Harry Lowerison
from: From Paleolith to Motor Car; or Heacham Tales
1906

Coo

IN a clump of grass, in a forest by the side of a big lake, sat a girl. A strange girl, you would have thought, because she wore no clothes, and was covered all over with brown hair. Her eyes, though small, were very bright, and restless, like a squirrel's; and her ears were somewhat like a squirrel's too, in that they were pointed. As she sat she listened intently, and her ears moved slightly as she did so.

The water was quite clear; and the bottom, of clean sand and white chalk pebbles, could be plainly seen. She looked intently down into the water; and save the slight twitching of her ears, and the flashing of her eyes, sat as still as though carved in stone.

Suddenly a fish moved through the clear water below, and she leaned forward. Her hand shot out with the quickness of a striking snake, and she drew the fish from the water with a thumb and finger in its eyes. Cooing with pleasure she laid it on a fallen branch, and cut off its head with a shapely stone axe of her own making.

As a tiny baby she had cooed, perhaps imitating the doves which built their nests over her head in the trees where she lay, and she cooed still when anything pleased her. Thus, in an age when scarcely anyone had a name of his own, the little, brown, monkey-like girl was known to her mother as Coo.

While she cut up her fish her ears still gave little, restless jerks; and suddenly she threw herself forward on her hands, and laid her ear to the earth, listened eagerly, and then dashed off on all fours into the thick undergrowth. She ran as quickly on hands and feet as a boy now could run standing up, and soon came to a little clearing in the forest. In the middle a rough screen of branches had been made, ring shaped, but without a roof; and opposite this, a few yards away under a big oak, sat a man by a fire of sticks. He was copper-coloured, and very hairy, like his daughter Coo. His eyes were small and deep-set under bushy eyebrows, and he seemed to have no chin. He held a big piece of flint between his naked knees and with another and smaller piece used as a hammer, he deftly knocked off flake after flake, to make a flint knife-axe such as Coo had just used on the fish. His ears moved like Coo's, and as the latter burst through the bushes, he rose to his feet and shuffled rather than walked towards her.

"Father," she called, "Horses!"

"How many?" asked the man, in a rough, but pleased and eager voice. Now Coo could not count more than three, though she was twelve years old, so she said: "Very many!" and held up her ten fingers twice over.

"Good," said her father: "At the drinking place?"

"Yes," replied Coo.

Her father picked up two or three flints, shaped like flattened pears and chipped to a sharp edge at the point; dropped on all fours, and ran underneath the bushes to the spot Coo had just left. Arrived there he could plainly hear the trampling of horses, and swinging himself up into a tree he grasped the branches firmly with his toes and looked down. Almost at once a small, shaggy, wild horse, with a big bead and thick legs, came in sight down the well trodden road, and behind him trooped others, and Coo's father chose the sharpest flint-axe and got ready to throw. But the keen scent of the leader gave him warning, and he threw up his head and neighed the "danger" call to those behind. At once they stopped, backed, turned round, and were beginning to gallop off; when right in front of them Coo dropped with a shout from a bough, and the herd again turned and dashed madly down towards the water. The man on the branches above them marked the lender and let him pass. He selected a plump young colt; his arm whirled over his head, and the flint flew straight between the horse's eyes and buried itself in the bone. The creature fell, and in spite of the crowd of maddened horses, the man swung himself down, and as the colt struggled to rise, he hacked fiercely at its hind legs and broke them with two swift blows of another axe held in his hand. The rest of the herd dashed past and into the shallow water and away along the shore, seeking a place where the bushes were thin enough to let them land. At this moment Coo ran up. Her father did not stop to thank her, but together they set to work to kill the colt and hack it to pieces. They skinned the body, cut off the four legs arid hung them up by thin willow wands to the tree above them; cut large pieces off the rump and laid them on one side; dragged out the tongue and cut it off; and then, covered with blood, set off for the hut, carrying with them the tongue and rump steaks and the skin.

"Wife!" shouted the man as they came to the clearing, and a hairy woman came to the door of the hut with a tiny baby clinging to her back. "Wife, cook these." And he threw down the flesh at her feet, and went back to his work of flint-chipping.

