From ‘The other people’, a chapter in Humans: from the beginning
Please don’t call us football hooligans
Of all early humans, none have captured the public imagination to anywhere near the extent of the Neanderthals. Indeed, with the possible exception of the dinosaurs, no extinct species is so deeply rooted in our popular culture. The idea that tens of thousands of years ago, people very much like ourselves shared the planet with another human species is one that intrigues many. Although like ‘dinosaur’, the term ‘Neanderthal’ is all-too-often used in a pejorative sense, in literature Neanderthals have generally been portrayed in a sympathetic light, for example The Inheritors by William Golding; Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series; and The Ugly Little Boy by Isaac Asimov. The Neanderthal Parallax is an award-winning trilogy by Canadian SF writer Robert Sawyer about a team of scientists who accidentally make contact with a parallel universe, in which Neanderthals rather than Homo sapiens became the dominant life form on Earth.
“Ironically, the literal meaning of Neanderthal is New Man’s Valley”
The term ‘Neanderthal’ comes from Neander Thal (Neander Valley), near Dusseldorf, Germany, where the type specimen Neanderthal 1 was discovered at Feldhofer Cave in 1856. The German spelling was changed to Neander Tal in 1901, hence the commonly-used variant spelling Neandertal. However, this usage is not acceptable for the scientific name Homo neanderthalensis, which was assigned before the change in spelling. Under rules of taxonomic nomenclature, once a name has been assigned, it cannot be changed. The Neander Valley is named for Joachim Neander, a 17th Century Calvinist theologian who is best known for composing the popular hymn Praise to the Lord, the Almighty. ‘Neander’ is a classicised form of the German surname Neumann (Newman in English). Ironically, therefore, the literal meaning of Neanderthal is New Man’s Valley.
Discovery and rediscovery
Though the first human fossil recognised as not representing a modern human, Neanderthal 1 was not actually the first discovery of a Neanderthal. Specimens had previously been recovered in Ennis Cave, Belgium between 1829 and 1830 and Forbes Cave, Gibraltar in 1848; but their significance was not immediately recognised.
The Feldhofer Cave discovery comprises a skullcap, two femurs, three bones from the right arm, two from the left arm, part of the left ilium (upper pelvic bone), fragments of a shoulder blade, and ribs. The cave was located in a limestone gorge and the remains were recovered by quarry workers in August 1856. As it would later turn out, they inadvertently discarded further remains and other items that could well have included tools, and there is almost no record of context and associations. The find was examined by a local schoolteacher and amateur naturalist, Johann Karl Fuhlrott, who noted that the remains were unlike those of modern humans. Fuhlrott passed the remains on to Hermann Schaaffhausen, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Bonn. The pair jointly announced the discovery in 1857. However, Schaaffhausen considered the Neanderthals to represent an ancient Northern European race predating the Germans and the Celts. That they might represent a new species of human was first suggested in 1864 by the Irish anatomist William King, who proposed the name Homo neanderthalensis. King’s suggestion was not widely accepted at first and, foreshadowing the debate over the Flores hominins almost a century and a half later, the Prussian pathologist Rudolf Virchow dismissed the Feldhofer remains as belonging to a modern human affected by disease.
“Schaaffhausen considered the Neanderthals to represent an ancient Northern European race predating the Germans and the Celts”
Archaeologists eventually did return to the quarry, only to find that the cave had been destroyed. The whole area had been excavated for its limestone, needed for the steel industry as the Industrial Revolution transformed Dusseldorf into a boom town. In the 1920s the area was turned into a park. The cave remained lost to science until 1997, when Ralf Schmitz and Jürgen Thissen from the Rhineland Archaeological Service relocated it with old maps and 19th Century paintings of the site. In the latter, Schmitz and Thissen recognized a rock that still stood in the Neander Park. They then dug exploratory trenches nearby, and on sifting through the debris they found bat teeth and pieces of stalactites – items that are only found in caves. Realising they had located the site of Feldhofer Cave, Schmitz and Thissen continued their investigations….