Nineteenth-century Germany's growing chemical industry fed a growing demand for lime. In 1856, quarry workers in search of lime blasted out the entrance of a small cave, Feldhofer Cave, in the Neander Valley near Düsseldorf. In between the miners and the pure lime were rubble deposits rich in cave bear remains. Among the bears, the quarry workers found a skeleton that they presumed was also a bear. An "alert supervisor" intervened before the entire skeleton was discarded, according to paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall. The saved remains, including a skullcap, went to a local schoolteacher and amateur naturalist, Johann Fuhlrott, for examination. Fuhlrott, "to his eternal credit immediately and correctly divined that they were human, unusual, and ancient," Tattersall writes.
Fuhlrott returned to the quarry in hopes of finding the rest of the skeleton, but it was too late to retrieve any more bones. Fortunately, he had enough to change the study of human origins.
Though he was only an amateur, Fuhlrott deduced from the especially sturdy bones that they had belonged to a hardy individual, and concluded from the thick overburden and mineralized nature of the bones that they were very old. Rather than making the case to the scientific community himself, he took the bones to an anatomy professor at the University of Bonn, Hermann Schaaffhausen. In 1857, both men presented the Neanderthaler at a local natural history society meeting, and Schaaffhausen illustrated its skullcap, as shown here. In 1864, William King, a professor at Queen's College in Galway, Ireland, proposed the name Homo Neanderthalensis.
Even before Darwin published his theory of natural selection, Schaaffhausen had written an article arguing for evolution. In the case of the Neanderthal, however, he opted for a somewhat more conservative explanation: The bones belonged to a member of a tribe that had been displaced by the ancestors of modern Germans. The explanation fit well with accepted history at the time, that Germany had been inhabited by a series of savage tribes. Yet the Neanderthal skull was so different from modern human anatomy that Schaaffhausen went a step further, stating that "the human bones from the Neanderthal exceed all the rest in those peculiarities of conformation which lead to the conclusion of their belonging to a barbarous and savage race."
Fuhlrott and Schaaffhausen were correct in identifying the Neanderthal as ancient and a different type of human, but they couldn't overcome the arguments of anti-evolutionist Rudolf Virchow, a dominant figure in life sciences at the time, and one of Schaaffhausen's fellow Bonn professors, August Mayer. Ignoring the robust nature of the bones, Mayer argued — and Virchow concurred — that the bones belonged to a sufferer of rickets whose constant frowning from pain formed the bony ridges above the eyes. (Or, according to a less delicate explanation, the rickets victim suffered not excessive pain but excessive flatulence, hence the furrowing.) Mayer suggested that Fuhlrott and Schaaffhausen simply had the remains of a Cossack cavalry deserter who had stopped in the Rhine in 1814.
In the century and a half following the discovery of the Neanderthal type specimen, Neanderthals were alternately kicked out of and welcomed back into the human family tree multiple times. In 2006, DNA supplemented the fossil record. After sequencing more than a million bases of Neanderthal DNA, two groups of researchers concluded that Neanderthals separated from the ancestors of modern humans roughly 450,000 years ago, although the two species of humans might have interbred.
Over the next several years, researchers revealed even more interesting evidence: A small percentage of the DNA of modern humans can be attributed to Neanderthals. Moreover, Neanderthals and Homo sapiens didn't have Eurasia to themselves. In 2010, paleoanthropologists announced the discovery of a finger bone fragment from Denisova Cave in Siberia. Denisovians turned out to be a distinct group from Neanderthals, genetic analysis revealed, and traces of their DNA appear in modern residents of Melanesia, thousands of miles away.
Narrative text and graphic design © by Michon Scott - Updated May 27, 2021