Mary E. Marcy

Stories of the Cave People (excerpt)

Published: International Socialist Review, October 1915;
Transcribed: Sally Ryan for, 2002.

(Note--During the past year or two we have received so many requests for more of Mary Marcy's Stories of the Cave People, some of which appeared in the Review several years ago, that we have decided to publish a new series this fall and winter, reprinting a few of the earlier stories only to show the natural sequence of early discoveries and inventions. The story of the culture of primitive peoples forms the actual early history of mankind. In those days the social life was not complex and it is easy for the young folks to discover in them the relation between cause and effect, to see how every new invention and discovery altered the whole fabric of primitive society and how every primitive social institution had its roots in the discovery of a new tool or weapon or in a new method of providing food or shelter or protection for the early tribes.)


No one among the Cave People knew how to kindle a fire. On several occasions when they found the trees in the forest affame, Strong Arm had borne back to the Hollow a burning branch. Immediately all the other Cave People were seized with a desire to have torches and they swarmed around the skirts of the blaze and secured boughs also. And on they sped toward home and the Hollow amid roars of laughter and much pride, till the sparks irom one of the branches blew into the irowsy hair of the Stumbler and set him aflame.

Instantly all the Cave People dropped their boughs in terror and the Stumbler beat his head with his hand, uttering shrill cries of pain.

Only Strong Arm advanced steadily toward the river, grunting his disgust. "Bah! Bah!" he said many times, spittings the words from his mouth.

Strong Arm was the great man of the tribe. No one among the Cave People could jump so far, or lift so large a rock as he. His back was broader than the shoulders of the other men. His head was less flat, and his eyes were very keen and saw many things.

When they reached the Hollow, Strong Arm gathered dry leaves and sticks and built a huge bonfire upon the rocks. And the Old Woman and Gray Beard came out of their cave to marvel at his work. The young men brought branches and leaves and fed the flames and when night came on the Cave People sat around the fire and laughed together. For the wolves came out of their holes and showed their white fangs. And their yellow eyes gleamed through the darkness, but they hovered on the edge of the woods, for they were afraid.

Far into the night the Cave People danced, while the flames from the fire brightened the whole Hollow. They beat their hands together and chanted in two tones from a minor strain, and not till they were worn out with dancing and fuel gathering did they crawl back into their caves.

But in the morning the fire was dead. Grey ashes miarked the spot of their gaiety and the Cave People were filled with awe and wonder.

But they learned many things. The next time Strong Arm brought a blazing bough to the Hollow he discovered that the fire burned best when the branches met the face of the wind, and in time they learned to coax the coals to live through the night by covering them carefully with ashes and damp moss. And at last, by watchfl care, the Cave People were able to keep the fire burning constantly.

The Cave Women with little children, who were unable to hunt with the men, came in time to he the natural care-takers of the fire.

It was the Foolish One who first, in a fit of wantonness, threw a hunk of bear meat upon the coals, and it was Strong Arm, the wise, who fished it out again. For in those days bear meat was not to be had all the time, and Famine followed close upon the heels of Feasting. Often a chunk of bear meat was the most precious thing in the world.

Strong Arm ate the steak which he had poked irom the coals and he found it delicious. Then he threw more chunks into the fire and gave them to the Cave People. Aiier that every one threw his meat into the flames. By and by they stuck great hunks of raw flesh upon long sticks and broiled them over the fire.

No longer as darkness crept over the world were the Cave People forced into their Caves for safety. Secure around the fire they danced and chanted rude measures wherein they mocked their enemies, the mountain lion and the grey wolves, who came forth in the night and watched them hungrily from afar.

Four times had the nut season come and gone since the birth of little Laughing Boy and he could remember one day only when the fire had not burned upon the rocks in the Hollow. Ever since he had been able to walk he had trotted at his mother's heels down to the shore, when the air was chill and had squatted very close to the coals, for the warmth was very pleasant to his small body.

His mother, Quack Quack, which meant Wild Duck in the language of the Cave People, always screamed shrilly to him and gesticulated wildly, till he crept back out of danger, while she scoured the woods for logs and branches.

