Fossil Hominids, Human Evolution:
Thomas Huxley & Eugene Dubois (1 of 3)

When Charles Darwin wrote the Origin of Species, he had to wonder about how humans came to be. Humans had hereditary variation in every generation, and some individuals had more children than others—the key ingredients for natural selection. But he chose not to write about humans in his first book about evolution, in large part out of strategy. In 1857, two years before Darwin published the Origin of Species, Wallace asked him in a letter if he would discuss the origin of mankind in the book. Darwin replied, “I think I shall avoid the whole subject, as so surrounded with prejudices, though I fully admit that it is the highest and most interesting problem for the naturalist.”

But Darwin also knew that he had no fossil record to use to develop a hypothesis about human evolution. Over the years, naturalists had uncovered a few stone tools lying alongside the fossils of extinct mammals. But even in the 1800s, these relics were considered to be only a few thousand years old, and to have been made by lost tribes of savages.

Neandertal and modern human skulls
 

First Human Fossils Discovered
Even when the first part of a fossil human came to light in 1857, naturalists had a hard time recognizing it for what it truly was. German miners working at the Feldhofer Grotto in the Neander valley dug up a skullcap. It looked somewhat human, but it was remarkably thick and sported a massive brow ridge. Did it belong to an ancient individual from a human-like species now extinct? Or was Neanderthal man just an extreme member of Homo sapiens? One of the German naturalists who described the skull for the first time, Herman Schaaffhausen, was convinced of the latter. He ignored evidence that the skull had been found alongside extinct cave bears and mammoths, and claimed that it was some recent barbarian, perhaps a member of one of the wild tribes mentioned by Roman historians.

Thomas Huxley

Shortly after Darwin published the Origin of Species, his great champion Thomas Huxley (right) considered the skull from the Neander valley. Huxley shared some of the Euro-centric notions of his time. Based on their skulls, it was thought that Europeans had the best-developed brains, compared to the Australian aborigines with skulls having relatively low profiles and thicker brows. This view led Huxley to consider Neanderthals as occupying a slightly lower position within Homo sapiens.


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