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).