Boule Reconstructs the First Neanderthal Skeleton Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Marcellin Boule’s reconstitution of a near-complete Neanderthal skeleton sparked controversy over the possibility of identifying the presumed “missing link” between higher apes and humans.

Summary of Event

Late in the fall of 1908, the French paleontologist Marcellin Boule carried out a project that would contribute to a series of reactions against a “school” of hominid (human) evolutionary thought with which he came to be identified. The project was Boule’s reconstitution of a nearly complete skeleton of Homo neanderthalensis, drawn from fossil remains found in a cave at La Chapelle-aux-Saints in the Corrèze in France. Three priests who were already recognized for their research into prehistoric archaeology—Amédée Bouyssonie, Jean Bouyssonie, and L. Bardon—had discovered the remains and transferred them to Boule’s laboratory in Paris. Anthropology;Neanderthals Paleontology;Neanderthals Neanderthals Fossils;Neanderthals Homo neanderthalensis [kw]Boule Reconstructs the First Neanderthal Skeleton (Dec., 1908) [kw]First Neanderthal Skeleton, Boule Reconstructs the (Dec., 1908) [kw]Neanderthal Skeleton, Boule Reconstructs the First (Dec., 1908) [kw]Skeleton, Boule Reconstructs the First Neanderthal (Dec., 1908) Anthropology;Neanderthals Paleontology;Neanderthals Neanderthals Fossils;Neanderthals Homo neanderthalensis [g]France;Dec., 1908: Boule Reconstructs the First Neanderthal Skeleton[02240] [c]Archaeology;Dec., 1908: Boule Reconstructs the First Neanderthal Skeleton[02240] [c]Anthropology;Dec., 1908: Boule Reconstructs the First Neanderthal Skeleton[02240] [c]Prehistory and ancient cultures;Dec., 1908: Boule Reconstructs the First Neanderthal Skeleton[02240] Boule, Marcellin Virchow, Rudolf Bouyssonie, Amédée Bouyssonie, Jean Bardon, L.

The fossil bones consisted of a skull (cranium and quite massive lower jaw), twenty-one vertebrae (some fragmented), twenty ribs, a collarbone, two upper arm bones, two fragmented lower arm bones, two incomplete upper leg bones, two kneecaps, portions of two lower leg bones, an ankle bone, a heel bone, five right metatarsals (instep bones), fragments of two left metatarsals, and one toe bone. The layers in which the bones were found contained artifacts (dressed flint tools) that could be identified in archaeological terms as Mousterian, a time period (extending roughly from 100,000 to 40,000 b.c.e.) that fit well with certain paleontologists’ views of how Homo neanderthalensis should be placed in human evolutionary terms.

The archaeologists who delivered the skeletal remains to Boule reported that the fossil body was found in a narrow trench approximately one foot deep. It appeared, therefore, that a grave had been prepared for a burial ceremony, a fact that might have explained the nearby concentration of chipped flint implements associated with another assumed Neanderthal ceremonial ritual: the hunt. Indeed, animal remains in the same archaeological layer included bones of the woolly rhinoceros as well as reindeer, cave hyena, and marmot bones.

When Boule set out to assemble as complete a skeleton as possible from the fossils, he had very few firm points of reference to guide him. Earlier Neanderthal discoveries were much less extensive, and he had no comparative models to help him reconstruct the skeleton. Subsequent to the work Boule carried out in 1908, a number of other discoveries would be made, notably at Le Moustier and La Ferrassie, both in Dordogne, in 1909; at La Quina in French Charente district in 1911; and others in Palestine and on the Italian peninsula in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The book Boule published with fellow paleontologist Henri Vallois (L’Homme fossile; fossil man) makes it clear that, over the years, Boule believed he would have no trouble assimilating observable characteristics of Neanderthal fossils found later to the image and theory he originally set forward in 1908.





