Darwin's Neandertal encounter

1 minute read

Michael Balter reports on the historical work of Alex Menez, at the Gibraltar Museum: “When Darwin Met a Neandertal”.

Darwins reaction is recorded simply in a 1 September 1864 letter to his close friend, botanist Joseph Hooker: F[alconer] brought me the wonderful Gibraltar skull. As Menez put it: We can imagine Darwin holding the skull, peering enthusiastically at its well-marked brow ridges, his own eyes beneath brow ridges that were themselves significantly larger than those of most people!

Darwin had encountered both Australian and Fuegan aborigines, and may therefore have been more well-equipped than almost any of his contemporaries to think about the place of the browridge in human variation. But as Balter (and Menez) describe, we can tease out almost nothing about Darwin’s thoughts on this matter.

I’m fascinated by the date. In May 1864, Darwin had been sent a copy of Wallace’s paper on human origins, which appeared in the Anthropological Review. He reacted to this in the last week of May, trading letters with Hooker and Wallace, both expressing his praise for Wallace’s “genius” and his disagreement with a few points. Darwin had been famously silent on the topic of human evolution in the Origin, leaving Wallace to take up the subject. I’ll have more to say about that later; right now I just thought I would point out that Wallace referred directly to the Neander valley skull:

The Neanderthal skull may be a specimen of one of the lowest races then existing, just as the Australians are the lowest of our modern epoch.

Not too encouraging, I guess. Nobody ever loved them. Although he does not say so explicitly, Wallace seems to have accepted that rough contemporaries of the Neandertals belonged to a more modern race (he mentions Denise and Engis as examples that “agree so closely with existing forms”, the Engis skull is now recognized as a subadult Neandertal).

Darwin’s letter referring to the Gibraltar skull is online at the Darwin Correspondence Project website. My favorite part is in the DCP footnote:

In September1864the British Association for the Advancement of Science awarded Busk and Falconer a grant of 150to further their researches on the remains.

Oh, yes. 150 used to be a lot of money. Nowadays it might just buy a cast of the skull.