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Title:      The Grisly Folk
Author:     H.G. Wells
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Language:   English
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Date first posted:          June 2006
Date most recently updated: June 2006

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Title:      The Grisly Folk
Author:     H.G. Wells

"Can these bones live?"

Could anything be more dead, more mute and inexpressive to the inexpert
eye than the ochreous fragments of bone and the fractured lumps of flint
that constitute the first traces of something human in the world? We see
them in the museum cases, sorted out in accordance with principles we do
not understand, labelled with strange names. Chellean, Mousterian,
Solutrian and the like, taken mostly from the places Chelles, La
Moustier, Solutre, and so forth where the first specimens were found.
Most of us stare through the glass at them, wonder vaguely for a moment
at that half-savage, half-animal past of our race, and pass on.
"Primitive man," we say. "Flint implements. The mammoth used to chase
him." Few of us realize yet how much the subtle indefatigable
cross-examination of the scientific worker has been extracting from the
evidence of these rusty and obstinate witnesses during the last few

One of the most startling results of this recent work is the gradual
realisation that great quantities of these flint implements and some of
the earlier fragments of bone that used to be ascribed to humanity are
the vestiges of creatures, very manlike in many respects, but not,
strictly speaking, belonging to the human species. Scientific men call
these vanished races man (Homo), just as they call lions and tigers
cats (Felis), but there are the soundest reasons for believing that
these earlier so-called men were not of our blood, not our ancestors,
but a strange and vanished animal, like us, akin to us, but different
from us, as the mammoth was like, and akin to, and yet different from,
the elephant. Flint and bone implements are found in deposits of very
considerable antiquity; some in our museums may be a million years old
or more, but the traces of really human creatures, mentally and
anatomically like ourselves, do not go back much earlier than twenty or
thirty thousand years ago. True men appeared in Europe then, and we do
not know whence they came. These other tool-using, fire-making animals,
the things that were like men and yet were not men, passed away before
the faces of the true men.

Scientific authorities already distinguish four species of these
pseudo-men, and it is probable that we shall learn from time to time of
other species. One strange breed made the implements called Chellean.
These are chiefly sole-shaped blades of stone found in deposits of
perhaps 300,000 or 400,000 years ago. Chellean implements are to be seen
in any great museum. They are huge implements, four or five times as
big as those made by any known race of true men, and they are not ill
made. Certainly some creature with an intelligent brain made them. Big
clumsy hands must have gripped and used these rocky chunks. But so far
only one small fragment of a skeleton of this age has been found, a very
massive chinless lower jawbone, with teeth rather more specialised
than those of men to-day. We can only guess what strange foreshadowing
of the human form once ate with that jaw, and struck at its enemies with
those big but not unhandy flint blades. It may have been a tremendous
fellow, probably much bigger in the body than a man. It may have been
able to take bears by the scruff and the sabre-toothed lion by the
throat. We do not know. We have just these great stone blades and that
bit of a massive jaw and--the liberty to wonder.

Most fascinating riddle of all these riddles of the ages of ice and
hardship, before the coming of the true men, is the riddle of the
Mousterian men, because they were perhaps still living in the world when
the true men came wandering into Europe. They lived much later than
those unknown Chellean giants. They lived thirty or forty thousand years
ago--a yesterday compared with the Chellean time. These Mousterians are
also called Neandertalers. Until quite recently it was supposed that
they were true men like ourselves. But now we begin to realise that they
were different, so different that it is impossible that they can be very
close relations of ours. They walked or shambled along with a peculiar
slouch, they could not turn their heads up to the sky, and their teeth
were very different from those of true men. One oddity about them is
that in one or two points they were less like apes than we are. The dog
tooth, the third tooth from the middle, which is so big in the gorilla,
and which in man is pointed and still quite distinct from the other
teeth, is not distinct at all in the Neandertaler. He had a very even
row of teeth, and his cheek teeth also were very unlike ours, and less
like the apes' than ours. He had more face and less brow than true men,
but that is not because he had a lesser brain; his brain was as big as a
modern man's but it was different, bigger behind and smaller in front,
so that probably he thought and behaved differently from us. Perhaps he
had a better memory and less reasoning power than real men, or perhaps
he had more nervous energy and less intelligence. He had no chin, and
the way his jawbones come together below make it very doubtful if he
could have used any such sounds in speech as we employ. Probably he did
not talk at all. He could not hold a pin between his finger and thumb.
The more we learn about this beast-man the stranger he becomes to us and
the less like the Australoid savage he was once supposed to be.