But there came a day when he crawled down to the river and found no fire on the shore. Then his father, Strong Arm, had gone upon a long journey. Many paths he had crossed on his journey along the bank of the river to a friendly neighboring tribe. And he returned after several suns with the good fire in his hands. Since them the Cave People had tended the fire more carefully than ever. Thus Laughing Boy came to know that the fire was a friend, a friend who protected the Cave People from the wild animals of the forest. He knew also that it was very good to feel the warm flames near his brown body when the days were cool, and that it hurt very much if touched with his fingers.

Laughing Boy always ran at the side of his mother, Quack Quack, tagging at her heels or hanging on her shoulders. Although a very big boy, as Cave Boys grew, he had never been weaned and always when he grew cold or hungry, he ran to her side and pulled at her breasts, uttering queer little grunts and cries. In the bad season Quack Quack grew very thin as Laughing Boy nursed at her breasts. When he was four years old and the fruit was dead and the nuts and berries were nowhere to he found from the North fork of the river to the bend far below, Quack Quack felt that she could no longer endure but pushed him from her again and again, giving him bits of meat and fish to chew.

When once the Cave People had hunted twelve days without bringing home any large game, the eyes of the people grew deep with hunger and their faces were drawn and gaunt. A few fish they caught and again found bitter roots and some scrubby tubers, but these meant only a mouthful to the Cave People when they could, one and all, have devoured great chunks of meat.

Strong Arm sat on the bank of the river one whole day, but the storms had driven the fish up stream and he caught only two small ones that fluttered and beat themselves against the sticks which he had rammed into the mud, after the fashion of a fence.

Quack Quack, who was often alone in the Hollow, felt the gnawing pangs of hunger more keenly every day as she weakly thrust Laughing Boy from her breasts again and again, and staggered into the forest after fresh fuel.

And there carve a time when the hunger and pain grew so strong that she remembered only that she must satisfy them. Then she pushed Laughing Boy into the cave, which was the place that served to her and Strong Arm for a home, and with a mighty effort rolled a stone hefore the entrance.

Laughing Boy, too, was very hungry, but she knew he was safe from the beasts of the forest. She heard his low wails as she turned her hack on the Hollow and hurried away toward the branch of the river, pausing only when she saw the scrub ends of the wild plants, to examine them. But she found nothing to eat, only many holes where the Cave People had thrust their sticks in a search of roots.

Quack Quack continued on her way, almost forgetting the mountain lion, and the dangers that assailed without, for the hunger passion was strong within her.

The wild duck she sought and knew their haunts of old. It was because of her skill in catching them that she had earned her name among the Cave People.

Better than any other, she knew their habits and how to catch and kill one among them without alarming the flock.

This she had discovered when she was a very little girl. In those days it had been almost impossible for the Cave People to catch the wild duck. While they were sometimes successful in killing one, the others always scattered in terror. Soon they began to regard the Cave People as their enemies and immediately one of them appeared the alarm was given.

But when Quack Quack, the mother of Laughing Boy, was ten years old and the Cave People were disgusted because the wild ducks eluded them so quickly, she found a way to deceive the flocks.

She had waded out into the fork of the river, with the great green leaves of the cocoanut palm wet and flapping about her head, for the sun was very hot, and she stood quietly among the rushes, when a flock of wild ducks swam slowly down the stream. Suddenly she stretched out her arm, under the water, and seized one of the ducks by the legs and drew him down. And then the rest of the flock, unsuspicious of danger, swam on slowly around the bend.

Then the little brown girl ran out of the water holding aloft the duck, which was dead. Her mother was very proud as well as the young brown girl, and all the Cave People clapped their hands and said, "Good ! Good !" And the young men said "Woman," meaning she was grown very wise, and after that everybody called her Quack Quack, after the voice of the wild duck.

And Quack Quack grew very proud of her accomplishment and spent long hours hiding in the rushes for ducks. All the Cave People put leaves or bark over their heads in order to hide themselves and tried to catch them as the brown young girl had done, but they always frightened away the flock even when they were lucky enough to seize one of the ducks.

Many years had passed since the brown girl discovered the new way of hunting, but the brown woman, whom they still called Quack Quack, had not forgotten. She could not forget with a great hunger in her breast, as she slipped through the wood along the river bank.

Gently she stepped, making no sound, and every little while she parted the brushes lining the river with her hands and peered through. But there were no ducks and she caught her breath each time eagerly and went further on, twitching her ears nervously.

When she was almost exhausted, after some time, she again parted the brush. Now her eyes flashed, her small nostrils quivered and her hands worked convulsively, for there, not very far away, evidently drowsing near the rushes, she saw a solitary wild duck.

The brown woman drew in her breath, and softly, very softly, withdrew from the brush and bent her steps further up the river. On her way she tore a long strip of dead bark from a tree and wound it carefully around her head and face.

Then she plunged into the river until it rose above her shoulders, when she waded very gently with the current, down stream. The water was very cold, but Ouack Quack clutched her hands sharply and stepped onward, deeper into the sluggish current, till only the rough bark which covered her head, remained in view.

Slowly, very slowly, she felt her way over the soft bottom, making no sound, causing not even a ripple in the water. A small bough floated at her side and she kept pace with it, going no faster, no slower than it drifted, till she came close, very close, to the motionless duck. Then her hand shot forth and she dragged it sharply under the water. But it was alone. There was none to take flight at its cries and Quack Quack, the brown woman, scrambled up the bank, wringing the duck's neck as she ran.

She shivered in the wind and shielded herself in the brush, and then, lying flat on the ground, buried her teeth in the duck's breast. Swiftly she ate, making loud noises with her lips and grunting joyfully, and not until the last portion was gone did she rise and turn her face toward the Hollow. Her stomach sagged with its heavy load and she walked slowly, glutted with food.

When the Cave People saw her, they cried out. "Wild Duck, Wild Duck!" They looked at her stomach, big and distended and were very miserable, for they knew after what manner she had earned her name.

The fire on the rocks in the Hollow was cold and dead and Strong Arm was very angry, but Quack Ouack said nothing. She heard the cry of Laughing Boy as she slipped into the Cave, and she threw herself onto the bed of dead leaves and drew him, whimpering, to her breast.


As far back as any of the Cave People could remember, their fathers had used the bones of wild beasts as weapons. I suppose they discovered long before that the marrow inside these bones was very good to eat. Then they hammered them with great stones till the bones split open and after they had eaten the marrow somebody discovered the sharp bones made very formidable weapons. So one had ever found sticks so strong and so sharp as these bone weapons.

B and by all the Cave People possessed great hones, split at one end, like a sharp sword. Almost every day the youths and maidens threw bones or sticks to display their skill. And the ones whose aim was true and who showed most power in his arm, strutted about and stuck out his chest, in order that all the other Cave people might know how great he was.

One there was whom they called Big Nose. Now in the time of the Cave People it was a marvelous thing for a child to possess a nose that protruded. Generally cave noses were much like the noses of the Tree People, with merely two large nostrils in the center of the face, slightly extended, preceding the head in order that the owner might catch the smell of danger or of good food. But him the Cave People called Big Nose because his nose turned down instead of upward, and it extended nearly half an inch beyond his face.

When he was only a slim brown youth, Big Nose became able to out-throw all the other young folks. He could fling his rough bone javelin many feet further than any of the others and with greater force. At the edge of the woods, he would hurl it far among the trees and clip off, every time, the heads of the small purple flower that grew tall and slim in the forest.

Big Nose grew proud and held his head very high. And he began, after a little while, to wander farther and farther into the woods alone, for he desired greatly to meet the mountain lion or the green snake, in order that he might kill them with his weapon and become still greater in the eyes of the Cave People.

Every one thought he was brave but very foolish, for the youths and maidens rarely wandered about in the forest alone. Too often had their brothers gone out and never returned, and there was fear in their hearts.

But in spite of their warnings, Big Nose continued to hunt and one day, when he had traveled beyond the great rocks, he discovered a large tree lying prone upon the ground. The spring storms had uprooted it and flung it down to die.

Big Nose sped on till he reached the oak tree, when he heard, from its branches, a deep growl and much scratching. Big Nose drew back quickly and sheltered himself behind a great tree, waiting. Aloft he held his bone spear, ready to hurl it upon the enemy.