When Boule finished piecing together the Chapelle-aux-Saints fossil, characteristics emerged that he and others considered to be evolutionary gaps between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. Homo sapiens;comparison with Homo neanderthalensis These included a bent-over skeletal posture supporting an inordinately large-jawed skull. The latter had a prominent brow ridge and a sloping forehead, with a large nasal construct and little or no chin structure. Finally, the curvature of the leg bones, as well as a certain “pigeon toe” effect in the feet, tended to accentuate basic simian (apelike) features that have disappeared in Homo sapiens.

Boule knew that considerable support existed for views expressed on Homo neanderthalensis in the mid-nineteenth century by the German anatomist Rudolf Virchow. Briefly stated, proponents of the Virchow school argued that Neanderthal remains should be assigned a place along with fossils of Homo sapiens, essentially as a contemporaneous “cousin” of what has come to be known as the modern human. If Homo neanderthalensis became an extinct species of human, Extinction;Neanderthals this could be explainable in terms of Neanderthal’s relative disadvantages for survival in comparison with Homo sapiens. It was wrong, the Virchow school maintained, to push the prime period of Homo neanderthalensis back, limiting it to the Mousterian age, mainly to facilitate an argument in support of the prevailing Darwinist interpretations of evolution. Had Virchow lived to confront Boule over the Chapelle-aux-Saints skeleton, he most likely would have objected to Boule’s implication that Homo neanderthalensis was too “primitive” to be placed on a comparable evolutionary level with Homo sapiens.

Evolutionists, including Boule, were eager to find a pre-sapiens link between apes and Homo sapiens. To a significant degree, Boule’s reconstruction of the Chapelle-aux-Saints skeleton seemed to respond to this need, as did his eventual separation of Homo neanderthalensis from the three fossil human predecessors of modern Homo sapiens. Regardless of whether it was Boule’s intention initially to lend support to a particular school of thought concerning the place of Homo neanderthalensis in evolutionary theory, his work sparked a debate that—although mainly a popular one—involved a number of paleontologists of different camps, at least into the late 1950’s.


The role that Boule would play in the seemingly unending controversy over presumed “links” in the evolutionary chain leading to Homo sapiens was in some ways prepared well before the specific contribution he made in 1908. In fact, soon after discovery of the first remains of Homo neanderthalensis near Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1856, several schools of thought concerning the evolution of modern humans tried to either adopt or reject assumptions that would make Boule’s reputation (or notoriety) as a human paleontologist.

A debate arose in the generation after the first fossils were unearthed. Several features of the first Neanderthals (and others discovered later, at Spy, Belgium, in 1886, and then in fairly substantial numbers in southwestern France at the beginning of the twentieth century) suggested that they were closer to the presumed simian ancestors of humans than any previously studied paleontological prototype. Evolution;"missing link" At some point in the mid-nineteenth century, for example, a sufficient number of Neanderthal sites had been identified to place them in the Mousterian period, well before the time of Homo sapiens cultures. This posed a problem of linkage: whether it was possible that Homo sapiens could be the biological descendant of Homo neanderthalensis. Boule implied that Homo sapiens had replaced Homo neanderthalensis. The other theory was that the two species existed side by side until the superior adaptive qualities of Homo sapiens guaranteed their continuation while Homo neanderthalensis declined in numbers and eventually disappeared.

Well before Boule’s time, unwillingness to accept Homo neanderthalensis as an evolutionary “cousin” of Homo sapiens had divided opinions among prominent representatives of the nineteenth century scientific world, including the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, Huxley, Thomas Henry who insisted on the Charles Darwin-dominated 1860’s view of the essentially “bestial” characteristics of Homo neanderthalensis, which he associated with later apes, not early humans.

More important as a source of future controversy over the Chapelle-aux-Saints Neanderthal reconstruction was the mid-nineteenth century contribution of the German anatomist Virchow. Unlike Huxley, Virchow refused to see Homo neanderthalensis as belonging to a species separate from Homo sapiens, thus perturbing evolutionists who needed proof of a separate, lower link from which Homo sapiens might have sprung. Virchow came to the conclusion that certain of Neanderthal’s apelike characteristics could be explained by “ailments”—specifically the effects of rickets from malnutrition—suffered by the (basically human) individuals.