And as we realise the want of any close relationship between this ugly,
strong, ungainly, manlike animal and mankind, the less likely it becomes
that he had a naked skin and hair like ours and the more probable that
he was different and perhaps bristly or hairy in some queer inhuman
fashion like the hairy elephant and the woolly rhinoceros who were his
contemporaries. Like them he lived in a bleak land on the edge of the
snows and glaciers that were even then receding northward. Hairy or
grisly, with a big face like a mask, great brow ridges and no forehead,
clutching an enormous flint, and running like a baboon with his head
forward and not, like a man, with his head up, he must have been a
fearsome creature for our forefathers to come upon.

Almost certainly they met, these grisly men and the true men. The true
man must have come into the habitat of the Neandertaler, and the two
must have met and fought. Some day we may come upon the evidences of
this warfare.

Western Europe, which is the only part of the world that has yet been
searched with any thoroughness for the remains of early men, was slowly
growing warmer age by age; the glaciers that had once covered half the
continent were receding, and wide stretches of summer pasture and thin
woods of pine and birch were spreading slowly over the once icy land.
South Europe then was like northern Labrador to-day. A few hardy beasts
held out amidst the snows; the bears hibernated. With the spring grass
and foliage came great herds of reindeer, wild horses, mammoth,
elephant, and rhinoceros, drifting northward from the slopes of the
great warm valley that is now filled up with water--the Mediterranean
Sea. It was in those days before the ocean waters broke into the
Mediterranean that the swallows and a multitude of other birds acquired
the habit of coming north, a habit that nowadays impels them to brave
the passage of the perilous seas that flow over and hide the lost
secrets of the ancient Mediterranean valleys. The grisly men rejoiced at
the return of life, came out of the caves in which they had lurked
during the winter, and took their toll of the beasts.

These grisly men must have been almost solitary creatures.

The winter food was too scanty for communities. A male may have gone
with a female or so; perhaps they parted in the winter and came together
in the summer; when his sons grew big enough to annoy him, the grisly
man killed them or drove them off. If he killed them he may have eaten
them. If they escaped him they may have returned to kill him. The grisly
folk may have had long unreasoning memories and very set purposes.

The true men came into Europe, we know not whence, out of the South.
When they appeared in Europe their hands were as clever as ours; they
could draw pictures we still admire, they could paint and carve; the
implements they made were smaller than the Mousterian ones, far smaller
than the Chellean, but better made and more various. They wore no
clothes worth speaking of, but they painted themselves and probably they
talked. And they came in little bands. They were already more social
than the Neandertaler; they had laws and self-restraints; their minds
had travelled a long way along that path of adaptation and
self-suppression which has led to the intricate mind of man to-day with
its concealed wishes, its confusions, and laughter and the fantasies and
reveries and dreams. They were already held together, these men, and
kept in order by the strange limitations of tabu.

They were still savages, very prone to violence and convulsive in their
lusts and desires; but to the best of their poor ability they obeyed
laws and customs already immemorably ancient, and they feared the
penalties of wrong-doing. We can understand something of what was going
on in their minds, those of us who can remember the fears, desires,
fancies and superstitions of our childhood. Their moral struggles were
ours--in cruder forms. They were our kind. But the grisly folk we cannot
begin to understand. We cannot conceive in our different minds the
strange ideas that chased one another through those queerly shaped
brains. As well might we try to dream and feel as a gorilla dreams and

We can understand how the true men drifted northward from the lost lands
of the Mediterranean valley into the high Spanish valleys and the south
and centre of France, and so on to what is now England--for there was no
Channel then between England and France--and eastward to the Rhineland
and over the broad wilderness which is now the North Sea, and the German
plain. They would leave the snowy wilderness of the Alps, far higher
then and covered with great glaciers, away on their right. These people
drifted northward for the very good reason that their kind was
multiplying and food diminishing. They would be oppressed by feuds and
wars. They had no settled homes; they were accustomed to drift with the
seasons, every now and then some band would be pushed by hunger and fear
a little farther northward into the unknown.