Coo turned towards the lake to wash, (her father never washed) but as she came near the carcase of the horse she heard a low growling, and guessed that wolves were already feasting there. So she turned off elsewhere; pushed, again on her hands and feet, through the bushes and reeds; dived into the lake, and swam and splashed till all the blood was washed off the hair on her skin. Then she ran swiftly back to help her mother, who had spitted the horse's tongue on a stick, and stuck it into the ground so that the flesh hung over the fire.

While it was cooking the woman took the skin, and, with a flint scraper, scraped all the bits of flesh and fat from it. In this work Coo helped, the little brown baby meanwhile staring curiously at them from a heap of dried fern on which the mother had laid him.

Coo's mother was not so tall as her father, and the hair on her head was longer, and in fact hung down to her waist, but she had the same beast-like face, and deep, cunning eyes, which only softened and looked human and kind when they lit on the staring baby. She wore a necklace made of the teeth of horses and oxen and bears strung roughly on a thin sinew, and this, with a much worn apron of fox-skin was all her costume.

Coo's father only held her by right of capture. She had strayed from her father and mother when a girl to gather flowers, and this man had run at her suddenly from behind a tree, and knocked her down with a rough club when she cried for help. Then he had thrown her, bleeding and senseless, over his shoulder; carried her off to his shelter; and made her his wife.

As they worked, a twig snapped behind them, and they turned quickly with fear in their eyes, because all the forest held enemies; but the bushes parted to let another and older woman, quite naked, come through. She carried a rough skin bag, and came straight up and sat down by them, the acorns with which the bag was filled rustling as she did so.

"Boars feeding," she said; and she pointed in the direction from whence she had come.

"Plenty meat here," replied the man. "Hungry?"

"Yes," she answered, and picking up a piece of raw flesh began to eat it, the blood oozing from her mouth as she did so.

Coo's father and his two wives had come from the great plain that then existed where now is the English Charnel. When they set out, an old man was with them, Coo's grandfather; but he limped and could not keep up, so his son had struck him dead with a stone axe, (it was kinder, he thought, than to leave him to die of hunger) and they had pushed on again north.

Where now our village stands, the Heacham River, and a smaller one which ran from Ringstead Downs, had made a big lake, the overflow from which ran north across a plain where now is the Wash. There this stream joined a larger river, made by the joining of the Witham, Welland, Nen and Great Ouse; and the united stream broke through the chalk hills that went across to the present Lincolnshire, and running over the Plain where now is the North Sea, emptied its waters into the ocean where now is the Dogger Bank. You see, it was a very long time ago — I cannot tell you how many thousands of years — and things were very different from what they are to-day.

Coo's father had settled on the shore of this 1ake, because here the animals that came to drink had made a track through the otherwise pathless forest, and one had only to wait at the watering place to get plenty of game. Flints, too, with which to make tools and weapons, were plentiful; the rivers brought them down from the chalk hills of Ringstead; and folk in those days were very well content if they got shelter and food, and skins for clothes in the winter.

But now the horse's tongue was roasted, and the father drew the stick on which it hung from the fire, and laid the hissing meat on the ground. When it was cool enough he cut it up into portions, taking the biggest one himself, and giving the smallest to Coo, and all four squatted round the fire and ate. Then each took a handful of acorns, and while they were eating these Coo dived into the bushes, and soon came back with two handfuls of berries which she handed round. So they ate and were filled, and the father shambled into the hut, and stretched himself on the dried fern there, and pulled a skin over himself (there was no other furniture) and soon fell asleep and snored.

But Coo went again to the watering place, this time, to avoid the wolves, along the branches of the trees like a squirrel, and brought the legs of the horse up and hung them near the hut in the firelight. Then she dragged in more dead branches and put some on the fire and laid some near; and the two women having now finished cleaning the skin, all went into the hut, the mother picking up her baby, and lay down as the sun set, to sleep.

