Oachim Neander was a 17th-century Calvinist theologian who often hiked through a valley outside Düsseldorf, Germany, writing hymns. Neander understood everything around him as a manifestation of the Lord’s will and work. There was no room in his worldview for randomness, only purpose and praise. “See how God this rolling globe/swathes with beauty as a robe,” one of his verses goes. “Forests, fields, and living things/each its Master’s glory sings.” He wrote dozens of hymns like this — awe-struck and simple-minded. Then he caught tuberculosis and died at 30.
Almost two centuries later, in the summer of 1856, workers quarrying limestone in that valley dug up an unusual skull. It was elongated and almost chinless, and the fossilized bones found alongside it were extra thick and fit together oddly. This was three years before Darwin published “The Origin of Species.” The science of human origins was not a science; the assumption was that our ancestors had always looked like us, all the way back to Adam. (Even distinguishing fossils from ordinary rock was beyond the grasp of many scientists. One popular method involved licking them; if the material had animal matter in it, it stuck to your tongue.) And so, as anomalous as these German bones seemed, most scholars had no trouble finding satisfying explanations. A leading theory held that this was the skeleton of a lost, bowlegged Cossack with rickets. The peculiar bony ridge over the man’s eyes was a result of the poor Cossack’s perpetually furrowing his brow in pain — because of the rickets.
One British geologist, William King, suspected something more radical. Instead of being the remains of an atypical human, they might have belonged to a typical member of an alternate humanity. In 1864, he published a paper introducing it as such — an extinct human species, the first ever discovered. King named this species after the valley where it was found, which itself had been named for the ecstatic poet who once wandered it. He called it Homo neanderthalensis: Neanderthal Man.