We can imagine the appearance of a little group of these wanderers, our
ancestors, coming over some grassy crest into these northern lands. The
time would be late spring or early summer, and they would probably be
following up some grazing beasts, a reindeer herd or horses.

By a score of different means our anthropologists have been able to
reconstruct the particulars of the appearance and habits of these early
pilgrim fathers of mankind.

They would not be a very numerous band, because if they were there would
be no reason why they should have been driven northward out of their
former roving grounds. Two or three older men of thirty or so, eight or
ten women and girls with a few young children, a few lads between
fourteen and twenty, might make up the whole community. They would be a
brownish brown-eyed people with wavy dark hair; the fairness of the
European and the straight blue-black hair of the Chinaman had still to
be evolved in the world. The older men would probably lead the band, the
women and children would keep apart from the youths and men, fenced off
by complex and definite tabus from any close companionship. The leaders
would be tracking the herd they were following. Tracking was then the
supreme accomplishment of mankind. By signs and traces that would be
invisible to any modern civilised eye, they would be reading the story
of the previous day's trek of the herd of sturdy little horses ahead of
them. They would be so expert that they would go on from one fault sign
to another with as little delay as a dog who follows a scent.

The horses they were following were only a little way ahead--so the
trackers read the signs--they were numerous and nothing had alarmed
them. They were grazing and moving only very slowly. There were no
traces of wild dog or other animals to stampede them. Some elephants
were also going north, and twice our human tribe had crossed the spoor
of woolly rhinoceros roaming westward.

The tribe travelled light. They were mainly naked, but all of them were
painted with white and black and red and yellow ochre. At this distance
of time it is difficult to see whether they were tattooed. Probably they
were not. The babies and small children were carried by the women on
their backs in slings or bags made of animal skins, and perhaps some or
all of them wore mantles and loin bands of skin and had pouches and
belts of leather. The men had stone-pointed spears, and carried
sharpened flints in their hands.

There was no Old Man who was lord and master and father of this
particular crowd. Weeks ago the Old Man had been charged and trampled to
a jelly by a great bull in the swamp far away. Then two of the girls had
been waylaid and carried off by the young men of another larger tribe.
It was because of these losses that this remnant was now seeking new
hunting grounds.

The landscape that spread before the eyes of this little band as they
crested the hills was a bleaker, more desolate and altogether unkempt
version of the landscape of western Europe to-day. About them was a
grassy down athwart which a peewit flew with its melancholy cry. Before
them stretched a great valley ridged with transverse purple hills over
which the April cloud-shadows chased one another. Pinewoods and black
heather showed where these hills became sandy, and the valleys were full
of brown brushwood, and down their undrained troughs ran a bright green
band of peaty swamps and long pools of weedy water. In the valley
thickets many beasts lurked unseen, and where the winding streams had
cut into the soil there were cliffs and caves. Far away along the
northern slopes of the ridge that were now revealed, the wild ponies
were to be seen grazing.

At a sign from the two leaders the little straggle of menfolk halted,
and a woman who had been chattering in subdued tones to a little girl
became silent. The brothers surveyed the wide prospect earnestly.

"Ugh!" said one abruptly and pointed.

"Ugh!" cried his brother.

The eyes of the whole tribe swung round to the pointing finger.

The group became one rigid stare.

Every soul of them stood still, astonishment had turned them into a
tense group of statuettes.

Far away down the slope with his body in profile and his head turned
towards them, frozen by an equal amazement, stood a hunched grey figure,
bigger but shorter than a man. He had been creeping up behind a fold in
the ground to peer at the ponies, and suddenly he had turned his eyes
and seen the tribe. His head projected like a baboon's. In his hand he
carried what seemed to the menfolk a great rock.

