The 1856 discovery of Homo neanderthalensis by limestone quarry workers in the German Rhineland is an intriguing one and Auckland Museum has a piece of the story. 

Once the source of inspiration for 17-19th century artists and composers, the Neanderthal  (Neander Valley) east of Dusseldorf became famous when quarry workers stumbled upon a set of weird bones that they thought were that of a bear in 1856.

The fossils passed to school teacher Johann Fulhrott who recognised their significance as a new type of human, and in collaboration with Anatomy Professor Hermann Schaaffhausen, announced the discovery publicly in 1857. Thus the bones found ultimately became the primary material, called a holotype (pictured above), of the new species Homo neanderthalensis King 1864.

Present in Europe and Asia between 400,000 to 28,00 years ago, it is presumed to have interbred with early modern day humans. The discovery at Neanderthal is now considered the beginning of palaeoanthropology. This and other discoveries (e.g. the Engis 2) led to the theory that these remains were of ancient Europeans who had played an important role in modern human origins.

Indeed, if you’re of European or Asian descent, chances are that you have a bit of Neanderthal in you as they contributed 1-4% to the Eurasian gene-pool. 

Image (above): Prior to becoming a site of international significance, the Neanderthal provided artistic inspiration for artists. Indeed it was named in honour of the 17th century composer Joachim Neander and over 150 art works can be attributed to the Neander Valley today, including works by Schirmer, Koekkoek, Achenbach and de Leeuw. The Neander Cave (Kleine Feldhofer Grotte): Steel engraving by W. Cooke published by Julius Buddeus, Duesseldorf, around 1840.

Image (banner): Bones of the H. neanderthalensis King 1864 holotype found in 1856. Now at the LVR-Landesmuseum, Bonn (Photo © Neanderthal Museum, Mettmann).

Close to home

Recently it was discovered we have a 19th century plaster copy of this fossil which is so important to the history of human evolution. This is called a plastotype. So how did the Museum come to have a copy of the holotype?

In the late 19th century Museum Curator Thomas Cheeseman was busy developing the Collections and displays of New Zealand's first purpose-built Museum building at the corner of Shortland and Princes Streets. 

Cheeseman had a lot of contact with American naturalist, geologist and entrepreneur Henry Augustus Ward (1834 – 1906) who founded Ward's Natural Science and who visited Auckland in 1881 to tout his wares – replicas of fossils and natural history items - to museums and other institutions.

Prior to his visit, Cheeseman had the chance to look over Ward’s catalogue - a tome filled with all sorts of fossil replicas from micro-fossils to mega-fossils. Extinct marine reptiles, mastodon skulls, giant sloths, replica minerals and even archaeological items fill this extensive catalogue.

The originals were mostly found in the Americas and Europe and through his contacts Ward made moulds from which multiple replicas could be made to order. For example the Museum’s Origins Gallery has several 19th century Ward plaster copies of very large European marine reptiles from the “Age of Dinosaurs” (Mesozoic age).

In total Cheeseman acquired over 100 replicas including a specimen described as a “Neanderthal skull”.  In exchange, Cheeseman's 'currency' was a number of zoological and archaeological objects such as kiwi skins and greenstone.  

Cite this article 

Grenfell, Dr Hugh. 'A relative close to home', Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Published: 31 01 2019.