Ad fontes! Excavating Neanderthal Literature

Ad fontes!  To the sources!

Bibliothéque des Sciences Contemporaines: La Prehistorique (Library of Contemporary Sciences: The Prehistoric), 1900.  First decade of library circulation for Prehistory.  La Prehistorique has several chapters on early Neanderthal and Mousterian research.

Bibliothéque des Sciences Contemporaines: La Prehistorique (Library of Contemporary Sciences: The Prehistoric), 1900.  First decade of library circulation for PrehistoryLa Prehistorique has several chapters on early Neanderthal and Mousterian research.

The excavation of Neanderthal literature is a curious exercise. 

It’s easy to sum up the turn-of-the-twentieth-century treatment of Neanderthals as antiquated, un-reflective, and fundamentally – by twenty-first century standards of science and history of science – as problematic.  However, in the fifty-plus years after the species was first uncovered to the discovery of the first “cultural type” specimen (Neander Valley, Germany, 1856 to La Chapelle, France, 1908), the treatment of the species in anything but straightforward.  Researchers, journalists, and museums certainly push a particular interpretation of the species (an agenda, perhaps?), but the path toward that caricature interpretation is a lot less straightforward than one might think.

 

Working through these five decades of literature is a bit like putting in a test unit on an archaeological site.  Pulling back layer after layer of archival material, Neanderthal literature shows curious stratas and unexpected inclusions in its history.  There are “the classics” of early Neanderthal research – say, Marcellin Boule’s work – but there many other sources that contribute to how Neanderthals have been culturally and scientifically internalized.  There are references to the Book of Job.  Stereoscopic prints of skeletal remains.  Pen-and-ink sketches of the bucolic German countryside.  Photos of excavations with wicker picnic baskets.  Artifact illustrators who refused to work outside of France.

The Neanderthal Skull by Rev. B.W. Savile, 1885.

The Neanderthal Skull by Rev. B.W. Savile, 1885.

The most unexpected Neanderthal encounter, by far, has been the introductory chapter of a monograph, The Neanderthal Skull on Evolution, by Reverend Savile, dated 1885.  In his introduction, backstopping the Neanderthal discussion with commentary on Darwin and evolution, the good vicar recounts a conversation with Professor John Tyndall, a prominent nineteenth-century physicist.  Interested in the “intermediary” species between aves and mammals, Savile took the opportunity to put to Tyndall the question how new characteristics are introduced within an evolutionary framework.  In other words, after his lecture – on physics, mind you –  Professor Tyndall was fielding the all-important question fronting nineteenth-century evolutionary studies: Which came first? The chicken or the egg?  According to Reverend Savile, Tyndall simply refused to answer.  (Reverend Savile’s follow up question was to inquire if Professor Tyndall’s icebox was running…)

 

 

 

The Neanderthal Skull by Rev. B.W. Savile, 1885.  Preface, pp viii-ix.  Later in the Preface, Savile tells readers that Darwin, himself, answered Savile's inquiry, pointing to the Australian echidna as an example of an egg-laying mammal.

The Neanderthal Skull by Rev. B.W. Savile, 1885.  Preface, pp viii-ix.  Later in the Preface, Savile tells readers that Darwin, himself, answered Savile's inquiry, pointing to the Australian echidna as an example of an egg-laying mammal.

The history of Neanderthal research is not a neatly-faced archaeological profile. The history of Neanderthal research is messy.  It’s complicated.  And it shows that the discovery and interpretation of fossils and sites is constantly reworked in many frameworks.