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.