The Rise of the Neandertals, Part 1

| By James Kidder

The Rise of the Neandertals, Part 1
A model of an adult Neanderthal male head and shoulders on display in the Hall of Human Origins in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Reconstruction based on the Shanidar 1 fossil (c. 80-60 kya).


Note: In his series on human origins for the BioLogos Forum, biological anthropologist James Kidder has explored topics from the advent of bipedality to the rise of human precursors astralopithecines and early Homo sapiens. In posts today and tomorrow, Kidder focuses on the discovery of Neandertals and the behavioral and morphological changes that gave rise to what might be our closest evolutionary relatives.

The Discovery of the Neandertal Type Specimen

In the region of Dusseldorf, Germany, lies a valley named after the 16th century German pastor and hymn writer Joachim Neander.  Neander, it is said, roamed the valley, using its beauty to gain inspiration for his hymns, the most well known of which is Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation.   

Known far and wide for its limestone, the Neandertal or Neander “Valley” attracted the attention of local industrial groups in the early 1700s and considerable mining was carried out in this area through the middle 1800s. It was during the mining of one such area in 1856, Feldhofer Cave, that workers discovered a set of bones, which they initially thought belonged to a bear. To the local biology teacher, Johann Fulrott, who had been called in to identify them, they looked remarkably human—but not exactly. Something was not quite right. Intrigued by their form, and knowing that they represented something out of the ordinary, he took them to the city of Bonn and showed them to university anatomist Hermann Schaffhausen. After a joint investigation of the skeletal remains, in 1857 Fulrott and Schaffhausen announced to the world that they represented a new form of human predating modern Homo sapiens and with an as yet undetermined relationship with them. 

What they did not know at the time was that the remains from the Feldhofer Cave very closely resembled those that had been removed from the Belgian site of Engis and the Forbes Quarry site in Gibraltar several decades earlier. It was not until 1864 that these remains as a group began to be referred to as “Neandertal Man.”  (King, 1864) (Note: while this hominin form is often rendered “Neanderthal,” the “h” in the German word for valley began to drop out of usage around the turn of the 20th century, leaving the word correctly spelled “Neandertal,” today.)

Marcelin Boule and the Relegation of Neandertals to the Trash Heap of History

“NeanderTHAL!” One can hear Bill Cosby yell the word in the classic comedy routine of the same name in which the Neandertal, or “cave man” is found to be eating bushes or sneaking up behind two Sabretooth tigers and hitting them with clubs. That is only one of many derogatory references to our most recent precursors. Indeed, the notion of the stooped over, heavy-browed brute is pervasive in our society. As Dave Frayer (Frayer, 2013)notes:

The “Neanderthals are inferior” attitude traces back to their earliest descriptions in the mid-1800s when the first Neanderthal was labeled as “freak” or an “idiot” or “incapable of moral and religious conception.” For many, the discoveries after 1865 confirmed these labels. Even the majority of human paleontologists supported this view.

Figure 1: Marcelin Boule

Beginning in the late 1800s, Neandertals began to be seen as a side-branch to modern humans—and a particularly primitive one at that. This reached its culmination with the writings of anthropologist Marcelin Boule (Figure 1), who performed the first systematic description of a Neandertal specimen in 1911 (Boule, 1911). Boule was handicapped by an almost overwhelming inability to conceive of these remains as being ancestral to modern humans in any way. Consequently, the publication that emanated from his investigation was rife with errors that it is difficult, in hindsight, to justify or excuse. 

Figure 2: The Neandertal from La

The La Chapelle Neandertal had been discovered in 1908 and, along with the other Neandertal remains, constituted, at the time, a form that was unique—a form that was human and yet not human. Close but no cigar. Homo erectushad yet to be discovered beyond the controversial material that Eugene DuBois had brought back from the Dutch East Indies (see post number 10 in this series) and the early discoveries of australopithecines in Africa were yet almost two to three decades away. Consequently, the specimen that Hauser found was the first concrete “human” fossil form that the scientific world had encountered and with which it had to grapple, even in the context of incomplete information.  

