Boule and the Old Man
One day in early August, 1908, a pickaxe struck the side of a remarkable skull. Further digging revealed a relatively completely skeleton of Neanderthal, curled up in a fossilized fetal position. The find occurred near the town to La Chapelle-aux-Saints in France, and was soon sent to the French paleontologist Marcellin Boule. This skeleton had clearly been elderly when it died, so it became known as the Old Man from La Chapelle.
Though the Old Man was not the first Neanderthal ever discovered, it was the first relatively complete Neanderthal skeleton ever found! The good preservation of the fossils of the ribs, arms, and legs, and more allowed Boule to create the first major reconstruction of the posture and gait of Neanderthals. Boule published a reconstruction of the Old Man in 1911. The publication on the remains, which consisted of much of the skull and jaw, many vertebrae, ribs, and limbs bones, was titled L’homme fossile de La Chapelle-aux-Saints.
The Brutish Neanderthal
Boule’s reconstruction of the Neanderthal, however, does not at all match our reconstructions of them today. He depicted the creatures as ape-like, brutish, and less advanced than Homo sapiens.
According to Boule, the Neanderthals couldn’t even stand up straight. His study of the Old Man catapulted the image of the Neanderthals as unintelligent brutes, a conception that persisted until recently in science, and continues to persist in popular culture. An example of this image can be seen in the picture of the hairy creature (below) published in the Illustrated London Times and based on Boule’s description.
The Old Man Revisited
In 1957, decades after Boule’s publication, scientists reexamined La Chapelle fossils. They argued that Boule had misinterpreted the fossils and the Neanderthal was not at all bent over, but instead this individual suffered from arthritis. How could Boule have made such a glaring error in not noticing the signs of arthritis on the skeleton?
Historians of science have argued that Boule’s story is a case of bias and preconceived ideas influencing scientific study of fossils. Recently, some paleoanthropologists have argued that Boule’s mistake could have been due to incomplete nature of the fossilized skeleton. Regardless of the exact cause of Boule’s error, paleoanthropologists agree today that his conclusions were incorrect, and that Neanderthals had fully erect posture.
Boule’s story is fascinating for a number of reasons, the first being that his work has influenced the conception of Neanderthals for over a century. Thanks in part to Boule, to this day calling someone a Neanderthal is a common insult that implies stupidity and incompetence. This raises interesting questions about how scientific ideas become embedded in both science and popular culture. Additionally, this moment in the history of science reveals the ways prior conceptions or biases can mislead scientists and influence their conclusions. Of course, issues of bias are more easily identified historically when the conclusions are later judged to be “wrong,” and we should be careful to interpret all discoveries in the history of paleoanthropology with the same scrutinizing eye that we apply to Boule’s story.
Thanks for reading! Check out some great posts that delve more into the image of Neanderthals by Lydia Pyne and Roberto Saez: