1856: Two miners discovered the Neanderthals: Homo neanderthalensis
Today, the Neander Valley in Germany is a beautiful place with forests, caves, and spectacular cliffs. During the mid-nineteenth century, it was a mining area exploited for all its natural resources: there were many mines from which limestone was extracted and used in construction and iron smelting.
In August 1856, two miners who were cleaning a cave called Feldhofer Kleine Grotte found some bones while they were transporting rubble on their wheelbarrows. To the delight of modern science, one of the owners, Wilhelm Beckershoff, decided it was worth preserving those bones. He even sent workers to look for more. In total, they were able to recover 16 pieces that were part of a complete skeleton.
Fortunately, the fossil bones eventually reached the hands of a professor of anatomy at the University of Bonn, Hermann Schaaffhausen, who knew they were the remains of a very ancient individual.
They named the specimen Neanderthal after the valley where it was found. Today we know that Neanderthals inhabited Europe and Asia starting 300 thousand years ago and disappeared mysteriously 28 thousand years ago. Paleontologists working in caves have unearthed hundreds of fossils of Neanderthals from many different sites.
We no longer question those characteristics that distinguished them from humans. We know that at a mature age, they were short in stature, stocky and of strange appearance. If dressed today in contemporary clothing, we might be able to hide their thick barrel-shaped torsos and short limbs. Still, their disproportionately elongated and chinless heads, and a large nose between their eyes would call attention among people.