This work about the Neanderthals is one of many books on the market that deal with our early ancestors. Granted, this book has nothing revolutionary to say on the subject of what we know about this archaic human variety, nor how that knowledge has been received in the scientific and popular communities. Nonetheless, a volume in this format—brief and fact-based, but still comprehensible—makes a contribution by providing a comprehensive overview of the history of the Neanderthals, their relatives, their habitat, and the century and a half of research about them. The 150th anniversary of the first publicized Neanderthal find, made in Germany in 1856, merely offers a convenient occasion for this book.
During our investigation of African pre-hominids and primitive humans, considering their significance to the regional historical consciousness of modern people, we discovered astonishing parallels in the history of the science of paleoanthropology (the branch of research dedicated to the history of our forebears) in both Africa and Europe. This can be seen, first, in modern paleoanthropology's ever greater tendency to regard not just morphology (the study of the form of a find) and its geological age but also its geographical location. The biogeography of fossils is an essential precondition to creating a scientific interpretation that also takes changes in habitat into account. This applies to the reconstruction of the early hominids of Africa just as much as it does to the Neanderthals and their contemporaries. The recognition of regional developments in human prehistory provides, so to speak, a series of signposts that can lead to a detailed picture of human evolution. Climatic shift and the changes it produces in habitats and in the availability of food provides a second factor in the evolution of our ancestors, one that is equally significant for research. Whereas 2.5 million years ago, thanks to extreme changes, cultural evolution had its starting point—with the "invention" of stone tools—the Neanderthals were the first humans to settle in the inhospitable regions of ice-age Europe. There they devised and used tool techniques that made it possible for them to survive—for a considerable length of time. Third, we consider public opinion, the history of how these finds were received. European public consciousness was for a long time marked by a low regard for the Neanderthals. They were spoken of as stupid brutes, as animal-like beasts that, armed with a jawbone, lurked behind rocky outcroppings. In Africa too, up to the present time there has been little awareness of or public interest in the historical significance of their own African origins. Scholarship, as an intermediary between scientific research and the public, thus has an obligation to spread our state ofknowledge about the heritage of human history in a form suited to general audiences. Scholarship should create knowledge, in Europe as in Africa. Thus it was also delightful for us to approach the Neanderthals with a certain scientific-geographical distance and curiosity, for the creation of this book also sprang from a desire to present to the public the significance of the continents in human evolution, and to make us conscious of the many-sided interdependence that, since the beginning of the human condition, has been a hallmark of our species. It is a forceful argument for acceptance and tolerance between humans, whether they be in fossil form or alive today, and whether they come from Africa, Europe, or some other part of the earth.
Stephanie Müller, Friedmann Schrenk Frankfurt am Main, May 2005
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