The Neanderthal As Object Of Scholarly Contention

Schaaffhausen provided exact anatomical descriptions and suggested that the massive bone development of the unique fossil skeleton, perhaps dating to the Diluvian Age, gave evidence of impressive muscular development that in turn hinted at the arduous life circumstances of these raw and wild early Europeans. The influential anatomist and pathologist Rudolf Virchow, an opponent of evolution, took the opposite position in the debate over primitive humans. He personally viewed the original bones in 1872, having previously left their examination to Franz Josef Carl Mayer, Schaaffhausen's colleague in Bonn and a crucial supporter of the Christian creation doctrine. Mayer affirmed the Neanderthal's rachitic bone deformations, which established, according to Virchow, that he must "have walked only in a somewhat grotesque manner." Mayer asserted, among other points, that the Neanderthal's femur and pelvis were formed like those of a person who had ridden his entire life. The individual's broken right arm, he said, had healed badly and chronic pain could explain the prominent brow ridges. The skeleton, he speculated, might be that of a mounted Russian cossack, who had camped in the region during the confusion of the wars of liberation against Napoleon in 1813/1814. Thus the Neanderthal was no fossil, but a recent cavalryman with pathological bone deformities. Virchow, founder of the German Progress Party, socialist, and political opponent of evolution theory as an elitist idea of the natural partiality of a "race," could only support this interpretation. As he said: "The Neanderthal skull should provisionally be regarded only as a remarkable unique appearance. Until we gain further enlightenment from parallel discoveries, we must hold to the belief that this is a case of a completely idiosyncratic formation."

This thesis of "remarkable unique appearance" was soon refuted. Following doubt about the fossil human find in Germany, the debate had spread widely in England. In 1860, Sir Charles Lyell, father of modern geology, had expressed interest in the fossil find. In the course of a trip to Europe he visited the Neander Valley, accompanied by Fuhlrott, and produced the only contemporary profile sketch of the site. Upon his return to England he carried a cast of the Neanderthal's skull cap in his luggage, which soon passed through the hands of several scientists. Besides the skull cap, George Busk's 1861 English translation of Schaaffhausen's first anatomical description of the Neanderthal caused a sensation. Two years later Lyell published The Geographical Evidence of the Antiquity of Man, in which he dealt specifically with the German discovery. In the same year, 1863, Thomas Henry Huxley compared the Neanderthal to the skulls that had been discovered at Engis, near Liège in Belgium, 26 years before the Neanderthal was uncovered at Mettmann (Figure 2). In conjunction with the Belgian discovery, the Neanderthal became the prime piece of evidence used by evolution theorists, because the human bones from Belgium—the skulls of a child and of an adult—were almost identical to those of a modern human. The Neanderthal, with what Huxley called "apelike characteristics," was thus not quite seen as a "missing link," but still the skull was regarded as the human skull most like that of an ape of any that had yet been discovered. Huxley's cautious hypotheses did in fact rest on the false classification of the Engis fossils. A hundred years later, in 1936, the child's skull, which Philippe-Charles Schmerling had discovered in 1829/1830, was declared to be that of a Neanderthal about 70,000 years old. However, the adult skull found at the same site belonged to a modern human.

Geology professor William King's view of the Neanderthal find was far more emphatic. He was of the opinion that the fossil remains represented a unique species of the human family, Homo neanderthalensis. This interpretation came at the beginning ofthe colonial period, when European scientists regarded some newly "discovered" human populations, like "Eskimos," "Negroes," or Australians, as less developed than others. King also thought that Homo neanderthalensis appeared too primitive to be classified as a subspecies of Homo sapiens. Thus the Neanderthal should receive its own classification. More and more convinced of the "brutish" characteristics of the Neanderthal, King revised his views the

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Figure 2 (a) As early as 1829/30 the skullcap of a Neanderthal child was uncovered in Engis, Belgium. (b) Gibraltar I followed in 1848, the skull of what appears to be a female, which is now regarded as an early Neanderthal. The scientific importance of the two finds was first recognized long after the discovery of the Neanderthal of the Feldhof Grotto in 1856.

Figure 2 (a) As early as 1829/30 the skullcap of a Neanderthal child was uncovered in Engis, Belgium. (b) Gibraltar I followed in 1848, the skull of what appears to be a female, which is now regarded as an early Neanderthal. The scientific importance of the two finds was first recognized long after the discovery of the Neanderthal of the Feldhof Grotto in 1856.

next year and attributed the bones in 1864 to a fossil human ape. Despite his changed opinion, the scientific classification of the skeleton as Homo neanderthalensis survived. The zoologist George Busk, mentioned above, was more consistent in his interpretations. In 1863, this translator of Schaaffhausen's essay had the good fortune to gain possession of a skull that had been discovered at Gibraltar in 1848. The similarities between this find from the Forbes Quarries and the Neanderthal from Düsseldorf were immense (Figure 2). Busk realized the scientific importance of this find immediately: finally it was possible to place another example beside the fossil early human from Mettmann. The Gibraltar skull, now believed to be about 50,000 years old, showed that the Neanderthal was not a coincidental idiosyncratic oddity, as Virchow continued to assert until his death in 1902.

The Neanderthal as fossil human type was a reality. Even Professor Mayer could scarcely argue that a rachitic cossack from the 1814 campaign could have crawled away into the crevices of Gibraltar's cliffs, as Busk ironically pointed out. He was right. The finds from Belgium, Gibraltar, and Germany were not the only ones by which Mayer's thesis of the rachitic cossack was laid to rest forever. In 1866 the fragmentary jawbone of a Neanderthal was found in the Belgian La Naulette Cave. A further important discovery followed in 1886 with the unearthing of two almost complete Neanderthal skeletons near Spy in Belgium, now dated to 60,000 years bp. Schaaffhausen triumphed: "A recent find of great importance, which can be seen as a confirmation of my explanation of the Neanderthal bones " The human remains, uncovered along with the bones ofhorses, deer, hyenas, and mammoths, among others, and also with stone tools, provided incontrovertible evidence that the Neanderthal was no obscure unique find, but rather should be regarded as a primitive human type.

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