The Neanderthal Inspires Scholars

Contemporary advances in the new sciences of geology, archaeology, and prehistoric research helped encourage debate about the existence of fossil humans. Charles Lyell, mentioned above, demonstrated the great age of the earth in the 1830s, thus breaking with the Christian worldview according to which people in the eighteenth century still regarded the earth as only 6000 years old. After his visit to the Neander Valley, Lyell classified the Feldhof Grotto man as belonging to the Middle Pleistocene Age (730,000 to 127,000 years bp). The foundations of Pleistocene chronology, the division of the last ice age into different periods, was only fixed through the work of the geographers Albrecht Penck and Eduard Brückner in about 1909, but interest in a more precise dating of the layering sequence was already present before the turn of the century. Animal fossils were already known, but it was only after the mid-nineteenth century that tools were discovered for the first time: flint implements from Abbeville and Moulon-Quignon in France. Jacques Boucher de Perthes brought these into conjunction with the geological succession of layers (stratigraphy)— a scientific first.

The French Edouard Lartet was another pioneer in researching archaeological finds. On the basis of pre-existing divisions of the Stone Age (made by the English archaeologist Sir John Lubbock) into Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) and Neolithic (New Stone Age), Lartet subdivided the Paleolithic (2.4 million-730,000 bp) into several periods, named after their predominant animal finds, such as the Cave Bear Period. After further tools had been discovered, telling more about their supposed human users than about the animals they killed, Gabriel de Mortillet did not hesitate long before he separated the periods according to the tools and the techniques by which they were made. So it came about that the tools from the Neanderthal find in Spy, Belgium, were immediately classified according to Mortillet's system and ascribed to the Mousterian Period (200,00040,000 bp). Thus the foundations of a Stone Age chronology developed as well as the geological division of the earth into different ages.

Although geological and archaeological classification systems became more complex than they had originally been thanks to further discoveries, these early findings contributed substantially to the birth of modern paleoanthropology, the study of fossil humans. The discovery of the Neanderthal in 1856 was thus the starting point for a whole branch of science, whose modern practitioners still study the origins of our primitive ancestors, the hominids. The Neanderthal (Figure 1) and his contemporaries, who first came to light with the discoveries in Belgium and Gibraltar (Figure 2), as well as the arguments over Darwinian evolution theory, gave the mid-nineteenth century the impulse to understand human prehistory, both culturally and scientifically, in a new way. The history of the Neanderthal's discovery shows how important the historical and cultural environment of a discovery is, especially when the issue at hand is the interpretation of fossil humans. Time and circumstances must indeed "be ripe" for fossil finds of our past.

While the Neanderthals were taking the world's breath away, other human fossils came to light that should be mentioned. Just before the find at Spy came the famous discovery in 1868 of at least five anatomically modern humans, called Cro-Magnon after the find's site, a cliff overhang in the Dordogne region of France. Railroad workers looking for fill discovered the fossil fragments interspersed with animal bones and Aurignacian tools. The bones, about 30,000 years old, made the Neanderthals seem primitive and apelike by comparison.

The Neanderthals suffered another "reverse" thanks to a surprising discovery outside of Europe. The young Dutch physician Eugène Dubois was deeply influenced by Haeckel's theory, propounded in 1863, that a missing link between modern humans and anthropoid apes would probably be discovered in Asia. With the goal of discovering remains of this missing link, Dubois arranged to be sent to Sumatra in 1877 as a military surgeon. Obsessed with Haeckel's idea, he began to dig at a location in Java that, by contemporary views, seemed to be totally lacking in prospects. He dug in a region where not even the slightest trace of primitive humans had been discovered within thousands of kilometers. Astonishingly, he hit the right place, down to the centimeter. On the bank of the Solo River near Trinil, between 1890 and 1892, he found part of a skull cap, a femur, a jawbone fragment, and individual teeth, which he classified as belonging to a new species, the Pithecanthropus erectus— the upright-walking ape-man. At first, these finds seemed to solve a puzzle about humankind's geographical point of origin, since besides coming from a new site, outside of Europe, the age of the find was unusual. Thus Pithecanthropus replaced the Neanderthal as the oldest ancestor of our species. The controversy that broke out after Dubois' return to Europe and presentation of his finds around the turn of the century show plainly how little agreement there was over the morphological and systematic classification of the finds. Criticism also sprang up regarding the point of origin of the supposedly oldest human remains. At first, certain circles did not want there to be a cradle of humanity at all. But now it had been displaced from Europe to Asia with the Java find, or more specifically to the Dutch East Indies—a circumstance that certain gentlemen of the United Kingdom could not take lying down. So it is not surprising, with the gift of hindsight, that an out and out fake should at first have been accepted as genuine and have fascinated contemporaries. This was a filed-down orangutan jawbone, grouped with modern human skull fragments, and "found" in 1912 in a gravel pit near Piltdown, England. "Piltdown Man" fitted perfectly into the worldview of the time, which demanded a territorial origination point for the human species somewhere in the region of the white "races." The Neanderthals with their boorish characteristics and massive bones simply could not be a direct human ancestor, even though they were apparently both more recent and more primitive than Piltdown Man. The Piltdown hoax was only revealed in the 1950s, thanks to the development of new dating methods. Exposure of the fraud came too late to rehabilitate the Neanderthals, though, who had now been labeled as "primitive." Even when it was hard to prove these characteristics, they appeared to be confirmed in chilling fashion by further Neanderthal finds in Krapina, Croatia. From 1899 on, Krapina (about 80 kilometers from Zagreb) yielded up a total of 876 fossil fragments, parts of skulls and skeletons of infants, children, and adults (Figure 12c). Based on the discovery level, the bones were between 90,000 and 130,000 years old. In his publication "The Ice-age Man from Krapina," the paleontologist Dragutin Gorjanivoc -Kramberger pointed to the fragmentary state of the bones as evidence of cannibalism. Was the Neanderthal a cannibal? A wild, wandering beast, armed with stone weapons; in the final analysis an eater of carrion?

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