For a little while this animal scrutiny held discoverers and discovered
motionless. Then some of the women and children began to stir and line
out to see the strange creature better. "Man!" said an old crone of
forty. "Man!" At the movement of the women the grisly man turned, ran
clumsily for a score of yards or so towards a thicket of birch and
budding thorn. Then he halted again for a moment to look at the
newcomers, waved an arm strangely, and then dashed into cover.

The shadows of the thicket swallowed him up, and by hiding him seemed to
make him enormous. It identified itself with him, and watched them with
his eyes. Its tree stems became long silvery limbs, and a fallen trunk
crouched and stared.

It was still early in the morning, and the leaders of the tribe had
hoped to come up with the wild ponies as the day advanced and perhaps
cut one off and drive it into difficulties among the bushes and swampy
places below, and wound it and follow it up and kill it. Then they would
have made a feast, and somewhere down in the valley they would have
found water and dry bracken for litter and a fire before night. It had
seemed a pleasant and hopeful morning to them until this moment. Now
they were disconcerted. This grey figure was as if the sunny morning had
suddenly made a horrible and inexplicable grimace.

The whole expedition stood gazing for a time, and then the two leaders
exchanged a few words. Waugh, the elder, pointed. Click, his brother,
nodded his head. They would go on, but instead of slanting down the
slopes towards the thickets they would keep round the ridge.

"Come," said Waugh, and the little band began to move again. But now it
marched in silence. When presently a little boy began a question his
mother silenced him by a threat. Everybody kept glancing at the thickets

Presently a girl cried out sharply and pointed. All started and stopped

There was the grisly thing again. It was running across an open space,
running almost on all fours, in joltering leaps. It was hunchbacked and
very big and low, a grey hairy wolf-like monster. At times its long arms
nearly touched the ground. It was nearer than it had been before. It
vanished amidst the bushes again. It seemed to throw itself down among
some red dead bracken....

Waugh and Click took counsel.

A mile away was the head of the valley where the thickets had their
beginning. Beyond stretched the woldy hills, bare of cover. The horses
were grazing up towards the sun, and away to the north the backs of a
herd of woolly rhinoceros were now visible on a crest--just the ridges
of their backs showing like a string of black beads.

If the tribe struck across those grassy spaces, then the lurking prowler
would have either to stay behind or come into the open. If he came into
the open the dozen youths and men of the tribe would know how to deal
with him.

So they struck across the grass. The little band worked round to the
head of the valley, and there the menfolk stayed at the crest while the
women and children pushed on ahead across the open.

For a time the watchers remained motionless, and then Waugh was moved to
gestures of defiance. Click was not to be outdone. There were shouts at
the hidden watcher, and then one lad, who was something of a clown,
after certain grimaces and unpleasant gestures, obliged with an
excellent imitation of the grey thing's lumbering run. At that scare
gave place to hilarity.

In those days laughter was a social embrace. Men could laugh, but there
was no laughter in the grisly pre-man who watched and wondered in the
shadow. He marvelled. The men rolled about and guffawed and slapped
their thighs and one another. Tears ran down their faces.

Never a sign came from the thickets.

"Yahah," said the menfolk. "Yahah! Bzzzz. Yahah! Yah!"

They forgot altogether how frightened they had been.

And when Waugh thought the women and children had gone on a sufficient
distance, he gave the word for the men to follow them.

In such fashion it was that men, our ancestors, had their first glimpse
of the pre-men of the wilderness of western Europe....

The two breeds were soon to come to closer quarters.

The newcomers were pushing their way into the country of these grisly
men. Presently came other glimpses of lurking semi-human shapes and grey
forms that ran in the twilight. In the morning Click found long narrow
footprints round the camp....

