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September 22, 2009

When Darwin Met a Neandertal

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by Michael Balter

GIBRALTAR—The first known Neandertal skull, left, was discovered here in 1848, and some of the last Neandertals may also have taken refuge in Gibraltar’s caves before they finally went extinct about 30,000 years ago. So Clive Finlayson of the Gibraltar Museum organizes a meeting here every few years on the evolution of Neandertals and other ancient humans.

This year, one presentation detailed the links between Charles Darwin himself and that first skull, which was found by workmen at Forbes’ Quarry on the north face of the Rock of Gibraltar. But its significance was not understood until sometime after 1856, when miners working in Germany’s Neander Valley discovered a partial skull and other bones.

Darwin was long interested in the Gibraltar skull, which he recognized as an ancient human, although many years passed before he got to see it. The circumstances of this historic encounter between Darwin and a Neandertal were described at the meeting by Alex Menez, a biologist and science historian at the Gibraltar Museum. Menez mined the 14,500 letters written by and to Darwin available online as part of the Darwin Correspondence Project maintained by Cambridge University and the American Council of Learned Societies. He found that although Darwin never visited Gibraltar, he had a keen interest in discoveries there on Mediterranean plant life and geology, as well as a fascination with the skull.

The Gibraltar skull was first presented in Great Britain in September 1864, to a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Darwin had hoped to go, but illness kept him away. So shortly before the meeting his friends Charles Lyell, the famous geologist, and Hugh Falconer, a famed anthropologist, brought the skull to the home of his sister-in-law in London, where Darwin was staying at the time. Darwin’s reaction is recorded simply in a 1 September 1864 letter to his close friend, botanist Joseph Hooker: “F[alconer] brought me the wonderful Gibraltar skull.” As Menez put it: “We can imagine Darwin holding the skull, peering enthusiastically at its well-marked brow ridges, his own eyes beneath brow ridges that were themselves significantly larger than those of most people!”

Exactly what Darwin made of the skull is not known, however. He didn’t mention the Gibraltar or Neander skulls at all in On the Origin of Species and refers to them only fleetingly in the 1871 Descent of Man. Perhaps, as some speakers at the meeting suggested, he deliberately avoided speculating about them out of reluctance to stir up controversy about human evolution.

PHOTO CREDIT: Clive Finlayson, The Gibraltar Museum

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