I used to study anthropology, I spent time memorizing details of human bones, pouring over primate anatomy, and trying to understand the fragmentary hominin fossil record, Now, I study history, I focus more on the stories of those fragmentary fossil discoveries, and the ways scientists studied those fossils that led to the knowledge of human evolution today.
As a historian, I often think about how history can contribute to science (as most historians of science do). Though I could come up with numerous reasons why awareness of history makes for better science, I thought I’d give a concrete example. Today, I’m going to talk about a moment in which history directly contributed to scientific discovery. In this particular example, scientists used historical documents to uncover more fossils from the discovery site of the original Neandertal.
The Case: More Neandertal Bones
I should clarify that this story isn’t terribly new–it didn’t come out last week or last month. But it’s an important story, and one I feel hasn’t really been told. So let’s get into it. This study was published in 2003 by an international team led by Ralf Schmitz in Germany. For this research, published under the titled “The Neandertal type site revisited: Interdisciplinary investigations of skeletal remains from the Neander Valley, Germany,” the scientists did exactly what the title suggests, they revisited the site where the original Neandertal was found (the Feldhofer individual from in the Neander valley).
Why is it so cool that they revisited an old site? Well, it turns out revisiting the Neander site wasn’t as simple as finding a point on a map. The background of the Feldhofer discovery helps shed light on why this revisit was such a feat:
Quarry workers discovered the Feldhofer fossils (a cranium, along with various bits of legs, arms, and ribs) in 1856. These workers were blasting the cliffs lining the Neander valley to obtain limestone. But before they blasted, they had to clear out any excess that would mess with their precious limestone. That “excess” was any sediments or other debris that had accumulated in caves. So workers went cave to cave emptying out sediment and tossing it from the cliff-side-caves onto the valley floor.
Everything progressed as planned for the quarry workers until they got to a cave called the Kleine Feldhofer Grotte, where–while clearing out the sediment–they came across some bones that came to be known as Neandertal 1. The workers followed the quarry owner’s directions to turn over any bones. However, by the time they realized what they had found, many of the bones had been tossed (along with the sediment) out of the cave and down to the valley floor, approximately twenty meters below.
The naturalist who first got ahold of the bones, Johann Carl Fuhlrott, lamented that the skeleton of Feldhofer would have been much more complete if not for the workers’ carelessness, however he and many others proceeded to study these bones from the Neander valley for the next century and a half. These fossils ultimately became a new hominin species, named after the valley in which they were found, Homo neanderthalensis. The quarry workers, however, continued on their mission, emptying the remainder of the cave and blasting the limestone cliffs.
Fast Forward to 1997
This background shows that “revisiting” the Feldhofer site would not be an easy feat. Researchers couldn’t simply take a field trip to an intact cave, but instead had to embark on a treasure hunt to figure out where the sediments from the cave would have been dumped and if any additional fossils or other valuable information had survived. This was the treasure hunt Schmitz and his colleague Jurgen Thissen embarked on in 1997. They used archived, historical documents to try to piece together where the workers would have dumped the deposits removed form the Feldhofer cave. Then, they started digging.
The Whoa Moment
Though excavations began to reveal fragments of human looking bone and various stone artifacts relatively quickly, Schmitz and his team needed a sign that they were definitely digging in the right place. That sign came with a tiny piece of leg bone. The team found a small piece of bone that fit exactly onto the left femur of the original Neandertal. I once had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Schmitz talk about this discovery, and he said that little piece of bone makes him very happy. I completely understand why, it confirmed that they were indeed looking at remains from the Kleine Feldhofer Grotte.
And part of a femur wasn’t all they found! The team found other pieces that fit onto the original Neandertal skull, and much more. In total, Schmitz’s group recovered 62 new pieces of human skeletal bones, as well as thousands of pieces of stone tools, and numerous fanual remains.
So What Did They Learn?
This is more than just a story about history being cool (though it’s that, too). This about gaining new scientific knowledge with the help of history, so the question is, what did the researchers learn? From the fossils, artifacts, and other goodies at the site, Schmitz team learned numerous things about Neandertals. First, they were able to provide a date for the fossils for the first time. Because the quarry workers had removed the original Neandertal bones from their context, there was no way to accurately date them. This became a huge problem for anthropologists, as it was hard to argue where these creatures fit in the human family tree without knowledge of how recent or ancient they might be. As Schmitz team wrote in their paper:
“Questions concerning the antiquity of the original Neandertal specimen led many to reject any role for it in human evolution and generally impeded late 19th century progress in the study of human evolution. Had the fauna and artifacts been recovered in 1856, the early history of human paleontology certainly would have been altered.”
The date Schmitz’s team landed on was 40,000 years ago. Thanks to this study, we finally know the age of the first hominin fossils to ever be studied by scientists. Also, this project showed scientists that the original Neandertal was not alone in that cave.Schmitz and his team argue that some of the 62 bone fragments they found are duplicates, suggesting there were at least two other individuals in the Feldhofer cave. Lastly, these new fossils allowed the researchers to sequence DNA from the bones, learning more about genetic variation in Neandertals.
So…Does History Matter?
First of all, my answer to this question has to be yes, otherwise finishing a dissertation on the history of science would be impossible! BUT besides that, I think this is one example of the various and surprising ways that history can matter for science. For me, this story makes two particular points: history is awesome and history can be insanely helpful in furthering scientific knowledge.
Schmitz and his team may never have been able to find the original Feldhofer sediments if it wasn’t for the crucial historical documents that provided clues on where things were dumped. These seemingly insignificant documents played a huge role in furthering scientists’ knowledge of the original Neandertal! I think this example shows that history matters. History matters in ways that go beyond understanding how scientists reached modern scientific knowledge, or understanding what it took to make certain discoveries, but history can play a role in ways that ADD to scientific knowledge.
- Schmitz, Ralf W., David Serre, Georges Bonani, Susanne Feine, Felix Hillgruber, Heike Krainitzki, Svante Pääbo, and Fred H. Smith. “The Neandertal type site revisited: interdisciplinary investigations of skeletal remains from the Neander Valley, Germany.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences99, no. 20 (2002): 13342-13347.