August 8, 1856 (a Friday)

The skullcap of type specimen, Neandertal 1.

On or about this date, quarry workmen in search of lime blasted out the entrance of the Feldhofer Cave in the Neander Valley near Düsseldorf, Germany. They found a skeleton, and guessed they had found the remains of a cave bear. Although they discarded many of the bones, they also set some of them aside, including the skullcap, for examination by a local schoolteacher and amateur naturalist, Johann Fuhlrott. When Fuhlrott looked at the long, narrow skullcap with prominent brow ridges, he realized its significance. Two weeks after the initial discovery, he returned to the quarry in hopes of finding the rest of the skeleton, but it was too late to retrieve any more bones. Fortunately, Fuhlrott had enough to identify the remains as those of an ancient human population, different from contemporary humans. This was the find that gave the species its name. It marked the beginning of paleoanthropology and initiated the longest-standing debate in the discipline: the role of Neandertals in human evolutionary history.

However, Fuhlrott’s view was not immediately accepted as it contradicted literal interpretations of the Bible and came before Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published. It took some years before the Neandertal man gained acceptance as a species of the genus Homo that inhabited Europe and parts of western Asia.

Because the area where these Neandertal bones were found was landscaped after the limestone quarry closed without a scientific geological analysis, and there were no associated finds, the site has been considered undatable. It is now the location of a museum of Neandertal life. The museum has also recreated the man’s appearance in a full-body model holding a spear.

However, the bones of over 400 Neandertals that have been found in different parts of Europe and the Middle East since (and even a few before) this discovery have permitted accurate dating. As a result, it is now known that the first proto-Neandertal traits appeared in Europe as early as 350,000 years ago, by 130,000 years ago full blown Neandertal characteristics had appeared, and by 50,000 years ago Neandertals had disappeared from Europe, although they continued in Asia until 30,000 years ago.

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2 responses to “August 8, 1856 (a Friday)

  1. Pingback: Homo sapiens: The Evolution of What We Think About Who We Are « Laelaps

  2. Pingback: I slept through the announcment of evolution’s demise? « Laelaps

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