To speak of a prehistoric science may seem like a contradiction of terms. The word prehistoric seems to imply barbarism, while science, clearly enough, seems the outgrowth of civilization; but rightly considered, there is no contradiction. For, on the one hand, man had ceased to be a barbarian long before the beginning of what we call the historical period; and, on the other hand, science, of a kind, is no less a precursor and a cause of civilization than it is a consequent. To get this clearly in mind, we must ask ourselves: What, then, is science? The word runs glibly enough upon the tongue of our every-day speech, but it is not often, perhaps, that they who use it habitually ask themselves just what it means. Yet the answer is not difficult. A little attention will show that science, as the word is commonly used, implies these things: first, the gathering of knowledge through observation; second, the classification of such knowledge, and through this classification, the elaboration of general ideas or principles. In the familiar definition of Herbert Spencer, science is organized knowledge.

Now it is patent enough, at first glance, that the veriest savage must have been an observer of the phenomena of nature. But it may not be so obvious that he must also have been a classifier of his observations—an organizer of knowledge. Yet the more we consider the case, the more clear it will become that the two methods are too closely linked together to be dissevered. To observe outside phenomena is not more inherent in the nature of the mind than to draw inferences from these phenomena. A deer passing through the forest scents the ground and detects a certain odor. A sequence of ideas is generated in the mind of the deer. Nothing in the deer's experience can produce that odor but a wolf; therefore the scientific inference is drawn that wolves have passed that way. But it is a part of the deer's scientific knowledge, based on previous experience, individual and racial; that wolves are dangerous beasts, and so, combining direct observation in the present with the application of a general principle based on past experience, the deer reaches the very logical conclusion that it may wisely turn about and run in another direction. All this implies, essentially, a comprehension and use of scientific principles; and, strange as it seems to speak of a deer as possessing scientific knowledge, yet there is really no absurdity in the statement. The deer does possess scientific knowledge; knowledge differing in degree only, not in kind, from the knowledge of a Newton. Nor is the animal, within the range of its intelligence, less logical, less scientific in the application of that knowledge, than is the man. The animal that could not make accurate scientific observations of its surroundings, and deduce accurate scientific conclusions from them, would soon pay the penalty of its lack of logic.

What is true of man's precursors in the animal scale is, of course, true in a wider and fuller sense of man himself at the very lowest stage of his development. Ages before the time which the limitations of our knowledge force us to speak of as the dawn of history, man had reached a high stage of development. As a social being, he had developed all the elements of a primitive civilization. If, for convenience of classification, we speak of his state as savage, or barbaric, we use terms which, after all, are relative, and which do not shut off our primitive ancestors from a tolerably close association with our own ideals. We know that, even in the Stone Age, man had learned how to domesticate animals and make them useful to him, and that he had also learned to cultivate the soil. Later on, doubtless by slow and painful stages, he attained those wonderful elements of knowledge that enabled him to smelt metals and to produce implements of bronze, and then of iron. Even in the Stone Age he was a mechanic of marvellous skill, as any one of to-day may satisfy himself by attempting to duplicate such an implement as a chipped arrow-head. And a barbarian who could fashion an axe or a knife of bronze had certainly gone far in his knowledge of scientific principles and their practical application. The practical application was, doubtless, the only thought that our primitive ancestor had in mind; quite probably the question as to principles that might be involved troubled him not at all. Yet, in spite of himself, he knew certain rudimentary principles of science, even though he did not formulate them.

Let us inquire what some of these principles are. Such an inquiry will, as it were, clear the ground for our structure of science. It will show the plane of knowledge on which historical investigation begins. Incidentally, perhaps, it will reveal to us unsuspected affinities between ourselves and our remote ancestor. Without attempting anything like a full analysis, we may note in passing, not merely what primitive man knew, but what he did not know; that at least a vague notion may be gained of the field for scientific research that lay open for historic man to cultivate.

It must be understood that the knowledge of primitive man, as we are about to outline it, is inferential. We cannot trace the development of these principles, much less can we say who discovered them. Some of them, as already suggested, are man's heritage from non-human ancestors. Others can only have been grasped by him after he had reached a relatively high stage of human development. But all the principles here listed must surely have been parts of our primitive ancestor's knowledge before those earliest days of Egyptian and Babylonian civilization, the records of which constitute our first introduction to the so-called historical period. Taken somewhat in the order of their probable discovery, the scientific ideas of primitive man may be roughly listed as follows: