collage: dried nettle leaves, paper, height 270cm, 2020
The story begins in 1900. Mieczysław Limanowski, a young geologist suffering from a lung disease, is staying in Zakopane, where he is preparing an exhibition about the geological origins of the Tatra Mountains. He is looking for materials in libraries, archives, museum
collections and... in the mountains. Everything begins with an expedition which he embarks on with his mountain guide, Snail, and with Stasio Witkiewicz, a teenager under his care. The youngster will obviously later become known as Witkacy. The other companions are called Gorzechowski and Rabowski. It is not entirely clear what they are looking for. Revelation comes in the Magurska Cave – after making their way through a passage full of stalagmites and dark niches with sinter terraces, after being soaked by underground rain and having their
hands scratched by plant rhizomes. There are bear bones in the cave mud. Their pierced and crumbled fragments bring to Limanowski’s mind the amulets of Palaeolithic man. He argues that the bones were processed by the hand of a Zakopane Homo erectus. In the thigh bone he discerns a scar left by a wound inflicted by a prehistorical resident of the Zakopane area, and on the top of the bone – a hole through which he threaded an amulet thong. Limanowski refuses to change his mind even when two independent studies by professors from Lviv and
Prague state that the bones originate from the interglacial period (first study) or from the contemporary era (second study) and were not processed by a Homo erectus or the Triassic, but, if anything, simply suffered the ravages of time. There is no evidence that the ape-man exists. There is no evidence that he existed in the past. The spell broke, but the myth has already been created. Around the same time, in preparation for the geological exhibition in Zakopane, the teenage Staś paints two panels with visions of the primordial Tatra landscape and Triassic islands. Limanowski, in turn, obtains from France a reconstruction of a Homo erectus – another ape-man, sculpted by the French geologist Eugène Dubois on the basis of two bones he had found on an Asian island. These are the bones of the so-called Java Man: part of a thigh bone and a skullcap. Dubois reconstructs the vision of the exotic Homo erectus according to how he imagines the mythical ape-man, using his twelve-year-old son as a model. The youngster freezes in the attic while posing as a round-shouldered monkey with outstretched fingers. Dubois presents his reconstruction of the ape-man at the exhibition in Paris in the Dutch India pavilion, and Limanowski displays his photographs in a showcase in the Tatra Museum. The inscription accompanying the ape-man reads: “Pre-Ice Age – humans appear in Europe – they live together with mammoths, rhinoceroses and hippopotami. The Palaeolithic. Humans appear in Central Europe. Completely wild humans. They represent the so-called Neanderthal race. The Neanderthal race. The early days of social life. The cave man lives in the Magurska Grotto. 200,000 years have passed since then.” Scandal erupts in Zakopane. The ape-man is dubbed a primordial rat, while Darwin, Darwinists, the Museum and Limanowski himself receive a bashing. A priest called Nucowski writes that Limanowski’s theory is an egregious lie and something truly disgraceful. The problem is not only that the Homo erectus is naked, but also that a Zakopane local could never descend from an ape ancestor. “Did the Museum authorities fully realise how much anxiety and doubt could be stirred in young minds, what irreparable damage and loss could be caused in young hearts, by the photograph of the
ape-man and that single paper sheet with the preposterous date on it?” – priest Nucowski rhetorically asks in one of his pseudo-scientific articles. The photograph is removed from the exhibition the same year. Segregated, packed and deposited in the museum storage drawers,
the prehistoric amulets made from the bone of the arch-enemy of the primeval dweller of the Zakopane area are lost in the mass of other ursine skeletons. And the vision of a Ceylon-like Zakopane with Tatra peaks emerging from the waters of the primordial ocean, preserved in Witkacy’s panels, will burn in the furnaces of the Tatra Museum in the 1950s, as one version of this story has it. The Homo erectus and his
Ceylon in Zakopane give the lie to the Soviet vision of the world.
They now exist only as a memory. A landscape, nearly as fabricated and oppressive as the real one, described by Limanowski. We find here oak, cinnamon and palm trees. The kings of Arabic oases spread their crowns wide right next to Lithuanian trees, and volcanoes fume over Czorsztyn, ready to erupt the very next moment. Sea urchins, snails, crabs and sharks live here. Laurels, eucalypts, figs and cinnamon grow nearby. Creeping pine and common nettle will later squeeze between this subtropical vegetation. Limanowski further writes: “The moon emerged from behind the crags surrounded by a malachite or a crystal clear sapphire halo, and the sun, as it was setting, unleashed around itself a chaos of gold, rubies and amethysts of incredible power and vitality. At the time, the Tatras protruded amid an archipelago like some kind of Ceylon, showing slopes and peaks fading in the distance, shrouded in light seaside fog. A ponderous and wheezing body emerges from the water, it stands up on two legs like a human and walks towards a fern thicket. The iguanodon, a saurian, has got down to work.” Limanowski, as he himself argues, knows that it is all just theory, but “science cannot wait”, he says. The more so that every, even the most fantastic, reconstruction brings science closer to the truth. In this sense, the theory of evolution just means observing how some forms transform into others.
Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, A board with the pre-Tatra islands, photography, ca. 1900, from the collection of the Tatra Mountains Museum, Zakopane, PL
The first geological exhibition at the Tatra Museum, photography, ca. 1903, collection of the Tatra Mountains Museum, Zakopane, PL
Pitekantrop, view from an exhibition at Tatra Museum in Zakopane, PL, 2020
Pitekantrop, detail; nettle and figs dried leaves