Charles Lyell is an iconic geologist. From popularizing the idea of uniformitarianism to influencing scientists like Charles Darwin, Lyell’s list of accomplishments is quite long. But one aspect of his career is often overlooked: his involvement with hominin fossils! For example, one little known fact about Lyell is that he was responsible for bringing knowledge of the original Neanderthal fossil to London.
The Neanderthal in Germany: 1856
Lyell entered the Neanderthal story four years after its discovery, in 1860. The fossil was named after the location it was found, a cave in the Neander valley, Germany. The discovery, which consisted of a partial cranium and some ribs and limb bones, was first recognized by local schoolteacher Johann Karl Fuhlrott and examined by Hermann Schaaffhausen at the University of Bonn. The pair presented the fossils at German scientific society meetings in 1857 and 1858, but German naturalists were not convinced that the fossils were significant. More importantly, naturalists were not convinced that the fossils were even old. Cue the geologist.
Lyell Visits the Neander Valley: 1860
Lyell responded to an invitation by Fuhlrott and traveled to Germany in 1860. His goal was to examine the cave and determine the sediments in which the fossils were found (and therefore the age of the fossils). The fossils’ antiquity was important to nineteenth-century naturalists because it could help determine whether the bones were indeed old and fossilized, rather than some recent human who died in a cave. Because they had no way to directly date the fossils, an examination of the cave sediments could help resolve the issue.
Fuhlrott gave Lyell a tour of the cave, showed him the fossils, and even gave him a cast of the skull. Lyell ultimately determined that the Neander fossils were likely very old. He made this claim based on the cave sediments as well as my personal favorite nineteenth-century geologist trick: the tongue test. Lyell stuck the fossils to his tongue, concluding that they had indeed gone through the fossilization process. At the time, bones were considered fossilized if they had lost enough of their “animal matter” that they “adhere[d] strongly to the tongue.” (I’ve discussed this geologist trick of hanging bones from tongues to test fossilness in another post).
Lyell Returns to London
Lyell returned to London and gave the cast of the skull to anatomist Thomas H. Huxley. Huxley, along with his good friend George Busk, proceeded to study the skull over the next few years, creating numerous illustrations and writing multiple publications. Huxley, Lyell, and Busk worked closely on the fossils in the mid-1860s, which appeared in Huxley’s Man’s Place in Nature (1863) and Lyell’s Antiquity of Man (1863).
Their publications propelled the skull from a mere oddity in Germany, to a highly debated relic of the human past. Additionally, their publications and illustrations made knowledge of the fossil accessible to many naturalists, ultimately resulting in the bones being named Homo neanderthalensis in 1864. The cast that Lyell brought to London allowed the Neander fossil to take center stage in discussions of the human past in the mid-nineteenth century. And in fact, William King’s designation of the new species was based on a cast, not the original fossil!
Conclusion: Lyell in the History of Paleoanthropology
This story illustrates Lyell’s pivotal role in disseminating knowledge about one of the most important fossils in the history of paleoanthropology. Without Lyell’s trip, it’s hard to say when Victorian scientists would have been able to see the fossil. This story raises interesting questions in the history of science, such as: is it possible to create knowledge about a fossil through only casts and photographs? What roles did geologists play in early paleoanthropology? And so many more.