Ironically, Virchow’s student Ernst Haeckel Haeckel, Ernst would soon take a theoretical position that seemed to be reflected in Boule’s 1908 Neanderthal reconstruction and in his defensive writing some years later. Haeckel tended to seek in hominid fossils such as Homo neanderthalensis an evolutionary link between humans and apes. The most notable prototype associated with Haeckel’s name was the so-called Pithecanthropus alalus, or “speechless ape-man,” but he was also part of the debate in the 1890’s over the “humanlike transitional form” of the Java man, Java man Pithecanthropus erectus, discovered by the Dutch paleontologist Eugène Dubois. Dubois, Eugène

With the passage of time and discovery of additional Neanderthal specimens, however, the scientific community grew skeptical of Boule’s insistence on placing Homo neanderthalensis next to Homo sapiens. A culmination was reached in 1957, when W. L. Strauss Strauss, W. L. and A. J. E. Cave Cave, A. J. E. reexamined the skeleton Boule had reconstructed. Combining alternative views that had preexisted Boule’s 1908 contribution with studies of more recently discovered Neanderthal remains, they essentially put Boule’s theory to rest. Not only did they reopen the question of bone structure distorted by natural causes (namely, disease), but they also questioned the accuracy of Boule’s work of skeletal reconstruction, particularly in the foot area, where Boule may have exaggerated angles to accentuate simian features.

Strauss and Cave’s refutation of Boule generally held throughout the second half of the twentieth century, with the effect of elevating Homo sapiens neanderthalensis to the status of a branch of Homo sapiens. If Neanderthal communities tended to disappear, it was because of a loss of security in a limited competitive ecological arena in which Homo sapiens had the upper hand, not because they occupied a distinctly lower level on the biological evolutionary ladder. Today, paleoanthropologists continue the debate, with some arguing that Neanderthals were simply replaced by modern Homo sapiens and others citing genetic and anatomical evidence for a mixing of the gene pools. Anthropology;Neanderthals Paleontology;Neanderthals Neanderthals Fossils;Neanderthals Homo neanderthalensis

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boule, Marcellin. “L’Homme fossile de la Chapelle-aux-Saints.” Comptes rendues de l’Académie des sciences, December 14, 1908, 1012-1017. Boule’s first publication describing the Neanderthal skeleton he had reconstituted.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bowden, M. Ape-Men: Fact or Fallacy? Bromley, England: Sovereign, 1977. A semischolarly work that reviews the controversies that have surrounded a number of famous fossil finds, ranging from the clearly “invented” Piltdown man to Java man. Includes discussion of the complex issues involved in Neanderthal paleontology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Finlayson, Clive. Neanderthals and Modern Humans: An Ecological and Evolutionary Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Argues that Neanderthals went extinct because of their inability to adapt to changing environmental conditions rather than as the result of direct competition with Homo sapiens. Includes references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jordan, Paul. Neanderthal: Neanderthal Man and the Story of Human Origins. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 2001. Explores the evidence to present a picture of the world in which Neanderthals lived and their relationship to Homo sapiens. Includes illustrations and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keith, Arthur. “The Relationship of Neanderthal Man and Pithecanthropus to Modern Man.” Nature 89 (April, 1912): 155-156. Shows that, despite criticisms leveled at Boule’s presumed bias by later critics, the scientific community first reacted to his theory of Homo neanderthalensis in terms that were very balanced.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shackley, Myra. Neanderthal Man. London: Gerald Duckworth, 1980. Comprehensive overall view of evidence on Neanderthals. Includes chapters on tools and technology as well as rituals and habitations that have been tied to Neanderthal communities in various areas of the globe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tattersall, Ian. The Last Neanderthal: The Rise, Success, and Mysterious Extinction of Our Closest Human Relatives. Rev. ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999. Focuses on the relationship between Neanderthals and modern humans. Provides information on fossil dating and other background for lay readers. Illustrated.

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