01 SEP 2002

Reconstructions of Neanderthal man -- fabrications of human self-assertion

Dieter Meischner  
Universitaet Goettingen, Zentrum Geowissenschaften,
Goldschmidt-Strasse 3, D 37077 Goettingen, Germany




The recent controversy about the true relations of modern man to the Neanderthal race reveals a long-overlooked fact: reconstructions of fossil man are documents of the art of dermoplastic restoration as much as of human self-appreciation. This is demonstrated by the example of a hitherto unknown restoration of Neanderthal man by one of the most competent scientists of his time, Othenio Abel in 1936.

The Geoscience Museum at Göttingen University, Germany, houses a remarkable portrait of a naked young man, painted life size in oil on canvas (Fig. 1). The man is pictured in profile; his eyes fixed upon the horizon, mouth firmly closed though not tight-lipped. His chin is clean-shaven, the dark hair cut short. The energetic appearance is strengthened by the man's extremely muscular neck. Actually, everything on this man looks extreme: the prominent eyebrows, the strong nose, the massive lower jaw. In fact, this is a portrait of a Neanderthal man.

From a scientific point of view the portrait is a faithful reconstruction. Muscles, face and ears are correctly modelled on a typical Neanderthal skull. The reconstruction was carried out by Othenio Abel during his appointment to the University of Göttingen as Professor of Palaeontology. Abel was a master of the art of reconstruction of fossil vertebrates, which he modelled on their skeletons following strict anatomical principles1 (Abel, 1925). In this way, his Neanderthal man is also a masterpiece of dermoplastic reconstruction. The congenial academic drawing-master of the university, Franz Roubal, painted the portrait following instructions from Abel, signing it in 1936.

Up to that time, no one had ever thought of reconstructing a Neanderthaler as smoothly shaven, with hair neatly cut and even with a hairless chest. Anthropologists Straus and Cave, as quoted in Tattersall (1999), went on to claim that a Neanderthaler, conventionally washed, trimmed and clothed, would cause no sensation travelling on the New York Metro. However, this is by way of an aperçu, a playfully pointed argument, and in any case was formulated twenty years after Abel's reconstruction.

The Göttingen portrait, on the other hand, has a serious scientific background. In the 1930s the idea originated that Neanderthal man might be the direct ancestor of modern man. A straight line of ancestry was often drawn from Heidelberger man via the Steinheimer and Neanderthaler to the present-day Westphalian, and a joke became popular that claimed all prehistoric men had been Germans, or at least had German names. If this was so, the Neanderthaler had to be considered as a good, neat and clean early German; in short, an Aryan.

It is fascinating to see how Homo neanderthalensis has been perceived from the time of the first discovery of bones in the valley of River Düssel near Düsseldorf in Germany in 1856 to the present day. Before Darwin 's theory of evolution the bones could be interpreted only as belonging to an abnormality, a flat-headed, knock-kneed, cretinous individual that required no reconstruction. Once the existence of fossil man was accepted, the Neanderthaler was seen as a wild, shaggy, gloomy fellow of a primitive species or race. Interestingly, in the same year as the Abel reconstruction was painted, Schuchhardt2 (1936, Pl. 1,6) published a drawing "after F. Kupka" as an illustration of the "Neanderthal race" (Fig. 2). Some years earlier, Abel3 (1931: 68) himself had drawn the Neanderthaler as a hairy deer-hunter, though with a topknotted hair-do and necklace of bear-claws for human appeal (Fig. 3). Then there came his Goettingen portrait.

