Neanderthals and Giant’s Bones


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The bones of Schaaffhausen’s Neanderthal

A Strange Skeleton

The bones revealed a human of “extraordinary form,” he concluded. It was January 1857, and Hermann Schaaffhausen had just viewed a fossilized skeleton that was unlike anything he had ever seen. The surviving bits of the skeleton–made up of a partial skull, along with some leg bones, ribs, and other bits of postcrania– hinted at a creature that looked human, but this was certainly an odd type of human. How to make sense of the fossils, Schaaffhausen wondered? He set out to compare them with any bones he could find, hoping to get a clearer picture of the ways they were similar and different from the average human.

This fossilized skeleton would later turn out to be the first scientifically recognized Neanderthal. At the time, however, Schaaffhausen did not visualize it as a separate species but instead thought it was just an ancient human. This human was definitely odd, with its flattened skull cap, giant brow ridges, and the weirdly shaped limb bones. Even at first glance, it was clear the bones of the arms and legs were unusually thick for a human, and some bones were even shaped differently. The ribs, for example, were curved in such a way as to “resemble more of a carnivorous  animal” than a human, Schaaffhausen thought. He wasn’t sure what to make of it. Additionally, the attachment sites of muscles  were unusually developed, suggesting that this creature was strong. This was one bulky, tough human.

A Collection of Giant’s Bones

I was recently rereading Schaaffhausen’s work on the fossils and one aspect of his analysis caught my eye. While studying the fossils, Schaaffhausen compared them to the bones of humans from all over the world. He looked at “Danish skulls,” “Peruvian skulls,” and more, to see if they approached this extraordinary form in any way. There was one particularly odd group of bones Schaaffhausen chose to compare the fossils with, however: the bones of “giants.”

In his paper on the fossils, Schaaffhausen wrote that within the collection of bones at his local Anatomical Museum, there was a pair of thigh bones (femurs) from recent humans labeled “giant’s bones.” This was convenient because the odd skeleton from the Neander valley included two nicely preserved femurs, so he could compare the specimens directly. Though Schaaffhausen didn’t know where these giants bones came from, he knew they were large, much like his odd skeleton. He found that their measurements “pretty nearly correspond” with the skeleton from the Neander valley, although fossil bones were somewhat shorter. Here are his measurements, printed in his 1858 paper:

giants bones

Why Giants Bones?

My best answer to this question is, why not? Schaaffhausen was desperate to make sense of the odd characteristics of the Neander fossils, and he was willing to compare them to any bones he could find. He wasn’t going to learn too terribly much from simply comparing the bones to his local neighbor, a German professor. He wanted to compare this creature to as many different variations as he could: strong humans, short humans, far away humans, you name it. By comparing the bones to a wider variety of shapes and sizes, Schaaffhausen had a better chance of zeroing in one precisely the features of the bones that made this creature so odd.

And Schaaffhausen certainly  wasn’t totally off base. Scientists today agree that Neanderthals were built differently than modern humans. Many of their limb bones, for example, were extremely thick and heavily built. Numerous hypotheses have been put forward over the years to explain these features.

So what?

So, did  Schaaffhausen run away with some crazy hypothesis about Neanderthals as extinct giants? Unfortunately no, though that would make a great story. This single mention is the only one I can find of these “giant’s bones,” so he must have found the comparison unhelpful. Schaaffhausen did, however, go to great lengths to explain the robust, strong nature of the Neanderthal (something I hope to discuss in another post). But I just love seeing something as vague in a scientific paper as “giants bones.” To me, it shows the tremendous difficulty scientific men faced when confronted with their first Neanderthal. Imagine, you’ve never seen anything like this creature and you have to try to understand it.

Also, this story can be somewhat useful and illuminating. By seeing how scientists like Schaaffhausen first attempted to make sense of these creatures, we can learn a little bit about what it takes to understand Neanderthals. What should we compare them to? How should we go about making sense of their similarities with us–and their differences? What do those differences mean?

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