I find history to be fascinating. The stories of fossil discoveries, ah-ha moments, and conflict fuel me. But are these stories helpful? Does historical knowledge help move us forward? Or are the stories just that, stories? I often think about the ways history can contribute to science. Though I could come up with numerous reasons why awareness of history makes for better science, I thought I’d give a concrete example, 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 In this particular example, scientists used historical documents to uncover more fossils from the discovery site of the original Neanderthal.
Discovering the First Neanderthal
It all started with a quarry site. In 1856, 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 caves and blasting the limestone cliffs to smitherines.
Fast Forward to 1997
When scientists decided to revisit the Neander site a century and a half later, it wasn’t as simple as finding a point on a map. Researchers couldn’t simply take a field trip to an intact cave because that cave and the entire cliffside had since been blasted to nothingness. What to do, then? In 1997, a few ambitious scientists embarked on a treasure hunt to figure out where the sediments from the cave would have been dumped– and most importantly if any additional fossils had survived. This treasure hunt was undertaken by Ralf Schmitz and his colleague Jurgen Thissen in 1997. Using archived, historical documents to piece together where the workers would have dumped the cave deposits, Schmitz and Thissen zeroed in on a potential site and started digging.
The Whoa Moment
The excavations quickly began to reveal fragments of human-looking bone and various stone artifacts. But still, how did Schmitz and his team know they were definitely digging in the right place? They needed a sign. 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 Professor Schmitz talk about this discovery, and he said that little piece of bone makes him “very happy.” This is because 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 had been no way to accurately date them. As they wrote in their paper,
“Questions concerning the antiquity of the original Neandertal specimen led many to reject any role for it in 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 before the present. Thanks to this study, we now know the age of one of the first hominin fossils to ever be studied.
Also, this project showed scientists that the original Neandertal was not alone in that cave. Whoa. 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 can even play a role in facilitating new scientific discoveries, creating new knowledge.
Further Reading: Schmitz, Ralf W., et al. “The Neandertal type site revisited: interdisciplinary investigations of skeletal remains from the Neander Valley, Germany.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 99, no. 20 (2002): 13342-13347.