Old short story about ancient Martians stranded on earth
"Men Without Bones" by Gerald Kersh. The story has its own Wikipedia page.
The story is pretty old—maybe any time from 1890 to 1925.
Not quite that old, it was first published in the August 1954 Esquire.
I may have read it in a trade-paperback collection of pulp fiction from the dawn of science fiction.
Any of these covers look familiar?
As I recall the story, an explorer has just returned to the explorers' club with an amazing story of finding something in the heart of darkest someplace.
Darkest South America. He is telling his tale not in the Explorers' Club but on a banana boat:
We were loading bananas into the Claire Dodge at Puerto Pobre, when a feverish little fellow came aboard. Everyone stepped aside to let him pass—even the soldiers who guard the port with nickel-plated Remington rifles, and who go barefoot but wear polished leather leggings. They stood back from him because they believed that he was afflicted-of-God, mad; harmless, but dangerous; best left alone.
He recounts how his expedition encountered a race of deformed pygmies—small bodies, short arms & legs, and misshapen heads.
"And then, thank God, the dawn came. I should not have liked to see by artificial light the thing I had shot between the eyes.
"It was gray and, in texture, tough and gelatinous. Yet, in form, externally, it was not unlike a human being. It had eyes, and there were either vestiges—or rudiments—of head, and neck, and a kind of limbs.
"Yeoward told me that I must pull myself together; overcome my 'childish revulsion', as he called it; and look into the nature of the beast. I may say that he kept a long way away from it when I opened it. It was my job as zoologist of the expedition, and I had to do it. Microscopes and other delicate instruments had been lost with the canoes. I worked with a knife and forceps. And found? Nothing: a kind of digestive system enclosed in very tough jelly, and a brain about the size of a walnut. The entire creature, stretched out, measured four feet.
The expedition fights with the pygmies, who turn out to be poor fighters and generally pathetic in every way.
He talked in fits and starts in his fever, his reason staggering just this side of delirium:
". . . What men without bones? . . . They are nothing to be afraid of, actually. It is they who are afraid of you. You can kill them with your boot, or with a stick. . . . They are something like jelly. No, it is not really fear—it is the nausea, the disgust they inspire. It overwhelms. It paralyses! I have seen a jaguar, I tell you—a full-grown jaguar—stand frozen, while they clung to him, in hundreds, and ate him up alive! Believe me, I saw it. Perhaps it is some oil they secrete, some odor they give out . . . I don't know . . ."
The expedition eventually finds the ancient remains of a crashed spaceship, right in the heart of pygmy territory. The explorer figures out that the spaceship came from Mars thousands of years ago, and the Martians were stranded here when it crashed.
"At last, on the third day, Yeoward found a semicircular plate of some extraordinarily hard metal, which was covered with the most maddeningly familiar diagrams. We cleaned it, and for twenty-four hours, scarcely pausing to eat and drink, Yeoward studied it. And, then, before the dawn of the fifth day he awoke me, with a great cry, and said: 'It's a map, a map of the heavens, and a chart of a course from Mars to Earth!'
"And he showed me how those ancient explorers of space had proceeded from Mars to Earth, via the Moon. . . . To crash on this naked plateau in this green hell of a jungle? I wondered. 'Ah, but was it a jungle then?' said Yeoward. 'This may have happened five million years ago!'
One of the people listening says something about those poor Martians, having fallen so far from being a spacefaring civilization to life as those wretched pygmies. And the explorer responds "Don't you see? Those pathetic creatures are men! We are Martians!"
"Please give me a little more rum." His hand was steady, now, as he drank, and his eyes were clear.
I said to him: "Assuming that what you say is true: these 'boneless men'—they were, I presume, the Martians? Yet it sounds unlikely, surely? Do invertebrates smelt hard metals and—"
"Who said anything about Martians?" cried Doctor Goodbody. "No, no, no! The Martians came here, adapted themselves to new conditions of life. Poor fellows, they changed, sank low; went through a whole new process—a painful process of evolution. What I'm trying to tell you, you fool, is that Yeoward and I did not discover Martians. Idiot, don't you see? Those boneless things are men. We are Martians!"