But the wolves, attracted by the meat, howled round the hut; and once one made a dash, in spite of the fire, and jumped at it where it hung, and Coo ran out arid caught up a blazing branch and threw it at a pair of green eyes that blazed in the dusk. There was a rush as the beast fled, and distant snarling and growling, and then all was quiet and they slept.

In the morning when Coo awoke there was a thin dusting of snow on her skin rug, and she shook it off, and threw the rug over her shoulder as a coat. She looked first to the fire. It was out, and she dived back into the hut and brought out a handful of very dry leaves. Then she sat down, and taking two flints began to knock them together to get sparks, holding them close to the dry leaves. But this morning she chinked and chinked her flints together in vain. At last she ran to the hut again and touched her mother on the arm. She awoke at once, and Coo whispered: "Fire out! Snow!" upon which she also pulled her bear skin round her and followed outside, bringing with her the fire sticks. These were simply two pieces of very dry wood about a foot long. (The mother always slept with them underneath her to keep them quite dry). One had a groove in it and the other a blunt end. She fitted this end into the groove and began rapidly to run the stick up and down it, dropping as she did so, thin pieces of dry root in the groove. Soon the heat caused by the friction made one of the rootlets glow red, and at once the woman blew it gently till a flame burst out. Then she dropped on more rootlets, dried leaves, and twigs, and Coo brought larger sticks, and in a few minutes a big fire roared and cracked merrily.

Near the fire was a heap of flints. Coo dropped these one by one into the fire where the sticks were glowing red. Their she went to one edge of the clearing and dug up some clay with a pointed stick. She spread the clay an inch thick on the ground in a circle a foot across, and stuck twigs about a foot high all round the edge. Round these twigs she wove willow wands, which bend easily, in and out, plastered it thickly inside and out with clay, and ran off to the lake for water. Arrived there she found the bones of the horse picked clean; filled her skin bag with water; carried it back, and emptied it into her clay and basket bowl. Then her mother took two sticks, and using them like a pair of tongs she lifted some of the now red hot pebbles from the fire one by one, and dropped them into the pot. Soon the water began to boil and she then put in several big pieces of meat, keeping the water boiling by now and then dropping in another stone. When it had boiled long enough she called out, and her husband and his other wife came from the hut and sat down to eat. The blood of the horse had caked and clotted on the man's hairy arms and breast, and he looked horrible.

"Ugh!" said Coo's mother. "Wash!"

He sprang up to strike her, but Coo put out her foot and tripped him. Then the man's eyes blazed with anger. He jumped up, seized Coo by the foot, whirled her round and round and dashed her on the ground.

The girl lay lifeless, her dark face much paler, her eyes closed, and blood and froth oozing from her nose and mouth. The woman bent over her, wiping her face and weeping; but the man laughed like a brute, and sat down by the pot and stuck a pointed stick through a bit of meat, lifted it out, and began to eat.

They carried Coo into the hut, and laid her down gently on the dried leaves.

All that day her mother bent over her and wiped the froth from her lips and moistened them with water, now and then trying to get her to swallow a little broth.

Outside it began to snow again, and a great storm of wind arose, and the trees swayed to and fro and their branches snapped and fell. Great flocks of birds flew southward before the blast; and the man and his wife covered the hut with branches and skins, tying and weighting them at the bottom with big stones.

The sun went down in a glory of rose and purple, but the girl lay still and quiet as if dead. With the first dawn Coo awoke and called faintly: "Mother!" She had pillowed her daughter's head on her breast when she at last lay down, and her faint word aroused her. "Mother," said Coo, "Water." She had it within reach, and put a horn to her lips. Coo drank and closed her eyes again, murmuring, "Thanks."

For many days Coo lay between life and death, but at last the mother was rewarded by seeing her crawl out of the dark hut and sit in the sunlight. Day by day she stayed out a little longer, and helped in scraping skins and such light work; and sometimes she would get a pointed flint and scratch drawings of animals on a flat bone. Even her rough fierce-tempered father admired these drawings; and her mother was very proud and glad when one day she hung round her baby brother's neck a string of pebbles and bears' teeth cunningly smoothed and bored.

