Neanderthals and the Search for Human Ancestors

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Neanderthals and the Search for Human Ancestors


During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the search for man's evolutionary past lead to dramatic new conclusions about life on Earth and the biological history of mankind. The search for our fossil ancestors, once initiated, began to answer questions about where humans first appeared, what they looked like, and most importantly, how old they are. The first discovery of fossil humans threw surprising new light on our past, though challenged established views about society, race, and Christian religious beliefs concerning man's special place in the universe.


During the Enlightenment, Western thinkers disillusioned with the Genesis story of creation began to speculate about how human beings had originated. The problem that plagued these researchers was that there was no physical evidence to support their theories. Some fossils had been discovered that looked human, but these were passed over as the remains of Homo Diluvinii—giants killed off during Noah's flood. These early discoveries not withstanding, the science of paleoanthropology (the study of early people) began in earnest in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when naturalists began finding curious artifacts and bones. Frenchmen Isaac de la Peyrere (1596-1676) and Jacques Boucher de Crevecoeur de Perthes (1788-1868), and Englishman John Frere (1740-1807) claimed that stones they found in caves in France and England were actually stone tools created by people in the distant past. Though they looked man-made, it could not be proven whether these tools had been fashioned by the hand of man or formed naturally. As such, the work of these men was largely ignored.

The first significant fossil evidence for the antiquity of humans was found in the Neander valley of Germany in 1856. The finds—a skullcap and a few limb bones—were curious because while they had obvious human characteristics, they were also very primitive. Neanderthal Man, as the fossils were called, quickly became a subject of controversy. Some said they were the remains of an ancient man, while others said it was only the skeleton of a deformed modern human who died of bone disease. A few years later when Charles Darwin's Origin of Species was published, supporters held up Neanderthal man as proof that humans had evolved from more primitive, primate forms. Early critics of Neanderthal man were mostly anti-evolutionists who disagreed with this idea.

The work that really brought the man/ape link to public attention was published by Darwin's protege, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895). Inspired by Darwin, Huxley's Man's Place in Nature (1863) argued the close affinity between humans and primates. In the first such systematic study, Huxley compared human and ape anatomy and found them startlingly similar, and therefore closely related. This closeness, he argued, was due to evolution. This finding lead to the concept of the "missing link." If man and apes were related by evolution, the idea went, then there should be a creature which was a transitional form, or link, between the two. Inspired by Huxley, Darwin then published The Descent of Man in 1873. Darwin's book also argued for the close relationship of humans and primates, but was more concerned with how various human characteristics were the result of evolution and sexual selection. Both Huxley's and Darwin's work was misinterpreted as saying humans evolved out of monkeys, when they actually said that humans and primates share a common ancestor.

In 1868 road workers at Les Eyzies, France, found skeletal remains and tools which were ancient yet very modern looking. Dubbed Cro-Magnon man (found in a "large shelter"), these fossils were more advanced than the Neanderthals and thus fell somewhere between them and modern humans. Near Spy, Belgium, more Neanderthal fossils were discovered in 1886. This proved that the first Neanderthal fossil was not a freak of nature, but part of a large population of human-like beings who lived in the very distant past.

German anthropologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) lectured widely in the 1870s that man had descended from an ape-like ancestor. Haeckel was the leading supporter of Darwin and evolution in Germany. Since there were few Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon fossils known at the time, Haeckel postulated a hypothetical human ancestor he called Pithecanthropus which was more primitive than the Neanderthals and closer to primates on the evolutionary line. His work inspired Dutchman Eugene Dubois (1858-1940) to go searching for the remains of this creature. Haeckel said that since humans were related to the apes and apes live in the tropics, that would be the place to look (Darwin suggested that Africa was the cradle of humankind). Dubois, a professor of anatomy in Amsterdam, set off to Sumatra to find the missing link in 1887. After several fruitless years working a site along the Solo river near the village of Trinil, Dubois found what he was looking for in 1891. Consisting of a skullcap, femur, and a tooth, the creature seemed to be a man-like ape much more primitive than the Neanderthals. Using Haeckel's term, the find was labeled Pithecanthropus, but was commonly called Java Man (the modern designation is Homo Erectus, or the man who stands up straight). Dubois insisted that Java Man was the missing link between humans and apes. Haeckel claimed that Dubois's find proved that humans had descended from primates. Not everyone agreed, however.

A debate began over how to interpret what Dubois had found. Problems arose with the fossils themselves. Though he tried to work systematically, Dubois did not keep careful records of the rock layers, or strata, in which the fossils were found. Not knowing the strata makes it difficult to accurately date fossils. Also, the fossils had not all been found in the same spot. If they were not all found together, one could not be sure they belonged to the same skeleton. Dubois frantically showed his fossils to everyone he could, trying to convince other scientists that his discovery was genuine. The pressure began to show in Dubois. He took any criticism personally and eventually became so frustrated that he went into seclusion, refusing to show Java Man to anyone. For decades after, no one was allowed to view the fossils and it was rumored that Dubois hid them under the floorboards of his home.

