Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Nordrhein-Westfalen - The Descent of Man

Although the coal-mining industry is in decline in Germany, as elsewhere in Europe, the cultural and sociological impact of mining is still felt, even in the 21st century, whether it's through the physical effect that mining has had on the landscape, or the legacy of rapid industrialisation that has left the Ruhr/Rhine valleys with significant conurbation, the current population of the Ruhr/Rhine metropolitan area being around 11 million people.  It reminds me a lot of similar conurbations in England - Birmingham, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire - also a result of 19th century industrialisation.

The Origins of Man

Skulls of Homo Erectus, Neanderthalensis and Sapiens
One indirect result of mining in the 19th century, as I learned when I was blogging about dinosaurs, was the discovery of fossils and dinosaur bones, which coincided with a growing interest in Richard Owen's terrible lizards, but no doubt also sparked renewed interest in the origins of man/woman.  The Neanderthal Valley, just outside Dusseldorf, is most famous for the discovery, in 1856, of a now extinct species of human being we call Homo (Sapiens) Neanderthalensis.  I've put the Sapiens in brackets, as we're still not 100% sure whether Neanderthal man/woman was a different species of human or a sub-species.

Actually, as with the Iguanadons of Bernissart, the Belgians probably have more right than the English or Germans to claim the discovery of dinosaurs and homo neanderthalensis.  The first Neanderthal skull was actually found in Belgium in 1829, although it wasn't recognised as a Neanderthal skull until much later, in the 1930's.

Neanderthal Man by Matt Celeskey
The New Man of Dusseldorf

By some quirk of history, the Neanderthal Valley was named after a 17th century protestant theologian from Bremen, Joachim Neander (thal actually means 'valley', so it's 'Neander's Valley').  It was a place that he loved to visit and a source of inspiration for the hymns that made him famous. 

Neander's grandfather was also a musician and changed the family name from the Germanic Neumann (Newman) to the Greek Neander, as was fashionable at that time.  So the extinct human species that populated much of pre-historic Europe is, ironically, called 'new man'.

I'd imagine that the Greek meaning hidden in Neanderthal wasn't lost on 19th century scientists who would also have been, no doubt, versed in the Classics.  Perhaps this influenced the permanent choice of name for this creature which was, by the way, first proposed by the Anglo-Irish geologist, William King.  I must admit that I'm slightly amused by the alternative name for homo neanderthalensis, proposed by the German biologist, Ernst Haeckel, which was homo stupidus!  Say it like it is, Ernst!

Darwin and the Caveman

On a more serious note, our understanding of Homo Neanderthalensis has interesting things to say about modern human culture and how we feel about Darwinism and the theory of evolution.  Traditionally, Neanderthal man/woman has been depicted as a kind of 'caveman/woman' - slightly bigger than modern man/woman, with a pronounced forehead - a bigger brain, yes, but definitely stupider than us.  In popular culture, the Neanderthal man/caveman is depicted as very definitely not us - we're obviously much smarter, more modern and only distantly related, as though Neanderthal man/woman was the result of a bad marriage.

Exhibit comparing skulls by Matt Celeskey
The reality is that Neanderthal man/woman may not just be a distant relative but may, indeed, be part of our ancestry.  The relationship between homo neanderthalensis and homo sapiens (ourselves) still seems to be a controversial one - traditional schools of thought say that Neanderthal man/woman was overpowered by the superior homo sapiens and became extinct, essentially because of their stupidity or inability to adapt to the changing political landscape.

As I hinted at in my blog post about the Celts in England, I can't help wondering whether the reality wasn't more complicated than that - perhaps rather than one species/tribe replacing the other, they somehow merged and we are actually part Neanderthal, part Sapiens.  I can sense that you're squirming after having read that last sentence, the question is why?

The Descent of Man

By coincidence and unrelated to my research on Nordrhein-Westfalen, I've started watching the 1970's BBC documentary The Ascent of Man, presented by the wonderful Jacob Bronowski.  The series assumes that man/woman have ascended, in the pyramid of species, to the superior position we see ourselves in today.  However, a lot of what I've been reading recently (The Naked Ape, When Languages Die . .) has made me think more about what I would call The Descent of (Wo)man - a descent in two senses:

1. Descent from the trees - the way we've evolved has been influenced by our decision to come down from the safety of the trees and fight for survival on the open plain.

2. Descent into system-slavery - rather than living a natural life, in tune with the rhythms of the universe - the moon, stars, sun, animal and plant life - we have created systems - clocks, computers, calendars - which control our lives and reduce them to unnatural rhythms, bringing us down into a kind of slavery, over which we have little control.

I'm beginning to think we really are homo stupidus after all.

You can watch Part 1 of The Ascent of Man - Lower than the Angels below:

A note on the sexism of the Homo Neanderthalensis discussion

Homo Neanderthalensis is very much a man!  Everything you read or watch in relation to the origin of our species, talks about man or cavemen, rather than woman or cavewoman.  There is an inherent sexism in this area of science that is very difficult to get away from, although I've tried!

Image credits:

For this blog post, I wanted to highlight the photos of Flickr member hairymuseummatt a.k.a. Matt Celeskey who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  These photos were taken at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology in the University of New Mexico, as well as the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in Ohio.

You can see more of Matt's photos on his photo stream.  Thanks Matt for sharing these images with us, using the Creative Commons license. 

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