"In neighboring Neanderthal, a surprising discovery has been made in recent days." - The Discovery of the Neanderthal

4 February 1857, Hermann Schaaffhausen presented his ideas about the origins of fossil bones found a year before in the Neander valley near Düsseldorf in a meeting of the Niederrheinische Gesellschaft für Natur- und Heilkunde (Lower Rhine Society for Natural History and Medical Studies) in Bonn. It was the first public scientific recognition of the human species later known as Neanderthal.
“…Man's ancient arms Were hands, and nails and teeth, stones too and boughs-- Breakage of forest trees--and flame and fire, As soon as known.” (Lucretius “Of the Nature of Things”)

The Czech painter and illustrator and arguably most influential modern paleo-artist Zdeněk Burian's (1905 - 1981) imagination of a clan of Neanderthals (c 1977)*

Fossils from the dawn of mankind found in the grounds of the mother country did involve a not insignificant amount of national pride during the 19th century. Especially since England was not able to produce an osseous testimony of the first Englishman while even the French had unearthed their earliest ancestor, about 60,000 years old, somewhere in Aquitaine in 1908, and the place famously wasn’t English anymore since the end of the Hundred Years’ War. Four years later though, the jack-of-all-trades Charles Dawson found the remains of the far older Piltdown Man in Sussex along with a tool made from elephant bone that looked suspiciously like a cricket bat. A hoax, but one readily believed until the 1950s. The same year Dawson hid his fake fossils in the Sussex soil, back in 1912, the Red Lady of Paviland, formerly believed by her creationist discoverer to be a Romano-British burial, was backdated to 33,000 BC and found out to be a male but still a member of the Homo sapiens species. It would take until 1935 that real fossils of early humans, Homo heidelbergensis, about 400,000 years old, were discovered in Britain but by then, perception of our forebears under the national perspective had refocussed towards primitivism in contrast to the imagined superiority of our direct ancestors, preferably those of Caucasian stock. A fate the poor, underestimated Neanderthals shared almost since their rediscovery in August 1856, three years before Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species”, Colliers had found the eponymic remains in a pit in the Neander valley (Neanderthal) a couple of miles east of Düsseldorf. The mine owner thought they were the bones of a cave bear and gave them to the Wuppertal school teacher and naturalist Johann Fuhlrott for further appraisal. Fuhlrott immediately recognised them as the remains of a human being and speculations about the identity of their original owner began to spread like wildfire, from having belonged to a member of a “tribe of the Flat Heads, which still live in the American West and of which several skulls have been found in recent years on the upper Danube in Sigmaringen”, as a local newspaper wrote to “one of Attila's roaming horde's men" to a Cossack who might have died in the Bergisches Land during the Napoleonic Wars. Fuhlrott had his own ideas, though, and believed the finds to be far older. There were the strong mineralisation and dendrite formations on the surface, quite like those found on the bones of cave bears and the skull fragments reminded him somehow of a great ape. He reached out to the anthropologist Hermann Schaaffhausen who had published an article “On the Constancy and Transformation of Species” already in 1853. During his presentation at the meeting of the Niederrheinische Gesellschaft für Natur- und Heilkunde in Bonn consequently claimed that the fossils found in the Neander Valley belonged to a species of proto-humans that had inhabited Europe before and during the Ice Age. An assumption that was, by and large, correct.

From left to right: Johann Carl Fuhlrott (1803 - 1877), Hermann Schaaffhausen (1816 - 1893), a reconstruction of a Neanderthal from the local museum, Rudolf Virchow (1821 - 1902) and Ernst Haeckel (1834 - 1919)

flawed reconstruction of the Old Man of La Chapelle-aux-Saints’ spine led scientists to believe for decades that Neanderthals had a natural posture of something along the lines of Richard III. The somewhat ungainly bulges above their eye sockets, the protruding face and their skeleton’s coarse seeming structures did the rest to outclass Homo neanderthalensis as inferior to Homo sapiens. Up to a point that some refused to believe any closer relationship with us until well into the 20th century. The “pope of medicine” and “father of modern pathology” Rudolf Virchow, admittedly an ardent anti-evolutionist who called Darwin an “ignoramus”, refused to admit that the fossils found at the Neander valley were anything but the remains of a deformed modern human, buried there in historical times. And even his former student Ernst Haeckel, Germany’s foremost advocate of Darwinism, who firmly believed that Neanderthals were something lower on the tree of evolution than Homo sapiens, did not hesitate to come forward with the scientific name of Homo stultus, stupid man, for the poor things. In fact, Neanderthals had populated Europe and the Near East below the ice limit of the Pleistocene for several hundred thousands of years, obviously came up as the first sentient beings with a coherent language beyond phonetics, metaphysics as well as tool-working well before the advent of Homo sapiens, braving the hardships of the Ice Age with their bodies developing their large, stout frames and bigger brains in conformance with Bergmann’s rule. Their dwellings were not exclusively caves but adapted to their specific surroundings. We can assume that they even used floats or boats to reach isolated off-shore islands as secure places to live in. For a few thousand years, Neanderthals and modern humans shared the same lebensraum and probably learned from each other and shared, willingly or unwillingly, knowledge and more. Up to 4% of the genetic material of modern Eurasians comes from Neanderthals, they might even be responsible for the white skins of European Caucasians.

Footprint of a Neanderthal from the Natural History Museum in Prague**

Despite all their survival capabilities and their cultural achievements, Neanderthals famously disappeared from the face of the Earth around 30,000 years ago, leaving the field to Homo sapiens. It was certainly not a war of extermination they had lost against modern humans, but a suppression process that lasted for at least 5,000 years until the last Neanderthals died in Gibraltar, of all the places. It’s not that armed conflicts between the two groups of humans can be ruled out. Judging from Homo sapiens’ later behaviour, they might even have been a daily fare, over resources, places and because the other subspecies looked funny. Homo sapiens had a few soft advantages over the Neanderthals despite the latter’s average greater strength and resilience. There was their reliance on heavy thrusting spears, used for bringing down big Ice Age game at close quarters, against the javelins and spear-throwers of modern humans, of course. However, the trait of forming large groups, man-herds condemned by Nietzsche as the beginning of all evil, might have been the decisive advantage Homo sapiens had over Homo neanderthalensis in the earlies of the Pleistocene. That and the ability to share technological discoveries, knowledge and ideas in a comparatively short time across the continent against the isolationism of Neanderthals who obviously tended to stay in clannishly small groups who kept largely to themselves. And, who knows, maybe the Neanderthals were just absorbed into the vastly expanding bands of modern humans, peacefully and quite without any cataclysmic events.

* Image was found on: http://extrastory.cz/nejstarsi-sperky-na-svete-vyrobili-je-neandrtalci-pred-130-000-lety-konec-teorie-o-rvoucich-bestiich-pane-zemane.html

More about Zdeněk Burian on:

and, with a small monographic show, on:

** Image was found https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Homo_neanderthalensis?uselang=de#/media/File:Neanderthal_Foot_Print.jpg

And more about Neanderthals on: