Fuhlrott, Johann Karl

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Fuhlrott, Johann Karl

(b. Leinefelde, Germany, 1 January 1804; d. Elberfeld [now Wuppertal], Germany, 17 October 1877)

natural history, human paleontology.

Fuhlrott obtained his doctorate from the University of Bonn in 1830 and went from there to Elberfeld, where he became a science teacher and subsequently vice-director of the Realschule. He won modest recognition as a naturalist, publishing geological descriptions of the hills and caves in the Rhineland region between Düsseldorf and the Wupper River.

In August 1856, Fuhlrott received an assortment of fossilized bones found by two quarry workers in the Feldhofer cave of the Neander Valley. These men had uncovered what they thought to be the skeleton of a cave bear and were carelessly discarding it when the quarry owner persuaded them to save some of the remains for the Elberfeld teacher. Portions of the skull and pelvis, along with the larger limb bones, were delivered to Fuhlrott.

He studied the specimens and began to suspect that they were not bear bones but the remains of an ancient and primitive form of human being. Its physical build smaller than that of modern man, this creature with low, retracted forehead had plodded along on bowed legs, its head and chest hunched forward. Fuhlrott recognized the importance of this find and rushed to the grottoes in time to retrieve some ribs, the right radius, the left ulna, and part of the right scapula—all that remained of the probably perfect skeleton.

At Fuhlrott’s request Hermann Schaaffhausen of Bonn examined the fragments and confirmed his diagnosis of their antiquity. Schaaffhausen presented a preliminary description of the fossils at the Lower Rhine Medical and Natural History Society on 4 February 1857; Fuhlrott was invited to discuss them fully before the Natural History Society of the Prussian Rhineland and Westphalia on 2 June of that year. Addressing this august body at Bonn, Fuhlrott was dismayed at the reaction to his find. Rudolf Virchow and Carter Blake dismissed the bones as the remains of an idiot ravaged by rickets in youth and arthritis in later life. They refused to credit any great age to them.

Schaaffhausen alone defended Fuhlrott’s position, saying,

There is no reason whatever for regarding the unusual development of the frontal sinuses in the remarkable skull from the Neanderthal as an individual or pathological deformity: it is unquestionably a typical race characteristic and is physiologically connected with the uncommon thickness of the other bones of the skeleton, which exceeds by one-half the usual proportions [quoted in T. H. Huxley, Collected Essays, p. 176].

Reaction to his speech was hostile, but Fuhlrott and Schanffhausen refused to quit their positions in the extensive controversy that ensued. They appealed to the public for support and managed to attract attention beyond the borders of Germany. They gained an importantally in Sir Charles Lyee, who journeyed from England in 1860 to investigate the discovery site of the disputed fossils. His visit to Fuhlrott convinced Lyell that the specimen was authentically human, Homo neanderthalensis. But it was not until after Fuhlrott’s death and the discovery of fossil men at Spy, Belgium, and at Gibraltar that opposition to the notion of Neanderthal man was finally silenced.


I. Original Works Fuhlrott’s main publication is Der fossile Mensch aus dem Neanderthal und sein Verhältniss zum Alter des Menschengeschlects (Duisburg, 1865). Also important is his “Über die Kalksteinschichten im Neanderthale, Worin 1856 der Homo Neanderthalensis gefunden Wurde,” in Correspondenzblatt des Naturhistori-schen Vereins fur Rheinland und Westphalen, 25 (1868), 62–70. In the Jahresberichte des Naturwissenschaftlichen Vereins von Elberfeld und Barmen, Nebst wissenschaftlichen Beilagen are “Felsenmeer im Odenwald” 3 (1858), 75–79 “Das Wisperthal und der Wisperwind,” 4 (1863), 11–18; “Grundzüge der Quellenkunde,” ibid., 129–150 and “Die erloschenen Vulcane am Rhein und in der Eifel,” 5 (1878), 3–25. In the Verhandlungen des Naturhistorischen Vereins der Preussischenen Rheinlande und Westphalens (Bonn) are “Paläontologisches” (1859), 125–126; and “Menschliche Ueberreste aus einer Felsengrotte des Dusselthals,” ibid., 131–153. There are also “Die Kalksteinschichten der Feldhofer Grotte im Neanderthale,” in Zeitschrift für gesammten Naturwissenschaften, 33 (1869), 275–277; and Ueber eine neu endieckte Hohle bei Barmen,”in Sitzungsberichte der Niederrheinischen Gesellschaft fur Natur-und Heikunde zu Bonn (1870), 208–209.

II. Secondary Liteature. See Aleš Hrdliècaronka, The Skeletal Remains of Early Man, Smithsonian miscellaneous Collections, 83 (Washington, D.C., 1930), 149–151. T. H. Huxley cites George Busk’s trans. of Schaaffhausen’s history of discovery and description of Neanderthal man in “Man’s place in Nature,” in Collected Essays, 7 (New York, 1896; repr. 1968), 168–185. See also George Busk’s trans. of Schaaffhausen’s “On the Crania of the Most Ancient Races of Man,” in Natural History Review, 1 (1861), 283.

Martha B. Kendall