It’s hard to imagine a fossil species that captivates public interest more than Neanderthals. For over 150 years, Neanderthals have been cast as a phylogenetic foil in human evolution. This foil – a literary double, if you will – lets a variety of disciplines think about Neanderthals as a cultural “Other” in a multitude of medias.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, a significant amount of effort went into evaluating the question of how human – or not – Neanderthals truly were. Researchers, like Marcellin Boule, focused on anatomy and skeletal remains of Neanderthals like La Chapelle-aux-Saints. Boule's early twentieth-century research resulted in caricatures of brooding boorish brutes that twenty-first century Neanderthal research has long-sought to distance itself from.
This early twentieth-century Neanderthal motif shows up in unexpected ways in the early twentieth-century. Take museum dioramas and exhibits. More than just fossils-come-to-life, the slouching, hunched reconstructed Neanderthals reflected an interesting, subtle thesis about material culture and ingenuity. In short, these early dioramas argued, Neanderthals simply did have anything material that was evolutionarily compelling. No complex tools, no dexterity, no ingenuity to invent "good" technology.
Dioramas and reconstructions became a way to put a body on a fossil. A reconstruction of a fossil provides a visual dimensionality of muscle, skin, hair, and movement that imbues a sense of “real-ness” to a fossil that a mere description, however detailed, simply cannot match.
For fossils that are unable to freeze life as-is, (as would, say, a taxidermied animal) a reconstruction, makes extinct species like Neanderthals accessible and understandable. We can immediately imagine the hominin in question – it’s tangible face and body are right in front of us. More than being simply visually accessible, putting a body on a fossil puts a story with the science behind it. Putting a reconstruction of an extinct species into something as narrative-infused as a diorama takes this interpretation one step further for museum viewers.
A diorama provides a narrative – or set of narratives, really – that easily tap into our conscience or unconscious thoughts. We see reconstructed bodies of human ancestors and we summon certain narratives, and interpose these underlying motifs onto the figures that we’re seeing. The dioramas tell the viewer more than a plate or a placard, that iterates information from scientific literature.
Early twentieth-century researchers were certainly aware of a variety of stone tools and technologies that came from the same caves as Neanderthal bones. Sketches of these tools appeared in any number of publications as official reports. But in early twentieth-century dioramas, these same tools and tool technologies are depicted as are simple and unassuming. For such a small, subtle detail in the lives of diorama Neanderthals, the portrayal of technology creates a powerful, indirect argument about success and direction in human evolution.
Contrast this with then-contemporary paintings early humans’ tools and technology by Charles Knight. The space between hominin technologies offers a lot of interesting argument about turn-of-the-twentieth century premises of ingenuity and innovation in human evolution.
Next week: Twentieth-century dioramas showing Homo sapiens and tool use. Send me photos from the archives and I'll include it in next week's discussion!
More on dioramas and human evolution.
 Marianne Sommer, “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall Neanderthal as Image and ‘Distortion’ in Early 20th-Century French Science and Press,” Social Studies of Science 36, no. 2 (April 1, 2006): 207–40, doi:10.1177/0306312706054527.
 Samuel J. M. M. Alberti, ed., The Afterlives of Animals: A Museum Menagerie (University of Virginia Press, 2011).