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Neanderthal Man And The Story Of Human Origins
By Paul Jordan
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Paul Jordan
All rights reserved.
The Discovery of Neanderthal Man
When Joachim Neander died in Bremen in 1680, after a short life of only thirty years that aptly matches the life expectancy of the prehistoric people named after him, the little valley in which he had liked to wander was still a charming glen, largely composed of limestone (with many caves), cut by the Düsselbach stream on its way to join the Rhine. Around 175 years later, it was charming no more (and nowadays it is vanished altogether) for industrial quarrying had already removed about half of it, with a narrow gauge railway running along one side. In 1856 quarrying had left only two caves untouched, 20 m up the gorge's face from the valley bottom, called the Feldhof caves. Evidently they were quite hard to enter, with a low entrance that had to be negotiated all that way up the cliffside. But workmen did enter them, from above, using a charge to open the narrow entrance, and in the smaller of them they found, in 1.5 m of mud on the cave floor, a collection of bones (the skull first, nearest to the entrance, and then more bones, all at the same level) that were taken for the bones of a bear. What they had found was in all probability the remains of a deliberate burial of a Neanderthal individual, but the misidentification of the bones as belonging to a bear was not so extraordinary, for bear bones (of both prehistoric and later origins) are to be found in European cave deposits and bear bones do superficially resemble those of human beings, especially ones as rugged as the Neanderthal long bones. (Indeed, the general living resemblance of bears, especially rearing up on their hind legs, to human beings apparently was not lost on the Neanderthal people themselves, as we shall see.) It is not surprising that, in the middle of the nineteenth century when the science of archaeology was in its infancy and the science of anthropology was scarcely conceived, no records were kept of how the bones were found, no sketch was made of the layering of the deposit, no search was made for associated material like stone tools or the bones of other animals associated with the 'bear bones'. Such records and associated materials would be a great help now towards the dating of these original Neanderthal remains, though they can, of course, be generally dated within the last ice age by analogy with the many further remains of Neanderthal humanity that have since come to light in better investigated contexts. At least these original Neanderthal bones from the Feldhof cave have turned out, nearly 150 years after their discovery, to preserve within them vital genetic evidence that it may not be possible to extract so easily if at all from many of the remains of other prehistoric men; and it may be that the varnishing of them soon after their discovery, in a way that would not be done today, has helped to lock in their genetic secrets for us to unpick in good time. The genetic evidence furnished by the bones from Neanderthal is already having a profound impact on our assessment of the status of the Neanderthalers in human evolution, as we shall see in later chapters, and it is wonderfully appropriate that the first genetic tests on Neanderthal remains should have been made on the bones from the place that gave the Neanderthal race its very name.
A part owner in the quarrying named Beckershoff encouraged the workmen to look for more of the 'bear bones' but it seems no more were found by them. The freshly broken condition of the skullcap indicated already that the workmen's methods were none too delicate; in all there were recovered parts of the shoulders, arms, thighs, pelvis, ribs and skull of the individual buried in the cave. Despite its heavy brow arches, so unlike those of any human being Beckershoff had ever seen, it is difficult to believe that he can have gone on thinking he was in possession of bear bones after he examined the skullcap from the cave. He seems to have kept the remains for a few weeks before passing them on to someone who might have a better idea of what they were: Johann Carl Fuhlrott, a grammar school teacher and president of the Elberfeld naturalists' society.
Fuhlrott, we may conclude, saw at once that the Neanderthal bones were not those of a bear: indeed, he is credited with describing them as belonging to 'a typical very ancient individual of the human race'. Evidently, he thought they were remains from what people were then in the habit of calling 'antediluvian' times – times before the biblical Flood. The geological remains of the last ice age to be found in northern and Alpine Europe were at that time often interpreted as the traces of the Flood. It was easy to imagine the waters of the universal deluge washing remains like the Neanderthal bones into high caves such as the Feldhofer. Fuhlrott evidently believed, noting the freshly broken condition of the skullcap, that a complete skeleton might be there for the finding and went back to the site to search for more human bones and the bones of animals that might have been brought into the cave along with the human ones, but quarrying was far advanced at the Neanderthal and he found no more.