He waited a long time, but nothing came forth from the boughs of the oak tree, and gradually he grew bolder and cautiously advanced again. His ears twitched constantly and he drew his lips back from his teeth just as dogs do when they attack the enemy.

Big Nose still heard the low growling, but he saw nothing. When he reached the fallen oak, he saw that its branches were flung over a deep hole in the ground. He peered into it carefully and saw a black bear, digging frantically with her paws. Evidently she had blundered through the branches of the tree and had fallen down into the hollow.

When Big Nose found there was no danger, he grew very happy and laughed softly to himself, for the black bear stood upon her hind feet and clawed the air, trying to get out.

And he dropped stones upon her head till she grew wild with rage and staggered about trying to reach him with her paws. Big Nose laughed softly and continued to tease her till she stood again on her hind feet, exposing her throat in rage. Then he lifted his arms above his head and flung the bone javelin into her breast with all his strength.

The bear dropped to the ground pawing at the bone which protruded from her throat, dripping with blood. Furiously she tore about the pit, beating its sides with her paws. And Big Nose was terrified when he jaw his bone weapon fall to the bottom of the hollow, and he ran about hunting for a long stick with which he hoped to poke it out again. When he returned to the pit, bearing sticks and boughs, he found the bear pressing her paws to her breast and growling with rage.

Very carefully he bent over the hollow and poked his weapon, but the bear discovered his movements and turned quickly upon him. With a stroke of her great paw, she slashed savagely at his arm, and laid it open to the bone. Big Nose choked back a cry of pain.

Then he arose to his feet and staggered homeward. Softly he went and his feet touched the earth gently. Dry leaves did not crack under them and he made no sound. But his wound bled badly and he grew weak with pain.

Then he stopped at the side of a dead tree and tore off a strip of bark, which he wrapped tightly around his arm. And he sped quickly, for wild beasts came forth eagerly at the smell of blood and he had no weapon with which to defend himself. But he arrived at the hollow in safety. And the old men among the Cave People nodded their heads and threw out their hands, as much as to say:

"We told you so."

But the youths and maidens gathered around Big Nose with much interest, saying, "What? What" which,in the language of the Cave People, means, What is the matter?

And the brown maidens came near and gazed upon Big Nose with wonder and admiration. Even Light Foot, who had, alone, slain the man, who came down the river, from the enemies, the Arrow People, was pleased with Big Nose and brought herbs with which to wrap his wounds.

But Big Nose waved them all aside with a lofty gesture. Though the pain hurt him sorely, his face was calm, and he knew all the Cave People would think long of his bravery. And his blood was warm because Light Foot looked upon him with love and fire in her eyes.

When all the eyes of the Cave People were directed upon him, Big Nose knelt quickly on the ground and dug a small hole in the earth. With his arm that was uninjured, he pointed into it, growling in imitation of the black bear. And they knew he had discovered a bear that had stumbled into a hollow. Then Big Nose threw a stick into the hole and they understood he had hurled his bone javelin upon the bear. Snatching a second stick, he poked furiously to show how he had sought to extricate his weapon. With another deep growl, he pulled out his arm and held his wound where all could see.

It was in this way that the Cave People talked to each other. Their words were few and most of their ideas were expressed by gestures. "Quack, quack," they said when they meant wild duck. A deep growl signified the black bear, while a long line, made by drawing a finger through the dust or sand, gave everybody to understand the person spoke of a snake.

If you have seen a pantomime show, you will understand something of the manner of the gesture language of the Cave People. Even we "civilized" folks, long accustomed to verbal language, say many things to each other every day, by facial expression and by gesture.

And so, even the children among the Cave People understood the adventures Big Nose had encountered. When his pantomime monologue was finished, the men and women of the tribe rose eagerly. They pointed first to the hole Big Nose had dug in the ground, and then toward the forest, as much as to say,

"Is the bear still in the pit?"

And one of them asked "Big Nose kill?" Big Nose shook his head and started toward the wood,, indicating that the Cave Men were to follow.

So the strong men started through the forest. They hurried forward, keeping close together, with their bone javelins in their hands. For it was growing dusk. But all were hungry, and Cave People who have eaten little for twenty-four hours are willing to risk some danger for a meal of fresh meat.

