My university has a number of interesting claims to fame. And one of the coolest, certainly, is this. Neanderthal Man, remember him? Well, he’s basically an alumnus.
Well, to be slightly more accurate, the term ‘Homo neanderthalensis‘ is the alumnus. It was coined at our university by the then Professor of Mineralogy and Geology, Sir William King, who published his findings in 1864. His contribution was more than just the name, but also the identification that the fossils found in the Neander Valley were not actually of ordinary humans:
William King was appointed to Chair of Mineralogy and Geology at the opening of Queen’s College Galway in 1849 at the age of forty. In 1856, workers at a German quarry in the Neander valley found bones in a cave. It was William King who pointed out that the cave sediments, where the fossils were found, were at least 30,000 years old and in 1864 he argued that ’Neander man’ was not a modern human but another species entirely, a primitive human whom he called Homo neanderthalensis.
With this breakthrough, King became the first scientist to name a new and extinct species of human. From his vantage point in the university in little old Galway, Ireland, King reframed our understanding of humankind, kickstarted the biological study of human evolution, and came up with a versatile kick-ass term which, according to UrbanDictionary.com, can also be used to describe “douches” and “morons“…
So today the university is hosting a celebratory public lecture by world-renowned paleogeneticist Svante Pääbo from the Max Planck Institute, the first scientist in the world to sequence Neanderthal DNA. It rounds off an extensive international symposium, which for the last three days has been the centre of the universe as far as Neanderthal research is concerned.
Ireland being Ireland and everything, the lecture will also be attended by the country’s President (who, no kidding, actually is an alumnus of the university).
(And another feature of Ireland being Ireland is that the Irish Times didn’t feature this story in their ‘Science’ section, but instead got their ‘West of Ireland’ reporter to cover it. You know, because human evolution is a regional story.)
So the next time you call somebody a Neanderthal (or you yourself are called one), take a moment to reflect on your roots.
Your Irish roots.
Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.