Homo Londonensis: The London Skull or Lloyd’s Skull

The history of paleoanthropology is chockfull of extinct, abandoned, and forsaken species names. 

From Homo delawarensis (found in the Delaware Valley of the United States in the nineteenth century) to Homo krapinensis (fossils from Croatia, discovered in 1899), the names of fossils and fossil species are a window into the history of science.  The names of older fossil species that are no longer used show how fossils move from the sites of their discoveries to the world of published scientific literature.  Some names of fossils quickly become proper, formalized taxa thanks to the rules set forward through the tradition of zoological nomenclature – other names, however, are simply informal ones, slung around publications, but never meant to really offer any sort of evolutionary argument or show a relationship between fossils writ large.

Young, Matthew. “The London Skull.” Biometrika 29, no. 3/4 (1938): 277–321. doi:10.2307/2332007.

Young, Matthew. “The London Skull.” Biometrika 29, no. 3/4 (1938): 277–321. doi:10.2307/2332007.

Consequently, the names of fossils often tell us more about their discoverers than they do about the nitty-gritty of human evolution.  As names for fossil species come in and out of scientific nomenclature, they reflect broader debates (lumping vs. splitting of species, for example) as well as paying homage to the geographic region where the fossil was found or the fossil’s discoverer.  The abandoned names of fossil species offer a way to track the history of specific fossils and how their evolutionary story has changed over time. 

Young, Matthew. “The London Skull.” Biometrika 29, no. 3/4 (1938): 277–321. doi:10.2307/2332007.

Young, Matthew. “The London Skull.” Biometrika 29, no. 3/4 (1938): 277–321. doi:10.2307/2332007.

In 1924-1925, the Corporation of Lloyd’s of London was in the process of establishing a new building near Leadenhall Street, Lime Street, and Leadenhall Place – at the same site where the East India House originally stood.  The work for the new building progressed nicely, with mechanical, steam-powered excavators, but parts of the foundation had to be dug out with shovels and laborers.  With the slower, manual excavations, workers occasionally came across fossils in the different London sediments – a mammoth molar and femur bone, a rhinoceros ulna, and limb-bones from red deer, to name a few.  For early twentieth-century anthropologists, however, the most interesting fossil to come out of the newly excavated foundation for Lloyd’s were parts of a human skull.

This skull quickly became known, informally, as “Lloyd’s” or “Lloyd’s skull” in anthropological circles and to twenty-first century paleoanthro aficionados, it seems like everyone who was anyone of research consequence had an opportunity to study the specimen.  In fact, it generated so much controversy (particularly in regards to the site’s age, and, thus, how old the skull was) that the prominent Sir Grafton Elliot Smith had Miss Dorothy A. E. Garrod settle the question of the fossil’s relative age later that year, in 1925.  Sir Elliot Smith and Sir Arthur Keith examined the specimen’s anatomical features and published their findings that same year, in Nature, concluding that the Lloyd’s skull was a fantastic example of “very early Pleistocene man” in Britain that shared some characteristics with skulls from Gibraltar, Swanscombe, Cheddar, and Piltdown.  It was christened “Homo londonensis” although never formalized in the taxonomic literature as such. 

Over the next two decades, Homo londonensis continued to be an important source of data and measurements for Pleistocene research.  However, in the ensuing years, the pseudo-Latin term was phased out, especially as subsequent studies came to understand the skull as an example of early Homo sapiens in Britain.  The name, however, remains a quick cultural shorthand for the specimen in question.

REFERENCES:

Young, Matthew. “The London Skull.” Biometrika 29, no. 3/4 (1938): 277–321. doi:10.2307/2332007.

His Whaleship: How To See A Real Whale in 1881

The Columbus Evening Dispatch, Saturday August 27, 1881, front page.

The Columbus Evening Dispatch, Saturday August 27, 1881, front page.

In the early 1880s, the Great International Menagerie, Aquarium, and Circus touted its exhibit of “A Leviathan Whale, a grand and magnificent specimen, the King of the Deep” as “…the only show in the world that exhibits a WHALE.” 

And by WHALE, the Menagerie meant an actual dead whale that was quasi-taxidermied and carted around from one American town to the next.  (Not to be outdone, the Burr Robbins Circus exhibited a giant paper-mâché whale a few years later.  The two whales dueled their way across the United States fighting for audiences, often picking up on each other’s publicity.)  For decades, this Music Man-like showmanship was how the American public saw real, genuine whales.

The Columbus Evening Dispatch, Tuesday, March 8, 1881, front page.

The Columbus Evening Dispatch, Tuesday, March 8, 1881, front page.

At each town’s stop, the carpenters for Great International Menagerie built a staging area for the whale exposition.  The show, the bustle of activity, the anticipation of the WHALE something so singularly extraordinary, never failed to draw huge crowds.  Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and see for yourself this marine curiosity.  The Menagerie’s King of the Deep arrived in Columbus, Ohio, on 8 March 1881.  The headlines in the Columbus Dispatch screamed, “He is coming! He is coming!  The Monster Whale! The Monarch Supreme of the Ocean! The Giant of the Gigantic Creation of the Universe!  Don’t Fail To Bring The Children!”