They reached the pit safely. The bear still growled savagely in pain, and it was after much jabbing with their bone weapons that they despatched her.

Speedily they dragged her from the hole and began at once to skin and disembowel her. They worked into the dark hacking up and distributing portions in order that each man might carry hack to the Hollow his share of the burden.

Very sharply the Cave Men drew in their breath, for the fresh blood of the bear smelled good to them. But the terror of the night was strong upon them, and they listened intently, sniffing the air, twitching their ears and trembling with fear. For it is in the night that the wild beasts creen forth for food, and the smell of fresh bldod reaches a long way off.

So the Cave Men huddled together very close, each carrying a portion of the dripping carcass of the bear. Big Nose, too, bore a huge chunk of the meat, which he chewed from time to time. His wounded arm ached sorely, but because of the pride in his heart, he spoke not. But the way to the Hollow seemed very far and his knees almost sank beneath him.

Each man bore his hone weapon pointing away from his fellows, in order that the hyena, if it sprang at them, might receive the sharp bone point.

Strong Arm was he who thought most of the fire and the safety it brought. But he was unable to express his thoughts. For the sign of the fire among the Cave People was spoken in a gesture, and gesture language is not understood in the darkness.

One terrifying incident marked the journey home. Soft foot-falls crumbled the leaves and two green eyes spotted the black, but the Cave Men huddled closer togeth er, and shrieked so loudly that the animal, whatever it was, dashed away in fear.

When they came to the Hollow, the Cave Men called loudly to the others, and distributed big chunks of bear meat, which they all ate eagerly, with great satisfaction. When the people crept into their caves, rolled great stones before the entrances, and slept.

Many suns came and went away again and Big Nose was so proud of his wound that he moved his arm with great care. The blood that covered it grew hard and black but he sought to preserve it there always, in order to recall to the minds of the Cave People thoughts of his courage. To him it was a precious ornament, so beautiful that it caused the young men to regard him with jealousy and the young women with admiration.

And Light Foot, who was very beautiful in the eyes of all the Cave People, refused to look any longer upon the other youths of the tribe. And when Big Nose asked her to share his cave, she was proud and happy and went to live with him and became his wife.

One there was among the youths of the Cave People whom they had never called "Man," which is to say, "you are wise and brave; therefore you are a man. Him they called Run Fast, because, in spite of the hair grown heavy upon his face, it was always his custom to run away when trouble came.

All the Cave People were often afraid, for death sometimes lurked in the shadows, and their ignorance was so great that they were unable to explain very common occurrences. But Run Fast was more fearful than the old women and the little children.

Run Fast hated Big Nose because Big Nose had done all the things he was afraid to do.

But one day he crept into the wood. He thought he knew of a way that would cause all the Cave People to look upon him with admiration. He did not see Laughing Boy slip through the brush behind him.

Run Fast did not travel far. He never went far from the Hollow when he was alone. And he did not see little Laughing Boy, who watched him curiously from the bushes.

Fast did a very strange thing. Seizing his split bone knife, he scraped his arm till the blood ran and dropped on the ground. Then he bound it tightly, with a piece of bark, just as Big Nose had done.

He returned to the Hollow, screaming wildly, until the Cave People gathered to learn the cause of his distress. And he repeated, in the language of gesture, the same Story Big Nose had told a few suns before.

The strong men and the women surveyed him sharply, for it did not seem possible to them that Run Fast had killed anything. But little Laughing Boy, who saw that Run Fast was receiving much attention because of the blood upon his arm, pushed his way among the people. With a stone in his hand, he rubbed fiercely up and down upon his forearm, till the blood flowed, pointing to Run Fast and shaking his head.

His meaning was plain. The Cave People understood him. It was, "See me. I can scratch myself harder than Run Fast did."

Then all the Cave People knew what Run Fast had done and they cried "Baby ! Baby ! to Run Fast and he was disgraced before them all.

After that,when the young men of the tribe came home with blood upon their bodies, the strong men shook their heads and refused to believe tales of their adventures, unless they brought back something to prove their words. So it came to be a custom among the Cave People that the men or women who had killed a savage beast carried home with him the tail, or the hide or teeth of that animal. These they wore always as tokens of their bravery. Thus the Cave People first adorned their bodies.