Then one day one of the children, eating those little green thorn-buds
that rustic English children speak of as bread and cheese, ventured too
far from the others. There was a squeal and a scuffle and a thud, and
something grey and hairy made off through the thickets carrying its
victim, with Waugh and three of the younger men in hot pursuit. They
chased the enemy into a dark gully, very much overgrown. This time it
was not a solitary Neandertaler they had to deal with. Out of the bushes
a big male came at them to cover the retreat of his mate, and hurled a
rock that bowled over the youth it hit like a nine-pin, so that
thereafter he limped always. But Waugh with his throwing spear got the
grey monster in the shoulder, and he halted snarling.

No further sound came from the stolen child.

The female showed herself for a moment up the gully, snarling,
bloodstained, and horrible, and the menfolk stood about afraid to
continue their pursuit, and yet not caring to desist from it. One of
them was already hobbling off with his hand to his knee.

How did that first fight go?

Perhaps it went against the men of our race. Perhaps the big
Neandertaler male, his mane and beard bristling horribly, came down the
gully with a thunderous roar, with a great rock in either hand. We do
not know whether he threw those big discs of flint or whether he smote
with them. Perhaps it was then that Waugh was killed in the act of
running away. Perhaps it was bleak disaster then for the little tribe.
Short of two of its members it presently made off over the hills as fast
as it could go, keeping together for safety, and leaving the wounded
youth far behind to limp along its tracks in lonely terror.

Let us suppose that he got back to the tribe at last--after nightmare

Now that Waugh had gone, Click would become Old Man, and he made the
tribe camp that night and build their fire on the high ridges among the
heather far away from the thickets in which the grisly folk might be

The grisly folk thought we knew not how about the menfolk, and the men
thought about the grisly folk in such ways as we can understand; they
imagined how their enemies might act in this fashion or that, and
schemed to circumvent them. It may have been Click who had the first dim
idea of getting at the gorge in which the Neandertalers had their lair,
from above. For as we have said, the Neandertaler did not look up. Then
the menfolk could roll a great rock upon him or pelt him with burning
brands and set the dry bracken alight.

One likes to think of a victory for the human side. This Click we have
conjured up had run in panic from the first onset of the grisly male,
but as he brooded by the fire that night, he heard again in imagination
the cry of the lost girl, and he was filled with rage. In his sleep the
grisly male came to him and Click fought in his dreams and started awake
stiff with fury. There was a fascination for him in that gorge in which
Waugh had been killed. He was compelled to go back and look again for
the grisly beasts, to waylay them in their tracks, and watch them from
an ambush. He perceived that the Neandertalers could not climb as easily
as the menfolk could climb, nor hear so quickly, nor dodge with the same
unexpectedness. These grisly men were to be dealt with as the bears were
dealt with, the bears before whom you run and scatter, and then come at
again from behind.

But one may doubt if the first human group to come into the grisly land
was clever enough to solve the problems of the new warfare. Maybe they
turned southward again to the gentler regions from which they had come,
and were killed by or mingled with their own brethren again. Maybe they
perished altogether in that new land of the grisly folk into which they
had intruded. Yet the truth may be that they even held their own and
increased. If they died there were others of their kind to follow them
and achieve a better fate.

That was the beginning of a nightmare age for the little children of the
human tribe. They knew they were watched.

Their steps were dogged. The legends of ogres and man-eating giants that
haunt the childhood of the world may descend to us from those ancient
days of fear. And for the Neandertalers it was the beginning of an
incessant war that could end only in extermination.

The Neandertalers, albeit not so erect and tall as men, were the
heavier, stronger creatures, but they were stupid, and they went alone
or in twos and threes; the menfolk were swifter, quicker-witted, and
more social--when they fought they fought in combination. They lined out
and surrounded and pestered and pelted their antagonists from every
side. They fought the men of that grisly race as dogs might fight a
bear. They shouted to one another what each should do, and the
Neandertaler had no speech; he did not understand. They moved too
quickly for him and fought too cunningly.