Coo was very fond of her little brown brother. She would sit and play with him for hours together, and the little monkey-like thing felt her love and was happy with her.

But indeed, as Coo sat in the gloom of the hut or in the sunlight of the clearing, she thought many things, and chiefly about why they lived alone.

There were other families in the forest, both up and down the river. If all could meet and work together, how much safer it would be, thought Coo. One man could keep the night-fire going for many people as well as for a few. If they joined together they could always kill big game, horse and reindeer and even the curve-tusked, harry mammoth. And they could build bigger, stronger houses, and help each other in many ways. But she did not dare to speak to her father about these matters. She remembered how one summer day a man swam from across the lake to the drinking place. Her father had waited till he got close, and then sent a flint crashing into his skull. Coo had seen this, and turned sick as the man sank and the wavelets reddened with his blood. So she held her peace and thought the more. Her father only regretted that the body had sunk. He would have eaten it if he could.

There was another reason for not speaking. Coo had but very few words, and her father had still less. She knew the oak from the yew, but to her father they were both simply trees. Coo gave them names for herself. Language was just beginning at this time, and the people spoke seldom, and then not at great length.

One day in the spring, when the sun shone warm, and the glossy yellow petals of the celandine starred the grass, Coo carried her little brother down to the lake and swung him in a skin bag from the branch of a tree. Then she sat down, and watched for the fish. She was still weak and breathed hard, because two of her ribs had been broken when her father threw her; and she was very deaf, and blood still came from her ears at times.

But Littling, her pet name for her brother, laughed and crowed; and the sun shone in Coo's black eyes, and she laughed back and said:

"Still now, Littling. See Coo catch fish?"

And he stilled his baby laughter and stared hard out of round, wide-open eyes, while his sister watched the water keenly.

Suddenly a crash sounded behind her, and she looked quickly round to see a huge mammoth rushing down the wide track which the beasts had made in coming to drink. Her brother hung right over the path. Already she could see the gleam of the great beast's eyes among its long, black hair. It swung its great curved tusks from side to side, and galloped clumsily forward. In another moment the baby would have been under the giant feet. Coo sprang up, lifted the child from its skin cradle, carried it swiftly across the path and laid it down. As she did so the mammoth reached the spot. The sharp point of one of the lowered tusks struck the girl in the side, and she was thrown in front of the great beast among the reeds of the lake.

The big hairy elephant drank, and turned round and went away; and Coo lay there with a big wound is her side, the blood streaming redly up in the water, her face still turned to the baby brother whom she had died to save.


Notes:

The only Paleolithic weapon recorded from our parish is "Coo's" axe, herewith figured. It has been re-chipped by a Neolithic worker, and though there is a deposit of carbonate of lime on the re-chipping, the re-chipped part has no "patina" or glaze. It is now in the Heacham Museum, and it is to the kindness of Holcombe Ingleby, Esp., J.P., who founded that museum, that I have leave to figure it in my book.

While Paleolithic man had fully reached the upright position, he would frequently "revert" to all fours, and I have introduced such a reversion in order to emphasise his lowly origin.

For the manners and customs of Paleolithic man I have consulted Darwin, Wallace, Sir Harry Johnston and others on modern savages. If the details of my story revolt, it is not my fault. One has to talk to an explorer to find out the details of modem savage life. They are utterly unprintable. My story is more than just, it is generous, to the manners and customs of Paleolithic man.

If date be needed, then 100,000 years ago will be fairly safe as modern science reckons.

My friend, Dr Alfred Russell-Wallace, points out, in a letter to me, that he has arrived at the conclusion "that we have no evidence that these early men were, on the average, any worse than ourselves, or any lower, either intellectually or morally!"

"Ask yourself the question." he goes on, "If a Newton or a Darwin had been born of Paleolithic parents, how could either of them possibly have shown their mental powers, except by some slight, VERY SLIGHT, step towards, say, the arts of the Neolithic period?"

I put this in with all deference to Darwin's friend and co-worker. Dr. Wallace will pardon me that 1 still remain my own man's man: all the positive evidence, it seems to me, is on my side.