I’m currently reading the new history of paleoanthropology book by Ian Tattersall of the American Natural History Museum. As an established paleoanthropologist and author of multiple captivating books on the history of his science, Tattersall’s name is generally enough to raise attention for a new publication. However, this book packs an extra punch with its witty title: The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack: And Other Cautionary Tales from Human Evolution.
From the moment I heard this book was coming out, I was intrigued by the title. But it wasn’t until I started reading that I realized what the title refers to, and why it’s super interesting cool. The “rickety cossack” is a reference to a quote by one of my favorite men in the history of science: George Busk! But perhaps a more important point is that the quote marks a very interesting moment in the history of paleoanthropology.
In order for the “rickety cossack” to make sense, we need to take a step back. The story starts with the Feldhofer fossil discovery in the Neander Valley, Germany, in 1856. This Feldhofer cranium looked slightly human–but also slightly different. Various scientists had very divergent opinions about what the fossil could be.
Some scientists argued that the Feldhofer cranium belonged to a new species of human, others said it was just a weird looking human, and still more argued that it was diseased or suffered from some pathological condition. One condition put forward was rickets. For some scientists, the fossil was nothing more than just some idiot with rickets that died in a cave.
But not just any idiot with rickets–one scientist believed he knew more precisely who this skull had once belonged to. It was a cossack, August Mayer said; a Russian military man who had come to Germany decades earlier for battle and ended up alone in a cave–obviously. It made perfect sense, Mayer argued, the poor man had spent much of his life on horseback, giving him the bowed legs that resembled rickets. In fact, the man was likely in so much pain from his rough life that he crawled into this cave (30 meters up a cliffside, mind you) to die–furrowing his brow in pain all the while, leaving massive brow ridges on the skull.
Not an idiot with rickets?
So how could this be settled? Would we ever know whether or not this was a diseased cossack? For the scientists who believed this fossil was not a diseased-weirdo, the most obvious way to prove it was to find fossils that looked similar. Serendipitously, one such fossil happened to show up eight years later –when the Gibraltar skull surfaced and made its way to George Busk in London. Immediately recognizing the significance, Busk announced the Gibraltar fossil in The Reader on July 23, 1864. He argued that it resembled the Feldhofer fossil, proving that these two individuals belonged to the same group. What that group was, exactly, was up for debate–a race? a new species of human? But that’s not the point. The point is that they were something significantly more interesting than a single, diseased individual.
In his article titled “Pithecoid Priscan Man From Gibraltar” (ape-like, ancient man from Gibraltar), Busk took a stab at the idea of a diseased Feldhofer fossil. Now he had two individuals, from distinct geographical locations, proving that this could not be some idiot with rickets. Busk argued that the discovery of the Gibraltar Neandertal “adds immensely to the scientific value of the Neanderthal specimen” because it shows that the first “does not represent, as many have hitherto supposed, a mere individual peculiarity, but that it may have been characteristic of a race extending from the Rhine to the Pillars of Hercules.”
Busk continues with the stinger: “for; whatever may have been the case on the banks of the Dussel, even Professor Mayer will hardly suppose that a rickety Cossack engaged in the campaign of 1814 had crept into a sealed fissure in the Rock of Gibraltar.” BOOM. With this line, Busk intended to shut down the diseased argument right then and there. Whether or not he was successful in doing so is a story for another day.
Significance: So what?
Why do I think this is super cool? It seems to me that this marks a crucial moment in the history of paleoanthropology because it is the first instance of another kind of thing, another group of human (I’ve written about this for SAPIENS a bit). Individuals that pop out of the ground can occasionally be dismissed as diseased, deformed, or what have you–but this was the first time in the history of the study of fossil human ancestors that two things looked odd in the same way. Over 150 years later, these types of discoveries continue to be crucial to the acceptance of a new hominin species.
Why the Rickety Cossack?
While I can’t put words in Tattersall’s mouth, I can only speculate that Tattersall is making an important point with this book (and this title). He showed us the ways the history of the science of paleoanthropology has taken shape. The stories we tell about human evolution sometimes take strange shapes–sometimes the stories are about diseased military soldiers, and sometimes they are about diseased miniature hobbits on an island, and other times they are more subtle. No matter what, those stories must not be forgotten, for if history happened a different way–with different stories emerging–we might have a completely different view of the human past.