When the whale showed up, it was a mob scene.  (“It requires a great deal of elbow room, because his whaleship is sixty feet long in the clear,” the Dispatch reported.)  Although intrigued with something as exotic as the whale, it was the story of how the whale went from a living marine mammal to a dead exhibit traveling through Columbus, that really captivated audiences.  Visitors invariably wanted to know how the exhibit was possible – exactly how the whale’s entrails were removed and replaced with first ice and then chemicals, how the sawdust underneath the whale corpse kept the whale’s leaking in check, how yet more chemicals on the outside the whale kept the skin from decomposing, and how iron hoops within the whale’s body kept His Whaleship from collapsing.  Columbus Dispatch readers were encouraged to attend the show by reports that the exhibit was “free from unpleasant odor.”

For the nineteenth-century Menagerie-goers, seeing the real whale in the flesh – more or less – wasn’t really so much about the actual whale itself, but about how the whale’s keepers had so effectively cheated the decay of death to bring the whale to them. 

 

References:
Fred Pfening, “Moby Dick on Rails,” The Bandwagon, 1987, 14–17

The Human Condition: Top Ten Medieval Taxa

Rubric and miniature showing army.

Rubric and miniature showing army.

Human taxonomy is all about metaphors and history.  Every taxon under the umbrella of Homo is imbued with a narrative, told through a series of nested relationships.  From an evolutionary perspective, taxonomy is a way of describing how species are related to others, through ancestral lineages.  From a historical standpoint, taxonomy serves as a method to triangulate between culture and geography.

Trying to work out the taxonomic history of Homo – beyond just an evolutionary tree – actually traces back to antiquity.  Many classical writers used “species” names for Homo that served as an allegory for the human condition. The Roman writer Caecus, for example, used the term Homo faber to describe “man the maker” in reference to what he thought was humanity’s ability to control destiny.  (The definition of Homo faber has been made and remade over millennia, depending on the writer and the philosophical context.) 

Fast forward several centuries, and taxonomy in the Middle Ages looks very different.  While some medieval philosophers continued to use classical taxa, most medieval taxonomy became a means of articulating social hierarchies rather than exploring allegory.  Consequently, medieval taxonomy offers a curious history of social of Europe, where everyone’s place is clearly and hierarchically defined. 

Any taxon is the result of decisions – we decide what goes in a taxa and then what to call it.  We chose the story that the taxa will tell because we infuse every one with metaphor.

 

        TOP TEN MEDIEVAL TAXA:

Rubric and miniature showing army and massacre outside of tent.

Rubric and miniature showing army and massacre outside of tent.

  1. HOMO AD ARMA.   An army man.
  2. HOMO AD COLLUM.  An individual who carries a weight around his neck or on his shoulders; a porter or carrier.
  3.  HOMO ALBANUS.   One who went to work in the morning and returned to his home in the evening.
  4. HOMO CHARTULARIUS.   Title assigned to individuals in charge of legal and religious papers, as well as to those who prepared them.
  5.  HOMO COACTUS POTESTATIS.  One subject to the servitude of the glebe; someone in bondage. A peasant with no rights.
  6. HOMO ECCLESIASTICUS.  After Jerome, a Christian. One who has an office in the church.
  7. HOMO FRATERNITATIS.  A member of a brotherhood.
  8. HOMO HONORATUS. A notable person.
  9. HOMO JOCULARIS.  A minstrel.
  10. HOMO SIGNORUM.  Used in astrology to depict one connected with the zodiac signs.  

 

Bibliography
Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. “Rubric and miniature showing army and massacre outside tents.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed July 26, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-e6e5-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. “Rubric and miniature showing army.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed July 26, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-e6e4-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Romeo, Luigi. Ecce Homo! A Lexicon of Man. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1979.

 

Relic: Neanderthals in SciFi

Relic, by Jonathan Brooks, offers a new type of Neanderthal scifi adventure. 

The story is deceptively simple.  A rouge black ops military unit wants to clone Neanderthals to create an unstoppable breed of super-soldier – one that represents a “superior” human condition of strength and force.  The team extracts DNA from archaeological Neanderthal remains and combines it with DNA from an unsuspecting scientist, who has a higher-than-normal percentage of Neanderthal genes.  The military unit hides what they are doing behind a shell corporation managed by a shady law firm, working against the clock of impending government shut down to implant Neanderthal zygotes into unsuspecting surrogate mothers.  The next Iraq, their logic goes, would be fought with warriors from the Paleolithic.

It’s like Orphan Black decided to re-imagine its next season with Castor clones as Neanderthals.

***

Neanderthals in science fiction are curious creatures.  In some instances, like the early twentieth-century’s Quest For Fire, Neanderthals are props – literary foils – to explain the “superiority” of the Homo sapiens condition.  (Neanderthals, with their evolutionary “failure” explain our own evolutionary “success”, thanks to our technological prowess over things like fire.)  In Robert Sawyer’s Hominids trilogy, however, the success of Neanderthals in a parallel universe show how capricious and contingent we are in our own evolutionary narrative.  (We comfortably imagine our own evolutionary trajectory as predetermined.)  The species acts as a continuum for us to test our humanity against.

In Relic, however, Neanderthals occupy the space between MacGuffins and characters and move between the two extremes.  In keeping with classic scifi, Brooks’ Neanderthals are how we explore the question – What makes us human?  The book ends on a cliffhanger, poised for its sequel.

For die-hard Neanderthal fans, Relic is a reminder that how we talk about the fossil species tells us more about ourselves than it does about them.

Neanderthals in scifi, redeux.

Neanderthals in scifi, redeux.