The discovery in the Neanderthal was made in August 1856, three years before the publication of Darwin's and Wallace's theory (they had hit upon the same idea independently) of biological evolution by natural selection. Darwin's On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, made at the end only the slightest suggestion of the application of his ideas to the question of human descent and, interestingly, even this passing mention of the theme was left out of the first German translation of the Origin. Fuhlrott in 1856 and the whole world of science at the time had, then, no accepted theory of evolution to go by and certainly none that openly embraced the idea of human evolution out of the animal world. But notions of other, previous worlds were being entertained in the middle of the nineteenth century, of worlds different from the present state of affairs, worlds inhabited by creatures now extinct and known only from the fossil record of the rocks and caves. Even of worlds in which human beings might just possibly have coexisted with the vanished animals, though – in the absence of any earlier finds of fossil men with distinctively different features like the brow arches of the Neanderthal skullcap – no one yet envisaged that any men who might have been around in the company of the extinct animals were likely to have looked any different physically from ourselves. Only a few stray thinkers had ever imagined that human beings might have developed out of lower animals. It was comfortable to believe that the extinct creatures of the fossil record were simply monsters destroyed by the Flood, or by some previous catastrophe even before the Flood; in that spirit, even human bones in 'antediluvian' contexts could just about be accepted and, given an estimated date of about 3500 BC for the Bible's Flood, then any human remains found in antediluvian contexts need not be so very old, nor be expected to look so very different from ourselves.
For many if not most people in the middle of the nineteenth century, scientists as well as laymen, the basis of all chronological thinking about the world was still the Bible, with its ragged Old Testament narratives and its New Testament genealogies of Jesus out of which a more or less coherent chronology could be forced with difficulty. It was on this basis that the Flood could be put at about 3500 BC and the Creation (at least of the present world order) at about 4000 BC. (Notoriously, some biblical scholars achieved an astounding precision with their computations, arriving at 4004 BC as the year of Creation, October as the month, the 22nd as the day in question and the time – 9 o'clock in the morning!)
Since the middle of the eighteenth century the idea, foreshadowed by some Greek and Roman writers, of a technological progress from crude stone tools and weapons to better-made ones of stone and then to ones of metal, first bronze and then iron, had been gaining ground. But no one could put any firm dates on these phases of technical advancement and it was easy to imagine it all as happening after the Garden of Eden or even the Flood. Another line of thought about the early state of human affairs drew on what the Greek and Roman authors had to say about the barbarian inhabitants of the fringes of the classical world, with additional information culled from the observations of explorers and colonists, particularly among the American Indians, whose life continued to be lived in a sort of Stone Age. Geology was meanwhile starting to reveal the many stratigraphies of the Earth's fabric, with their startling fossil evidence of other worlds of creation, which some scholars were beginning to think highly indicative of remote antiquity and immense epochs of time, although there was as yet no means of assigning any absolute dates to the record of the rocks. If one accepted the biblical Flood as the last and, for human beings, the most important of a long line of catastrophes (almost certainly divinely contrived), then it was not difficult to see in the fossil record of the Earth's stratigraphy simply a series of previous Creations of purely scientific interest and with no bearing on the Creation of Man, of which the Bible remained a wholly reliable account. (It was a bit uncomfortable, however, to be invited to conclude that human beings, as evidenced by their stone tools or even their own bones, might have existed in any of these previous creations.) Lastly, comparative anatomy of the living creatures of the present world encouraged their arrangement in a hierarchy of forms, from Worm to Man if you like, which suggested to just a handful of thinkers that there might have been an evolution through time from lower to higher forms. Darwin's forerunners Buffon and Lamarck (among others) proposed such an idea in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but they were unable to put forward any convincing mechanism by which evolution could proceed and the whole idea was in eclipse by the time of the Neanderthal discovery.
Twenty years before the young Joachim Neander was enjoying the solitude of his little Rhineland valley, a French writer named Isaac de la Peyrère published in liberal Amsterdam A Theological System upon the Pre-supposition that Men were before Adam in which he asserted that finds quite commonly made of stone implements or weapons, popularly and erroneously written off as 'thunderbolts', were in fact the artefacts of primitive men who lived before the Adam and Eve of the Bible. His theological views were in general unwelcome to the Roman Church and his assertion of humanity before Adam was quite unacceptable; he was seized and forced to recant and his book was publicly burnt in Paris. But he had placed on record, as early as 1655, the idea that the biblical account of the Creation of Man was, to say the least, incomplete and that men more primitive than ourselves had walked the Earth before the present state of the world was inaugurated.
Through the eighteenth century there were from time to time occasions on which people found, or thought they had found, evidences of human presence in worlds previous to our own. They were usually content to push their finds back before the Flood, avoiding the sort of pre-Adamite views that had got de la Peyrère into trouble. On the very eve of the century, for example, a flint axe was found near Gray's Inn Lane in London in association with the skeleton of an 'elephant', as reports of the time have it, which was probably a mammoth, but on this occasion it was easy enough to dismiss the exotic beast as a Roman import. In 1726 near Oeningen on Lake Constance there was found 'the bony skeleton of one of those infamous men whose fathers brought down on the world the dire misfortune of the Flood', but it was actually the fossil of a giant salamander, millions of years old if only its discoverer could have known it, though we may forgive him for being deceived by the superficially humanoid appearance of his find.