In the continuing controversy, the Neanderthals were seen either as the ancestor of modern humans and a separate species, as an evolutionary dead-end not related to modern humans at all, or as a variation on the human line. The most consequential opinion on the status of the Neanderthals was that of French anatomist Marcellin Boule (1861-1942). In 1908 an almost complete Neanderthal skeleton was found near a site in France called La Chapelle-aux-Saints. The fossils were sent to Boule, an evolutionist who did not favor the straight-line, hierarchical evolutionary ladder popular at the time, but instead preferred to see evolution as a branching bush with many shoots leading off the main trunk. His study of the La Chapelle fossils, as well as other Neanderthal remains, was published as Fossil Men (1921). Though Neanderthal had been characterized as a dim-witted brute, Boule took the model to the extreme. He fashioned an image of Neanderthals as beast-like creatures, powerful, stoop-shouldered, animalistic in their behavior, communicating by grunts, and violent. For Boule the Neanderthals were more ape than man. It is from Boule that we get the classic image of the "cave man." Boule, as well as many others, were uncomfortable with the idea of the apparently degenerate Neanderthals as the ancestors of modern humans, especially modern Europeans. Using the branching approach to creating a human family tree, the Neanderthals could be safely pushed off to the side and out of the direct line of descent from modern humans. However, American paleoanthropologist Ales Hrdlicka (1869-1943) argued that Neanderthals were human, that they were Homo Sapiens (the smart man), and that they were variants caused by local environmental and dietary conditions. Hrdlicka and like-minded anthropologists saw human evolution as progressing slowly and smoothly. They argued that all the fossil humans from Java Man to modern people were one species and thus closely related.


The Neanderthals and other human-like fossils created problems for many in the Victorian world of the nineteenth century. Christian tradition held that God created Adam and Eve in a state of perfection six thousand years ago, but the Neanderthals were obviously far more ancient and primitive. The discovery of their fossils coincided with a wave of intellectual turmoil. Darwin's Origin of Species, the growing criticism of the literalness of the Bible, unrest brought on by the Industrial Revolution, and advances in physics rocked Victorian society. These new developments implied to many people that life was out of their control and spinning randomly through time and space without the guidance of an all-powerful creator. Man was not the epitome of all life or the product of divine design as once thought, but merely the result of the unpredictable movements of the cosmos. This convinced many Victorians that life was descending into chaos, society was in peril, and moral certainties were in jeopardy. If the Neanderthals were our ancestors, what were we, they wondered. The sure, unmoveable bedrock of Western society no longer seemed so solid.

The existence of fossil humans supported not only the general concept of evolution, but that people themselves had evolved. Even those who accepted evolution sometimes balked at accepting the brutish, ape-like Neanderthals as their ancestors. The cave men were used by various people to further their political and social agendas. The powerful head of the French scientific establishment, Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), an ardent anti-evolutionist, stated flatly that there could not be any human fossils because man had been recently created by God. If the Neanderthals and Java Man were our ancestors, it suggested modern humans were not the creation of God and were therefore closer to apes than angels. Western society's economic, corporate, and political claim of cultural superiority rang less true if the blood of the Neanderthals ran through its veins. Men were not monkeys, critics claimed, because that idea undermined social order. In a famous 1861 debate over evolution held at Oxford University, Bishop Samuel Wilburforce (1805-1873) chided T. H. Huxley by asking if he was related to a monkey on his mother's or father's side. Huxley, who had agendas of his own, fired back by saying he would rather be related to a monkey than a man like Wilberforce who introduced ridicule into such an important discussion.

Others saw the hulking Neanderthals not as ancestors of Europeans, but of Africans and other people of color. In the early twentieth century the American Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857-1935) commissioned Charles R. Knight (1874-1953) to do a series of illustrations for his book Men of the Old Stone Age (1916). Under Osborn's direction, Knight depicted Neanderthals as dark-skinned, slow-witted cave men (in the mold of Boule), while the more modern Cro-Magnons were shown as light skinned, intelligent, and creative. The pictures were reprinted over and over and helped establish the view of the "cave man" in the popular imagination that still holds. The illustrations were a subtle attempt to extend racial stereotypes to the past. If, as the evolutionists claimed, all humankind descended from a single origin, then all people were related and part of the same family. As such, oppression of one group of people was not the oppression of some "other," but of themselves. The Victorian world was unwilling to accept such an idea.

The problem of the Neanderthals and other fossil human ancestors for nineteenthand early twentieth-century society was that they called into question beliefs about divine creation and our relationship with God, as well as our relationship to each other. If man was just an intelligent ape who evolved over tens of thousands of years or more, then he might not be quite as special as he thought himself to be. To the Victorians (and many still today) human descent from animals denied man's central place in the universe as God's special creation and questioned his place in nature.


Further Reading

Boule, Marcellin. Fossil Men. London: Gurney and Jackson, 1923.

Huxley, Thomas Henry. Man's Place in Nature. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1896.

Lewin, Roger. Bones of Contention. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Osborn, Henry Fairfield. Men of the Old Stone Age. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1915.

Shreeve, James. The Neandertal Enigma. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1995.

Van Riper, A. Bowdoin. Men Among the Mammoths: Victorian Science and the Discovery of Human Prehistory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.