Neanderthal Skull Is Found in Germany Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The difficulties classifying an unusual human fossil found in Germany’s Neander Valley initiated a debate on the age of the human species and the possibility of human evolution and led to the definition of a subspecies called Homo neanderthalensis.

Summary of Event

In August, 1856, workers digging for limestone in the Feldhofer grotto, a cave in the wall of a gorge sixty feet above Germany’s Düssel River, unearthed bones from what they believed to be a cave bear but which were later determined to be hominid in origin. The discovery ignited a controversy concerning the age and type of the fossil and generated a debate that must be understood in light of ideologies of race, evolution, and the prehistory of Europe. Neanderthal man Anthropology;Neanderthal man Paleontology;Neanderthal man Evolution;and Neanderthal man[Neanderthal man] Germany;paleontology in Huxley, Thomas Henry [p]Huxley, Thomas Henry;and evolution[Evolution] Fossils;human Anthropology;physical [kw]Neanderthal Skull Is Found in Germany (Aug., 1856) [kw]Skull Is Found in Germany, Neanderthal (Aug., 1856) [kw]Found in Germany, Neanderthal Skull Is (Aug., 1856) [kw]Germany, Neanderthal Skull Is Found in (Aug., 1856) Neanderthal man Anthropology;Neanderthal man Paleontology;Neanderthal man Evolution;and Neanderthal man[Neanderthal man] Germany;paleontology in Huxley, Thomas Henry [p]Huxley, Thomas Henry;and evolution[Evolution] Fossils;human Anthropology;physical [g]Germany;Aug., 1856: Neanderthal Skull Is Found in Germany[3100] [c]Anthropology;Aug., 1856: Neanderthal Skull Is Found in Germany[3100] [c]Chemistry;Aug., 1856: Neanderthal Skull Is Found in Germany[3100] [c]Biology;Aug., 1856: Neanderthal Skull Is Found in Germany[3100] Fuhlrott, Johann Carl Schaaffhausen, Hermann King, William Lyell, Sir Charles [p]Lyell, Sir Charles[Lyell, Charles];and evolution[Evolution] Virchow, Rudolf Schwalbe, Gustav

The found remains included a skullcap, two thighbones, a pelvic bone, ribs, a scapula, a collar bone, and all three bones of an arm. A heavy brow ridge above the eye sockets characterized the skullcap. Upon finding the bones, the cave owner brought them to Johann Carl Fuhlrott Fuhlrott, Johann Carl , a mathematics teacher in Elberfeld, who immediately recognized the bones as human, though of an unknown type. Fuhlrott notified Hermann Schaaffhausen Schaaffhausen, Hermann of the University of Bonn, and together they presented the finding at the local nature history society in 1857.

Schaaffhausen had suggested in an article in 1853 that the constancy of species was not proven, and again, he was predisposed to view this new discovery of bones in an evolutionary context. Because five feet of loam covered the Neander bones, which were also heavily mineralized in the manner of the extinct cave bear, he attributed them, in an 1858 article, to an ancient and primitive human race. He later noted that the brow ridges were characteristically apelike, while the cranial capacity was clearly human. Although the other bones were quite thick, they did not differ appreciatively from modern forms.

In 1859, Charles Darwin Darwin, Charles published the theory of descent with modification (evolution) by natural selection Darwin, Charles [p]Darwin, Charles;on natural selection[Natural selection] in On the Origin of Species. On the Origin of Species (Darwin) Darwin, Charles [p]Darwin, Charles;On the Origin of Species While Darwin avoided the subject of human evolution, two of his contemporaries, Sir Charles Lyell Lyell, Sir Charles , a somewhat reluctant proponent, and Thomas Henry Huxley, a more ardent advocate, published on the question of human evolution in 1863. Lyell visited Fuhlrott Fuhlrott, Johann Carl in 1860 to examine the Feldhofer remains. Upon his return to England, he asked Huxley to study casts of the Neanderthal skullcap. In The Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man (1863), Lyell included Huxley’s description of this skull as well as his description of another fossilized skullcap found in Engis cave near Liège, Belgium, which had been described by paleontologist Philippe-Charles Schmerling Schmerling, Philippe-Charles (1790-1836) in 1833. Lyell Lyell, Sir Charles [p]Lyell, Sir Charles[Lyell, Charles];and evolution[Evolution] concluded that these remains were ancient, though the lack of accompanying animal fossils left open the possibility that they were younger.

Huxley’s conclusions, published in his Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (Huxley) (1863), reinforced the idea that the remains, while very old, had a cranial capacity close to some extant human races and did not vary appreciably from the more “primitive” forms of the modern human, such as the aboriginal Australian. These skulls thus did not justify a position intermediate between the human and ape; geology had not yet provided a true human ancestor. However, in 1864, William King King, William found the bones to be sufficiently different from contemporary humans and to reveal a closer affinity with apes. He assigned the remains to a separate species called Homo neanderthalensis. In response, Huxley reiterated his position that one could construct without gaps a series of forms that led from the Neanderthal to the most advanced races.

