VIKING, AUGUST 2016It’s hard—if not impossible—to crack open a book about human evolution and not read about the history and significance of Neanderthals. They remain the first discovered fossil hominin species, and over the last 150 years they have given us a framework to think about them as a character, a species, and a concept.
Neanderthals have been written into the evolutionary narrative as an “Other”— a foil, a double, an easy contrast to our culture that discovered and interpreted them. As any student of literature will tell you, a foil takes a particular character and heightens that character by comparing him with another one; the foil is usually created to project the protagonist. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The most effective foils are generally created by contrasting the two through some set of essential characteristics.
In order for a foil to be truly successful, the character must have something in common with the story’s protagonist. Twentieth-century writer Vladimir Nabokov imagined Shakespeare’s Caliban and Ariel as classic foils that illustrated the opposite directions of the human condition. Caliban, the savage: “You taught me language; and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse. / The red plague rid you / For learning me your language!” Ariel, the ethereal spirit: “Pardon, master; I will be correspondent to command / And do my spiriting gently.” Ariel entreats and Caliban practically growls—civilization and barbarity are neatly juxtaposed. Four hundred years after Shakespeare penned The Tempest, Caliban’s savage caricature still serves, for better or worse, as the central trope in our understanding of Neanderthals; we can think of them only when we first cast ourselves as protagonists in the narrative of human evolution. (Sawyer’s science fiction trilogy asks its audience to consider which—Neanderthals or humans—is the real Caliban character. In other words, which character is “more human”? In the trilogy, Caliban switches places with Ariel—the wise fool who teaches humanity how to be human.)
Today, the Old Man’s bones reside in the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, and images of the fossil show up in scientific studies and popular museum exhibits. Over the last one hundred years, the Old Man and his Neanderthal contemporaries have undergone serious changes in the definition of Neanderthals as a species—our own notions of humanness challenge our notions of Neanderthalness. These changes in Neanderthal research and studies have unfolded in archaeology, paleoanthropology, genetics, and museum theory (how the species is displayed to audiences). Somewhere in the century since the fossil’s discovery, the Old Man moved from an “it” to a “him.” He has a personality and a temperament. He also has a purpose.
The discovery of La Chapelle-aux-Saints, the Old Man, required a particular framework to truly make sense of what a human-but-not-human fossil species meant. This extended beyond simply accepting evolution as a mechanism of change or the legitimacy of the Neanderthals as a separate species. It necessitated a cultural component—a metaphor or archetype—that was easily accessible in culture writ large. This framework came from other cultural tropes and analogies, mechanisms that allowed culture and science to seamlessly intersect and offer explanations about a species as curious as the Neanderthals.
The history of Neanderthals’ discovery has been told many times and in many ways. Where many might frame this history through the Neanderthals’ interpretation as a “missing link,” many other explanatory devices, including literature, can tell us more about how the species was internalized and used. Indeed, the idea that nineteenth-century science would reach for analogies and metaphors to explain fossil discoveries isn’t far-fetched. That it should look for such explanations in literary characters and tropes shows how much science drew from literature during this time. This meant being able to explain Neanderthals beyond simply their evolutionary mechanisms—they had to make sense culturally as well. And while the La Chapelle skeleton might not offer an explanation for all Neanderthal behavior, any explanation of Neanderthals in scientific literature or popular media deals, by necessity, with the legacy of La Chapelle’s interpretations.
Today, the Old Man’s fame comes from a curious mix of science, history, and even caricature—he is a phylogenetic foil for Homo sapiens. “We see ourselves, for better or worse, in comparison to Neanderthals,” suggests archaeologist Dr. Julien Riel-
Salvatore. “We want to see how we stand out, but lately research seems to shy away from the question of direct competition with Homo sapiens. We’re moving toward a more nuanced understanding of the species; offering hypotheses that are not just quasi- biological explanations for human- Neanderthal interactions or a strict biological determinism to explain Neanderthal extinction.”
Today, the Old Man is more than just the sum of his studies—more than just his skeleton and more than simple scientific evidence. After his discovery, he became a character de force in hominin evolutionary history. Like a dignified family patriarch, the Old Man presides over our evolutionary story. He is paleoanthropology’s first famous fossil and he continues to resonate in both the scientific and popular imagination.
From Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World's Most Famous Human Fossils. By Lydia Pyne, published on August 16, 2016 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright by Lydia Pyne, 2016.