And how do we see our distant relative today? The hypothesis that the Neanderthaler might be a direct ancestor of the modern European, his genes still present in recent populations, has vanished with progress in the sciences of archeology and molecular anthropology. Homo neanderthalensis seems to have died out after a long time of coexistence with the Homo sapiens, for reasons still unknown. No evidence exists for a violent replacement of Neanderthal populations by modern man. The display at the Neanderthal Museum4 located at the type habitat shows the Neanderthaler with a trimmed beard and long, well combed hair, mild looking, neatly clothed -- like a flower child of the 1960s now grown up. The Göttingen Neanderthaler surely is a document to Abel's dermoplastic art, but also an involuntary or unconscious self-portrait of its time when our forebears' generation were swayed by the Aryan cult. When reconstructed, he would most likely have been made welcome in Germany as a member of the ruling party, in the army or as a participant that year in the Olympic Games at Berlin.

Othenio Abel is prized as the founder of palaeobiology, skilled in fossil vertebrate restoration and reconstruction and a renowned anthropologist. He wrote much-acclaimed books in these disciplines. He not only acquired his experience in Europe, but also travelled the American continents and was a well-accepted companion to prominent American colleagues. Despite this, the author of the latest popular scientific book on the Neanderthal man, the American anthropologist Ian Tattersall5,6 does not even mention Abel's chapter on the evolutionary significance of the Neanderthal man. Abel's book of 19313 and his reconstruction are milestones in the history of our understanding of fossil man because "... the reconstruction of a fossil animal is an essential part of the scientific research on the same..."1 (Abel, 1925: p. V). This is especially true in the case of fossil man. However, in addition to their intrinsic scientific importance, reconstructions of fossil man also remain documents of social self-comprehension, either sympathetic or antipathetic, but never uncommitted or neutral.


1. Abel, O.: Geschichte und Methode der Rekonstruktion vorzeitlicher Wirbeltiere.-- V + 324 pp., 255 Figs., Verlag G. Fischer, Jena, 1925.

2. Schuchhardt, C.: Deutsche Ur- und Frühgeschichte in Bildern.-- 11 pp., 80 pl., R. Oldenbourg, München, 1936.

3. Abel, O.: Die Stellung des Menschen im Rahmen der Wirbeltiere.-- 298 pp., 276 Figs., Verlag G. Fischer, Jena, 1931.

4. Neanderthal-Museum, Mettmann: http://www.neanderthal.de (for Fig. 4)

5. Tattersall, I.: The Last Neanderthal. The Rise, Success, and Mysterious Extinction of our Closest Human Relatives.-- 208 pp., Nevraumont Publishing Co., Macmillan, New York, 1995.

6. Tattersall, I.: Neandertaler. Der Streit um unsere Ahnen.-- Aus dem Amerikanischen von Hans-Peter Krull, 216 S., 143 + 3 Abb., Birkhäuser Verlag, Basel 1999. German Edition: Hans-Peter Krull in collaboration with Neanderthal-Museum, Mettmann.


The author appreciates, with thanks, the permission to reproduce the dermoplastic reconstruction by Mme. Elisabeth Daynes (Fig. 4) and useful comments on an earlier draft of the manuscript by Professor Dr. Gerd-C. Weniger, Director, Neanderthal Museum, Mettmann. Professor George Sevastopulo, Trinity College of Dublin, kindly revised an earlier draft of the manuscript linguistically.


(Captions to Figures)

  Fig. 1  Portrait of a young Neanderthal man, reconstruction by Othenio Abel, oil on canvas by Franz Roubal, 1936. Original in the Museum of Zentrum Geowissenschaften, University of Goettingen, Germany. Digital photograph and retouch: Ulrich Bielert and Dieter Meischner.
  Fig. 2  Reconstruction of Neanderthal man by Othenio Abel, drawing by Franz Roubal, 1926. From Abel (1931: 68, fig. 45).
  Fig. 3  Reconstruction of the Neanderthal man by F. Kupka. From Schuchhardt (1936, pl. 1,6).
  Fig. 4  Reconstruction of Neanderthal man by Elisabeth Daynes, Paris, from an exhibit in the Neanderthal Museum, Mettmann, Germany (courtesy of Professor Gerd-C. Weniger, Director).
  © Copyright: Dr. Dieter Meischner, Goettingen