How to make sense of a skull
Imagine this scenario: you are handed a skull. That’s all you’ve got, no other information. The skull is only partial, but it’s relatively large, approximately the size of a human skull. But it’s strange, it doesn’t look like any human skull you’ve ever seen. You examine its shape and notice it looks like it has been flattened–almost like a pancake. It also has this weird, scary ridge above its eyebrows. You want to know who the owner of this skull was.
So how would you go about making sense of this strange, partial skull, what would you do? If you’re lucky, you might have some other human skulls to compare it to–that’s a start. If you’re extra lucky. you might have a chimpanzee skull for comparison as well. But then what? Do you place the skulls next to each other and simply look at the differences? How would you make sense of those comparisons, and draw conclusions from them? Should you measure particular aspects of the skulls, quantifying the differences? And if so, how would you make those measurements?
These are precisely the questions that scientists faced in the mid-nineteenth century when a strange fossil skull was found in Germany. As the fossil–now known as Neanderthal 1–began to circulate within scientific societies in Europe, scientists wondered how they should go about studying it. They had no way of determining its age, no criteria to determine its human status, and certainly no tools to help explain why it looked so strange.
The methodological problems with the first Neanderthal
Because this was the first skull of its kind (a human looking fossil–but not quite), the study of this first Neanderthal represents an interesting moment in the history of science. This was a moment in time before “paleoanthropology” as a discipline was established. And it is this moment that I explore in my recently published paper in the British Journal for the History of Science. I examine the study of the first Neanderthal in the period before anyone knew what to make of it.
In particular, I examine the methods scientists used to study the fossil–asking how those methods led to disagreement. For example, some scientists filled the skull with millet seed to try to determine the size of the creature’s brain, later pouring the seeds out and filling the skull with water to double check. Others invented measurement tools that mimicked a shoemaker’s gauge, trying to get more precise numbers on how the skull varied from the average human.
I argue that these methods played into the debates of what the Neanderthal was. Some scientists argued that the skull represented a separate species of hominin, while others thought it was simply a diseased human. It is often thought that these debates were the result of belief in evolution–or other philosophical problems–but I argue that practice was just as (if not more!) important in the debates.
So what, why does it matter if the disagreements about Neanderthals was based on practice or belief? Why talk about millet seed and shoemaker’s gauges? I think that this actually does matter for our understandings of the history of science, for a couple of reasons. One simplified reason is this: assuming that nineteenth-century scientists dismissed the Neanderthal because their beliefs regarding religion or evolution has implications. It allows us to dismiss those scientists as “backwards” or “biased”, men who allowed their philosophical beliefs to “get in the way” of good science.
And that’s just not true. If we change the narrative, showing that they were concerned with scientific details like millet seed, just like anthropologists are today, then the picture looks quite different. If we really put ourselves in their shoes, and look at the fossils they were looking at, asking the kinds of questions they were asking, we realize that it boils down to the question of how do we know what this fossil is? How do we measure it? And what should we compare it to?
If we recognized that debates centered more on these questions, that they raged louder over the issue of determining the fossil’s age than any belief or disbelief in evolutionary, then suddenly, it’s harder to dismiss these scientists as backwards and biased. In this new picture, they look more like the scientists we see studying fossils today: people doing the best they can, to draw the most objective conclusions possible from the bones, with the toolkit they currently have.
What do you all think, do you think it would have been a tricky task to study the first Neanderthal? And if you’d like a copy of my paper and don’t have access, let me know and I’ll send one along.