The La Chapelle Neandertal was also an old man. This could be seen from the number of missing teeth and resorption of bone around those that had fallen out (Figure 2). Also present was considerable osteoarthritis, especially in the vertebrae. The arthritis may have caused some difficulty in walking and certainly would have been painful. It is, therefore, likely that this man walked in the manner of someone who would have had a cane (and may, in fact, have done so). Boule took this characteristic in the La Chapelle specimen and exaggerated it disproportionately, arguing that the Neandertal’s natural gait was slouching and primitive. Boule also focused on the sloping forehead and the huge eyes and nose, arguing that these were retrograde. He contended that these features strongly suggested a placement in the evolutionary line little above the great apes, with little to no intelligence that would have linked this race to modern humans (Boule, 1911-1913). 

As Hammond (Hammond, 1982) points out, Boule’s description came around the time of the discovery of Piltdown Man. As we have seen, this find significantly influenced hominid evolutionary views for the next forty years. The clearly visible discrepancies between the morphology of Piltdown, which was thought to represent the dawn of humanity, and the La Chapelle Neandertal pushed this group out of the direct ancestry of modern humans onto a side branch. It was not until the exposure of Piltdown as a hoax in the early 1950s that the position of Neandertals was reexamined, since, candidly, there was no one else around that could serve as a proxy for our ancestors. 

From this point on, the view of Neandertals began to change as the view of evolution as a theory changed. With the growth of the Evolutionary Species Concept, in which it was thought that one species could slowly, over time, transform to another, the view that Neanderthals might represent a phase of evolution toward modern humans gained ground. It was not until the development of systematics as a biological discipline in the 1980s and 1990s that the pendulum began to swing the other way again.

The Origin of the Neandertals

The best evidence that we have is that the Neandertals lived in an area that stretched from the western coast of Europe to as far east as southern Siberia (Figure 3). Their chronological origins suggest that they appeared on the scene between 200 and 300 thousand years ago. From descriptions of the fossil material found at the Sima de los Huesos cave at Atapuerca and other early archaic Homo sapiens sites, it is clear that there are incipient Neandertal traits in this population in the form of the massive faces, long heads and large brow ridges. This morphology is also present in the Petralona skull from Greece and represents, to an extent, a pan-European late archaic Homo sapiens. The complete suite of Neandertal characteristics did not coalesce, however, until around 100-120 thousand years ago.

Figure 3: Distribution of Significant Neandertal Finds in Europe and SW Asia (Adapted from Harvati, 2007)?

Subsequent to the discoveries in Gibraltar, Engis, and Dusseldorf came rapid discoveries in the late 1800s and early 1900s, at Spy, in Belgium and the aforementioned La Chapelle Aux-Saints, La Ferrassie, and Le Moustier in the Dordogne Valley, in France. 

Europe During the Early and Late Würm Glacial Periods

The Neandertals reached the height of their culture during one of the coldest time periods in history: the Würm glaciation. This stage in the earth’s history began roughly 120,000 years ago and ended just before 10,000 years ago. It is split into the Early and Late Würm with an interglacial period between 34 and 37 thousand years B.P. During the height of each glacial period, vast ice sheets covered the northern part of Europe, completely obscuring the British Isles, Scandinavia, the North Sea, northern Germany and the Russian steppes. During this time, the tundra line, which is normally associated with the beginning of arctic conditions, was located at what is modern-day Vienna. To say that these hominins survived and adapted in challenging conditions would be an understatement. 

Join us tomorrow for a closer look at how and why Neandertals became distinct from early archaic Homo sapiens.



About the Author

James Kidder

James Kidder holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology from the University of Tennessee (UT). He currently employed as an instructor at UT, and as a science research librarian at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He has been involved in the Veritas Forum at UT and runs the blog "Science and Religion: A View from an Evolutionary Creationist/Theistic Evolutionist."