Why Homo neanderthalensis is the Coolest Species Name, Ever!


Neanderthal cranium

Many hominin species have been named throughout history. Whether it’s a name that sticks–like Australopithecus africanus, or one that fades–like Homo gardarensis, new names carry interesting meanings and stories. Out of all the hominin species names throughout history, I find one especially interesting. In my opinion, the first new hominin species that was named, Homo neanderthalensis, is also the coolest. To understand why the name Neanderthal, (or Homo neanderthalensis), is super cool, let’s take a look at the story. How did the Neanderthals get their name?

Discovery in the Neander Valley

Quarry Workers in Germany

Quarry Workers in Germany

The fossils that would become Homo neanderthalensis–a skeleton that included part of a skull and some post-cranial bones–were discovered accidentally, in a cave by two quarry workers named Alessandro and Luigi. This discovery, which occurred in 1856, was the result of a quarrying mission for the valley’s limestone. The discovery, in and of itself, is somewhat interesting. As Dimitra Papagianni and Michael Morse pointed out in Neanderthals Rediscovered: “It is no exaggeration to say that our knowledge of the Neanderthals was an unexpected by-product of industrial mining in the 19th century. As engineers were digging ever deeper for minerals, evidence was fast accumulating about the Earth’s past.”

A Distinct Type of Human

Many scientists studied the fossils from the Neander Valley in the years following its discovery. Naturalists suggested a range of explanations for the weird skull–maybe it was an extinct European race, or maybe it was just a deformed idiot who died in a cave. A geologist working in Ireland disagreed, however. William King was the first to suggest that the fossils looked different enough from humans to warrant a new species. He named the species Homo neanderthalensis (though he later wondered if the fossils were so apelike that he should put them in a different genus entirely).

William King, photo from Murray, J. et al. "The Contribution of William King to the Early Development of Palaeoanthropology" (2015)

William King, photo from John Murray, et al. “The Contribution of William King to the Early Development of Palaeoanthropology” (2015)

So…Why is This Cool?

To understand why this is really interesting, we need to take a closer look at how the Neander Valley got its name–the name that was stamped on the fossils and has since become the most well known, extinct species of hominins. The Neander Valley was named after a poet and classical scholar who often visited the valley in the 17th century. This scholar found inspiration in the valley. Like many writers during his time, the scholar wrote under the greek translation of his name: Neander. His real name, however, was Joachim Neumann, which means his last name literally translates into “new man.” In a twisted, sort of backwards way, this could be thought of as the new man valley.

Fossils from the Valley of the New Man

So, unknowingly, when King suggested that this creature, whose thoughts and desires “never soared beyond those of a brute,” should be named Homo neanderthalensis, he was immortalizing a poet by the name of Neumann. King indirectly named the first ever hominin species other than Homo sapiens, the new man. I realize this is a bit of stretch, because of course King didn’t know or care why a valley in Germany carried a particular name, but it’s pretty cool, don’t you think?


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