The first two decades of the twentieth-century was an exciting time for Paleolithic archaeology. Pleistocene sites with Neanderthal skeletons were popping up throughout Europe and anthropologists (like Henry Fairfield Osborn) were quick to offer interpretations for these sites, like Le Moustier and La Chapelle, and to fold these sites into a broader interpretive evolutionary schema.
Putting a face on a fossil characterizes the archaeological recovery – the reconstruction can humanize or distance the species. The artistic reconstruction immediately gives a narrative – a story, if you will – about the fossil.
The question of how to reconstruct Neanderthals – what face to give them – was debated at the beginning of the twentieth century, much as it is debated now. Stephanie Moser’s brilliant Ancestral Images juxtaposes two examples of the changing interpretations of the La Chapelle Neanderthal (discovered in 1908) in the Illustrated London News – the first artist’s sketch appeared in 1909 and the second, a much more empathetic and nuanced interpretation, appeared in 1911. That’s quite a difference between the two.
Interestingly, La Guerre du Feu (Quest for Fire) appears between these two illustrations. The science fiction draws on the anthropological publications of 1909, but offers a literary genre for discussing Neanderthals. One wonders if Amadee Forestier, the 1911 artist, was familiar with J. H. Rosny’s speculative fiction.
Moser, S., & Gamble, C. (1998). Ancestral Images: The Iconography of Human Origins (1 edition.). Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press.
Rosny, J. H. (1982). Quest for Fire. New York: Ballantine Books, second edition.
Sommer, M. (2006). Mirror, Mirror on the Wall Neanderthal as Image and “Distortion” in Early 20th-Century French Science and Press. Social Studies of Science, 36(2), 207–240. doi:10.1177/0306312706054527