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 it’s 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 dug the title. But it wasn’t until I started reading that I realized what the title refers to, and why it’s SO 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 history.
In order for the “rickety cossack” quote 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, so various scientists had very different opinions on 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 other condition. One condition that was proposed in particular was rickets. For some scientists, the fossil was nothing more than just some idiot with rickets that died in a cave.
Not an idiot with rickets?
For the scientists who believed this fossil was NOT just a diseased weirdo, the most obvious way to prove they were correct was to find more fossils that looked similar to Feldhofer. This happened eight years later when the Gibraltar skull surfaced and made it’s way to George Busk in London (which is an interesting story for another post). Busk announced the Gibraltar fossil in The Reader on July 23 864, stating that it definitely looked like the Feldhofer fossil, proving that these guys blonged to the same group. Now, what that group was was up for debate–a race, a new species of human, etc. But that’s not the point– the point is
In his short article, titled Pithecoid Priscan Man From Gibraltar (essentially translating to ape-like, ancient man), 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. So, in this instance, Busk was describing a “cossack” as a person from Russia who was military (which had been proposed), and “rickety” has having suffered from the disease rickets.
In his article, Busk argued that the discovery of the Gibraltar Neandertal “adds immensely to the scientific value of the Neanderthal specimen, if only as showing that the latter 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; 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. He meant to shut down the diseased argument right then and there. Whether or not Busk’s argument was accepted is another story, but that’s a story for another day.
Significance: So what?
Why do I think this is SO 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 kind of human. Individuals that pop out of the ground here and there can be dismissed as diseased, deformed, or what have you–but this is the first time in the history of the study of fossil human ancestors that two things looked odd in the same way, and indicated that this was a type of human relative that cannot be ignored. Over 150 years later, these types of discoveries continue to be crucial to the acceptance of a new hominin species. For instance, the hobbit, Homo floresiensis, which I covered a bit in this post. If we were to find another skull that looked like the LB1 hobbit, especially in another area, arguments of down syndrome and microcephaly would be immediately silenced.
Why did Tattersall Quote the Rickety Cossack?
Well, I haven’t finished the book yet, and I can’t put words in Tattersall’s mouth, so I can only speculate, but it seems to me that Tattersall is making a very important point with this book (and this title). Tattersall is trying to show us that our history matters. The history of the science of paleoanthropology shapes the ways we think about fossils. The stories we tell about human evolution sometimes take strange shapes. Sometimes the stories are about diseased military Russian soldiers, and sometimes they are about diseased miniature hobbits on an island, but other times they are more subtle. No matter what, though, those stories must be recognized, for if history happened a different way, and different stories emerged with each fossil then we would have a completely different view of the human past.
So that’s my long winded explanation for why I think Tattersall’s title is super cool. I find Tattersall’s book just as stimulating and thought provoking as his others, and I look forward to finishing it. Also, more to come on George Busk from my end, so as always, stay tuned!