Eras and Their Highlights

Prehistoric Era

What is Neanderthal Man?

The term refers to a hominid who walked the Earth in the Middle Paleolithic Age (during the Old Stone Age). The term hominid refers to an upright-walking primate that is an extinct ancestor to man. A hominid can be an ancestor of “true” man (modern man) or a relative, such as a modern primate. (In this context, the term man is used to refer to both males and females of the genus Homo.)

Neanderthal Man was discovered in 1856 near Düsseldorf, Germany, when workers came across the skull and skeletal remains of what appeared to be a human. The finding sparked discussion and controversy about the nature of the being. There were two arguments: the skull, markedly different from that of nineteenth-century man, was that of a pathologically deformed human being (an individual who was thought to have suffered from severe bone disease or some sort of congenital malformation); or, the skull belonged to an “early” man. This latter view was supported by the famous English naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895) in his book Man’s Place in Nature (1863).

Another advocate for the argument that the skull belonged to an early man was French surgeon and anthropologist Paul Broca (1824–1880), who accepted Charles Darwin’s (1809–1882) theory of evolution. In this light, Broca argued that the Neanderthal skull was a key to human evolution.

In 1886 two similar skeletons and some stone tools were found in Belgium. This discovery strengthened the argument of Huxley and Broca—that these remains actually belonged to man’s early ancestors. Excavations from 1890 to 1892 on the island of Java (in Southeast Asia) furthered the argument and, for the most part, settled the controversy: A number of fossil remains were found in the banks along the Solo River. Named Pithecanthropus erectus by their discoverer, Dutch paleontologist Marie Eugène F. T. Dubois (1858–1940), the findings were popularly known as Java Man.

Subsequent findings, including that of the so-called Peking Man in the summer of 1923 in China, produced evidence that approximately 70,000 to 11,000 years ago there were groups of the Neanderthal race in Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa. At some point they disappeared and were replaced by another type of man; the cause of this disappearance is unknown.


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