In August of 1908, a fossil human relative was discovered when a pickaxe struck the side of a skull. That fossil, which became known as the Old Man of La Chappell, was sent to leading paleontologist Marcellin Boule in Paris for analysis. There, Boule described a lowly, brutish creature who was crude, unintelligent, shuffling, and hunched over. This notion of a brutish Neanderthal persisted for decades until researchers realized the Old Man was arthritic; Boule had made an error that confused pathological deformity with species wide idiocy.
Boule’s error with the Old Man condemned Neanderthals to a lifetime of being called “uncouth” and “repellent,” with scientists consistently underestimating their intelligence and ingenuity. At least, that’s what many of us have been told. In a recent article, summarised briefly in this post, I argue that this story is long in need of revision. So, what’s my issue with Boule’s error?
Problem is, if you look at the half century of research on Neanderthals before the Old Man popped his head up, it’s clear that the brutish Neanderthal caricature existed long before Boule. In the 1850s, for example, there were plenty of naturalists calling Neanderthals derogatory names and underestimating their intellectual capacity. Indeed, the uncouth image of the species be seen as far back as the first recognized specimen found in Germany’s Neander Valley in 1856—more than half a century before Boule’s analysis. So, the negative caricature of Neanderthals didn’t originate with Boule. Where, then, did it originate?
The depiction of an unintelligent Neanderthal emerged not from Boule himself, but from the mid-19th century scientific devotion to examining human variations and categorizing them into “races.” Today we know that race, in a biological context, is not real. As scientist Augustine Fuentes and many others have demonstrated, the classification system used at the time emerged from European colonialism, oppression, and discrimination, thus carrying numerous cultural stereotypes, biases, and thus inaccuracies. But back then, a set of biases and assumptions became stamped on Neanderthals in a way that branded it similar to a “savage” race of humans.
Now, just to reiterate, race is not real. Not in a biological sense. But the consequences of the concept, including the cultural inequalities it has created and reinforced, are very real—and extremely harmful. Racial categorizations have always been political; in the 19th century such racial thinking made it easier to defend the displacement, subjugation, and even extermination of human populations at the hands of European imperial expansion. Thus, the idea of the existence of different human races (which were perceived to be ranked as higher and lower), including Neanderthals, had big implications for how Europeans thought about their mission to conquer the globe.
Scientists’ worldviews have changed dramatically since the concept of a brutish Neanderthal emerged. By the end of the twentieth century, it was no longer possible to argue on scientific ground that humans could be divided into racial categories. It was also not popular to argue that imperial expansion at all costs was defensible. Importantly, as I argue in the paper, accepting that of species is a natural a consequence of evolution, as biodiversity became a thing of value. It is within these intertwined changes in worldview, that the idea of an unintelligent Neanderthal fell apart.
Dismantling the narrative of Boule’s error is not simply an exercise in correcting minor details of history. By reproducing the story of a single, “biased” scientist rather than placing his interpretation in its proper historical setting, we risk washing out the pervasive racial assumptions involved in the early studies of the deep human past—and the profound implications of those assumptions. It’s time to accept a new perspective on the construction of the Neanderthals’ image, one that allows us to see how it was steeped in racism and imperialism.
A lesson to take from this is to be careful of the stories we’ve been told over and over. They might be good stories—but this is often because they are dramatically simplified. Thanks for reading this summary. You can find the paper here, and I’m happy to send a pdf of the article to anyone interested, just drop me and email and I’ll send it along! Image of a Neanderthal is by the artist Kupka working in Boule’s time.