In 1771, near Bamberg in Bavaria, a human lower jaw and shoulder blade together with some stone tools were found in apparent association with various fossils of animals which the discoverer recognized as extinct forms. He could not quite bring himself to conclude that the human remains and the extinct animals belonged together, seeming to acknowledge the possibility of antediluvian humanity but not wanting to plump for it. It is entirely possible that he had come upon what we would call Neanderthal or Crô-Magnon remains, together with their appropriate tools and in association with ice age fauna, in which case this would be the earliest recorded find of its sort, but sadly it remains also entirely possible that the human bones were more recent intrusions among the flints and animal bones or even that bear bones, in a reversal of the Neanderthal case, were misidentified as human!
Near the end of the eighteenth century a still impressive assessment of a find of Stone Age implements was made at Hoxne in Suffolk by an East Anglian country gentleman named John Frere, who was clearly influenced by the growing conviction among some geologists that the world must be much older than people thought. He had seen flint axes (which he described as 'weapons of war, fabricated and used by people who had not the use of metals') coming to light at a depth of 12 ft (3.5 m), in the bottom layer of undisturbed strata in association with the bones of extinct animals. In a letter to the Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries in 1797 he wrote: 'The situation in which these weapons were found may tempt us to refer them to a very remote period indeed, even beyond that of the present world.'
Frere's letter was printed in Archaeologia in 1800, but not widely noted at the time. He was, after all, announcing the unwelcome thought that men might have existed before the creation of the present world order at no more than 6000 years ago. It was one thing to conjecture that the remains of men who lived before the Flood might from time to time be found, but altogether another to speculate that evidence of human presence in worlds before the present world could be found in Suffolk gravel pits. By this time, at the start of the nineteenth century, the views of the French biologist Cuvier were very influential; he dismissed the tentative notions of evolution that had already been put forward by two of his fellow-countrymen and insisted that 'fossil man does not exist', by which he meant that no genuine human remains could ever be found in the same geological contexts as those that yielded up the bones of extinct animals. For Cuvier, Man was a special part of this current Creation, with no antecedents in former ones. The French naturalist Buffon, who died in 1788, had taken a different view. He was the first author explicitly to oppose the 6000-year Bible-based chronology, concluding initially that the world was at least 75,000 years old and, at the end of his life, thinking it was likely to be much older still. He formed, moreover, a notion of the evolution of living things: 'they develop in accordance with their surroundings and pass on the new characteristics they acquire to their offspring by a process of hereditary memory.' This was in essence the theory of evolution by inheritance of acquired characteristics that we associate with Buffon's pupil Lamarck, who added to the theory some thoughts specifically aimed at the question of human evolution:
If some race of quadrumanous animals ... were to lose by force of circumstances the habit of climbing trees ... and if the individuals of this race were forced for a series of generations to use their feet only for walking and to give up using their hands like feet, there is no doubt ... that these quadrumanous animals would at length be transformed into bimanous animals.
Bimana, meaning two-handed, is an obsolete naturalists' term for mankind, so there was no doubt about Lamarck's intention in discussing this hypothesis to point the way to a notion of human evolution. He went on to envisage a process of sharpening of the wits for such a bimanous creature which would 'obtain mastery over others through the higher perfection of its faculties'. Many of the current themes of human evolutionary theory are touched on in these remarks of Lamarck, including descent from the trees, bipedalism, the freeing of the hands for new tasks, the development of the mental faculties. But Lamarck, like all the other evolutionary speculators before Darwin, had no plausible mechanism for the gradual transformation of one sort of creature into another. There is indeed a 'hereditary memory' and 'force of circumstances' does have a great impact on the evolution of living things, but there is no 'inheritance of acquired characteristics' and evolution could not proceed along those lines, as early critics of these evolutionary theories were not slow to demonstrate. It was not until Darwin introduced the concept of natural selection as the means by which evolution might take place that the very idea of evolution could be taken seriously, indeed had to be taken seriously.
Excerpted from Neanderthal by Paul Jordan. Copyright © 2013 Paul Jordan. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
Introduction – The Man from Newmandale,
1 The Discovery of Neanderthal Man,
2 Neanderthal Man Abroad,
3 Neanderthal Man in the Twentieth Century,
4 Neanderthal Types,
5 The World of the Neanderthalers,
6 Neanderthal Technology,
7 The Neanderthal Way of Life,
8 Before Neanderthal Man,
9 From Apes to Hominids,
10 The Human Line,
11 The Emergence of Homo sapiens sapiens,
12 Neanderthal Nemesis,
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