disengaging harpoon” is a weapon well known among widely divided races, enabling the harpooner to keep his struggling prey in sight when it is too strong and heavy for his ordinary shaft or connection. It distinctly presupposes a means of water conveyance by coracle or kayak, and, along with the presence of flints, would suggest the possibility of distant communication by water. Another complete harpoon (Fig. 3), but only 4½ inches in length, and without the slot for a thong, was evidently for smaller prey conquerable at once. It has also four barbs at each side, and the weapon was probably stiffened by the end of the shaft coming up the natural groove in the bone. The two weapons are quite distinct and piscatorial. Fish bones are also freely intermixed with the débris. No direct evidence of fishing with hook and line has yet come to hand. The stones that might well have been taken for sinkers, grooved as they are deeply, may also have been the stones on which the curious bone implements, that appear almost peculiar to this find, were formed, or at least ground smooth. The fact that these are carefully prepared implements has only come home to the investigators as the work progressed, and new finds came to hand. They consist of small pieces of bone (Fig. 4) from two to three inches in length, split so as to come to a sharp point, with the broad butt ground smooth to prevent them injuring the hand. It might be judged that, when a suitable piece of split bone – and all the animal bones were split for the marrow – was obtained,  it was worked accordingly. But bones in process of rounding, preparatory to splitting for the purpose, have come to hand, and this would be natural, as the sharp edge would not be suitable to hold on to when rounding. The grooves in the stones noted might have been made by the rubbing and rounding of the small bones, and this was probably their origin. At the same time the grooved stones themselves might well have been prepared for the purpose suggested of line sinkers; but until hooks, or some other proofs of line fishing are forthcoming, it would be unsafe to go beyond the first intention. Yet, these grooves are made with a distinct purpose. They are not all over the stone in a general way, as they would have been had the stone been merely used as a grinder. Both stones are also similar in character, and as if prepared for tying to thongs. What purpose the small bones were prepared for cannot be asserted, but from their number it must have been required to split the bones to the required shape after grinding the butts. The only other bone or ivory implement of a marked character is what has been called a chisel (Fig. 5). Two inches in length, by about a quarter-inch broad, with double ground edge and a rounded butt, it might have been used with a mallet, or otherwise, for manipulating wood. Altogether these cave-dwellers represent a bone age more than a stone age. How they slew the huge deer, one of whose antlers was 3¼ inch diameter at the butt or socket, does not appear. But when they made such well-finished harpoons, they no doubt had good spears as well. Fire they could easily raise with two pieces of quartz. They did not, apparently, use turf as fuel; it may not have been plentiful, and in any case may be looked upon in its present depth and development as comparatively recent. When the stone cairns of Benderloch were raised, we should judge Ledaig Moss did not cover the glacial deposit as now; and circular wattled enclosures have been found in the existing moss, presumably of a very much later date than the cave occupation. Not a stone “celt” proper has been found, much less a sign of bronze or the more precious metals, so that we may safely argue local ignorance of these, and that the cave-dwellers represented, in all likelihood, the normal civilisation of the time and place. There is no sign of the use of cereals, as found in the lake-dwellings of the neighbourhood. The inhabitants might have had dogs, as the mark of canine teeth was in more than one of the bones; but if the bones, rudely differentiated as those of the ox, pig, and sheep prove really to be those of domestic animals, it complicates the problem. We can scarcely consider such rude cave-dwellers as beyond the hunting and fishing state, certainly far short of the agricultural, and possibly even the pastoral. For domestic animals suggest a certain independence and absence of fear, as well as a prescience and arrangement beyond the Troglodyte stage. If the animals were domestic, then the cave-dwellers were probably surrounded by a more advanced race. But there is no sign of any such neighbourhood. None of the very large fusi or whelks were obtained, but some were large enough to have been used as lamps, and might have been used as scrapers, and others suitable for stampers or hammers came to light. No eyed needles were obtained, although many bone pins that might have been used for various domestic purposes turned up. Consequently no evidence of the preparation of the wool of the sheep, apart from the hide, presented itself.

The earliest occupants seem, therefore, to have been little removed from the lowest savages, excepting that the weapons they did use were fashioned with skill. They hunted and fished, but mainly subsisted upon shell-fish taken from the rocks. They had got the length of making fire, and apparently also cooking their food. There is not the least suggestion of cannibalism, which, indeed, is not an early savage habit, but one attained by races like New Zealanders or Fijians through over-population of restricted areas. In all probability they wandered far, like the North American Indians or Esquimaux, and may have obtained their few flints in exchange during their wanderings; or they may have come from Ireland, as later migrations did, bringing the flints with them. 

We regret that we cannot assure any connection between the skulls found and the weapons. Although one of the skulls was lying on the shell deposit, and under three feet of débris had not been removed to place it there. The skeleton found near the top of the débris might have been comparatively recent, although the skull had mouldered away. The bones do not point to a diminutive race, some being indeed quite large, while the dolicho-cephalic** skulls with [a cephalic] index under 75, and in one case under 70, point to the northern Scandinavian race that is supposed to be within historic times – not to the possible aboriginal Lapp type with high kephalic index. The long head and broad face is a type found in the caves of Perigord, in France; and the skulls unearthed in the Oban cave may be real Troglodyte skulls. But we are disposed to agree with Kollmann, as quoted by Beddoes, when he says, “The European in all his variations or races is ready and fit for anything, whenever we drag his bones to the daylight from under the earth-crust; he was ready when he kept company with the mammoth. He had nothing inferior, neither in the build of his brain-case, nor in the formation of his face in itself, but was homo sapiens in his best form already in the diluvium, then again in the Reindeertide, and in the pile-dwellings.” The skulls, therefore, while matters of interest necessarily, are not of such crucial importance. They support Kollman’s contention to an extent. We find at the present day brains of the highest possibilities accepting their degraded surroundings, lying almost dormant and lethargic, and yet, if transferred to other conditions and stimulated by competition, achieving the greatest success. The cave conditions do not postulate low intelligences. An arm-bone ws as beautifully mended after a break as could be done at the present time. This was one of the lower finds 

We wish more light on the possibility of the cave being occupied as a sea-cave before the elevation of the coast line, which may yet not be so very ancient, seeing that barnacles – lime-encrusted – have been taken by us off a rock at the same elevation in the neighbourhood.1

We have not sufficient authority for the species of all the mammal bones unearthed. Closer examination may reveal a greater abundance of flints. At present the skill discovered has been expended in implements for fishing more than for hunting; or in domestic articles. But the find is the most valuable within our knowledge in the West of Scotland, and, if carefully collated with others of varied character from the Lorne district, will do much to provide a basis for a prehistoric sketch of a typical Highland region. 


1 Since the above was in type, the cave has been excavated to the rock, 15 feet below the surface. The same class of articles along with flints has been found to the bottom. Successive deposits of gravel over the shell beds point to a sea cave occasionally inundated; and layers of ashes at the bottom point to occupation throughout the whole period, with a lime-drip forming stalagmites.
* Bear in mind, this was a time when humans were classed as either civilised or savages. Anyone unlike the idea the British had of themselves was savage. Henry L Roth was an English anthropologist who did much to try to mitigate this idea. I highly recommend his ‘Great Benin; Its Customs, Art and Horrors‘ (1903).  
** Dolichocephaly is when the skull is longer than you’d expect from its width. Neanderthal skulls show this trait.  

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