A number of anatomists who rejected evolution maintained that the remains were recent. Although the bones were quite robust, August Mayer Mayer, August , also from the University of Bonn, argued that childhood rickets, Rickets a disease causing weakened bones resulting from vitamin D deficiency, and adult arthritis, had caused curves in the bones of the thigh and upper part of the pelvis. Mayer also noted that the poorly healed broken left arm might have resulted in a constant frown that created the bulging brow ridges. He concluded that the bones were the remains of a Mongolian Cossack from the Napoleonic Wars who had died in 1814.

The noted German physician and strong opponent of evolutionary theory, Rudolf Virchow Virchow, Rudolf , accepted the rickets theory and, in 1872, strongly supported the explanation that the specimen was simply a pathological example of a modern human. Others believed that the skullcap was from an “idiot.”

Another viewpoint relied on a theory of the historical succession of racial types developed by French opponents of evolution. Originally grounded in linguistic analyses of Indo-European or Aryan languages, this view held that Aryans invaded Europe and replaced earlier peoples, whose existence was supported by the European presence of non-Indo-European languages such as Finnish, Basque, and Lapp. In 1842, the Swedish anthropologist and anatomist Anders A. Retzius Retzius, Anders A. (1796-1860) proposed that the original inhabitants of Europe were brachycephalic (round-headed) like the Lapps, Finns, and Basques. The discovery of the dolichocephalic (long-headed) Neanderthal skulls led anthropologists to rework the theory during the 1870’s so that dolichocephalic races originally inhabited Europe.

As more and more ancient human bones came to light, anthropologists arranged them into a historical series. The Neanderthal skull represented the earliest extreme. A skullcap found in Gibraltar Gibraltar in 1848 but not understood until the discovery of the Feldhofer bones was an intermediate form, while the end of the series included a skull fragment found with extinct Mammalia near Cannstatt, Germany, and the Eguisheim specimen discovered in 1865 in Alsace, Lorraine. This series formed a race of ancient, primitive humans who had inhabited Europe during prehistoric times.

The idea that the Feldhofer skullcap was pathological was disproved after additional fossils sharing its features surfaced, including a jaw in La Naulette, Belgium, in 1866, some fragments in Wales in 1874, and, most important, two nearly complete skeletons with massive bones and large joint surfaces found in 1886 in the presence of fossils of mid-Quaternary period animals and Mousterian stone tools in Spy, Belgium.

The Spy skeletons were important for two reasons. First, they provided undeniable proof of the antiquity of the Feldhofer bones, which had remained in doubt. Second, the paleontologist Julien Fraipont Fraipont, Julien (1857-1910) noted that while the skeletons resembled the Cannstatt race, they were neanderthaloid in many ways. He went on to describe the general features of European Neanderthals. He also promulgated the false theory that the Neanderthals could not walk fully upright, but like the apes walked with knees bent. However, like Huxley, he denied that the Neanderthals narrowed the divide between human and ape. At the end of the century, Gustav Schwalbe Schwalbe, Gustav studied all the fossils of the Neanderthal-Cannstatt race and concluded that the Feldhofer and Spy specimens deserved to be separated from the other forms and placed in a separate species to be called Homo primigenius.


The controversy concerning the classification of the Neanderthals and the question of human evolution continued. In 1892, the Dutch anatomist and paleontologist Eugène Dubois Dubois, Eugène (1858-1940) discovered a hominid fossil, Pithecanthropus erectus (now called Homo erectus), in Java at the Pliocene-Pleistocene junction. With its low cranial capacity and prominent brow ridges, it lent itself to different interpretations: an ape fossil, an ape-man, or even Homo sapiens.

Nineteenth century debates on the Neanderthal highlighted the importance of current racial theories, which arranged living human races in a hierarchy. Those lower in the hierarchy were often compared with the apes, and their skulls oriented in such a manner to give the impression of prognathism (jutting jaws) and backward sloping foreheads. The Neanderthals fit within this framework and, given the paucity of examples, could be interpreted within the range of human variation as understood at the time. None of the evolutionists considered Neanderthals to be a human ancestor, and in the early twenty-first century, anthropologists believe that the Neanderthal forms discovered during the nineteenth century represent an offshoot of the line of human evolution, and that modern humans evolved in Africa and then spread over the earth.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Drell, Julia R. R. “Neanderthals: A History of Interpretation.” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 19, no. 1 (February, 2000): 1-24. Compares and contrasts the ideological constructs of the Neanderthals during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the 1950’s, and the beginning of the twenty-first century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Finlayson, Clive. Neanderthals and Modern Humans: An Ecological and Evolutionary Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Scholarly work on the Neanderthals that explores the relationship between climate change, ecological change, and the biogeographical distribution in Pleistocene humans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jordan, Paul. Neanderthal: Neanderthal Man and the Story of Human Origins. Stroud, England: Sutton, 1999. For the generalist reader. Has many black-and-white illustrations along with eight color photos. Chapter one gives the history of the Neanderthal fossil discoveries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Palmer, Douglas. Neanderthal. London: Channel 4 Books, 2000. Book accompanying the television series Neanderthal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tattersall, Ian. The Last Neanderthal: The Rise, Success, and Mysterious Extinction of Our Closest Human Relatives. New York: Macmillan, 1995. Lavishly illustrated with drawings and photographs, this book discusses evolution and Neanderthal lives. Chapter 5 summarizes the discovery and interpretation of the Neanderthals.

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