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.



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.  


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.

Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. “Rubric and miniature showing army.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed July 26, 2016.

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.

(Hu)Man(ity) Before History: Jacquetta Hawkes On Paleo Discoveries

The history of paleoanthropology and archaeology is full of beginnings – mostly beginnings and ideas that come through actual discoveries of tangible, physical objects. Consequently, in writing the history of material objects, there is a strong tradition, realized or not, to begin with the discovery of that object.  History and anthropology ties the object (say, a fossil or an artifact) to a moment in time and it’s easy to use “discovery” to situate a narrative in a timeline of sorts. 

Like most other learned or scientific subjects, archaeology had its traditional lore centering upon famous events and personalities in its history.  Jacquetta Hawkes, 1964.

But focusing on “discovery” as the impetus for organizing history– or the structure of a narrative – is tricky.  It can lead, as Jacquetta Hawkes pointed out, to the creation of a lore that surrounds the discovered object.  In other words, telling the stories of an object’s discovery over and over cements a mythos about the object.

Discovery seems to be a comfortable trope and an easy beginning to talk about fossils.  The history of paleoanthropology is deeply tied to the process and materiality of discovery – it’s difficult to imagine writing any history of paleoanthropology that doesn’t begin with a discovery of some sort.