Many and obstinate were the duels and battles these two sorts of men
fought for this world in that bleak age of the windy steppes, thirty or
forty thousand years ago. The two races were intolerable to each other.
They both wanted the caves and the banks by the rivers where the big
flints were got. They fought over the dead mammoths that had been bogged
in the marshes, and over the reindeer stags that had been killed in the
rutting season. When a human tribe found signs of the grisly folk near
their cave and squatting place, they had perforce to track them down and
kill them; their own safety and the safety of their little ones was only
to be secured by that killing. The Neandertalers thought the little
children of men fair game and pleasant eating.

How long the grisly folk lived on in that chill world of pines and
silver birch between the steppes and the glaciers, after the true
menfolk came, we do not know. For ages they may have held out, growing
more cunning and dangerous as they became rare. The true men hunted them
down by their spoor and by their tracks, and watched for the smoke of
their fires, and made food scarce for them.

Great Paladins arose in that forgotten world, men who stood forth and
smote the grey man-beast face to face and slew him. They made long
spears of wood, hardened by fire at the tips; they raised shields of
skin against his mighty blows. They struck at him with stones on cords,
and slung them at him with slings. And it was not simply men who
withstood the grisly beast but women. They stood over their children;
they stood by their men against this eerie thing that was like and yet
not like mankind. Unless the savants read all the signs awry, it was
the women who were the makers of the larger tribes into which human
families were already growing in those ancient times. It was the woman's
subtle, love-guided wits which protected her sons from the fierce anger
of the Old Man, and taught them to avoid his jealousy and wrath, and
persuaded him to tolerate them and so have their help against the grisly
enemy. It was woman, says Atkinson, in the beginning of things human,
who taught the primary tabus, that a son must go aside out of the way of
his stepmother, and get himself a wife from another tribe, so as to keep
the peace within the family. She came between the fratricides, and was
the first peacemaker. Human societies in their beginnings were her work,
done against the greater solitariness, the lonely fierceness of the
adult male. Through her, men learnt the primary co-operation of sonship
and brotherhood. The grisly folk had not learnt even the rudest elements
of co-operation, and mankind had already spelt out the alphabet of a
unity that may some day comprehend the whole earth. The menfolk kept
together by the dozen and by the score. By ones and twos and threes
therefore the grisly folk were beset and slain, until there were no more
of them left in the world.

Generation after generation, age after age, that long struggle for
existence went on between these men who were not quite men and the men,
our ancestors, who came out of the south into western Europe. Thousands
of fights and hunts, sudden murders and headlong escapes there were
amidst the caves and thickets of that chill and windy world between the
last age of glaciers and our own warmer time. Until at length the last
poor grisly was brought to bay and faced the spears of his pursuers in
anger and despair.

What leapings of the heart were there not throughout that long warfare!
What moments of terror and triumph! What acts of devotion and desperate
wonders of courage! And the strain of the victors was our strain; we are
lineally identical with those sun-brown painted beings who ran and
fought and helped one another, the blood in our veins glowed in those
fights and chilled in those fears of the forgotten past. For it was
forgotten. Except perhaps for some vague terrors in our dreaming life
and for some lurking element of tradition in the legends and warnings of
the nursery, it has gone altogether out of the memory of our race. But
nothing is ever completely lost. Seventy or eighty years ago a few
curious savants began to suspect that there were hidden memories in
certain big chipped flints and scraps of bone they found in ancient
gravels. Much more recently others have begun to find hints of remote
strange experiences in the dreams and odd kinks in modern minds. By
degrees these dry bones begin to live again.

This restoration of the past is one of the most astonishing adventures
of the human mind. As humanity follows the gropings of scientific men
among these ancient vestiges, it is like a man who turns over the yellow
pages of some long-forgotten diary, some engagement book of his
adolescence. His dead youth lives again. Once more the old excitements
stir him, the old happiness returns. But the old passions that once
burnt, only warm him now, and the old fears and distresses signify

A day may come when these recovered memories may grow as if we in our
own persons had been there and shared the thrill and the fear of those
primordial days; a day may come when the great beasts of the past will
leap to life again in our imaginations, when we shall walk again in
vanished scenes, stretch painted limbs we thought were dust, and feel
again the sunshine of a million years ago.


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