Sunday, February 1, 2009


In 1995 I went the Neander Valley, just east of Düsseldorf, to visit the Neanderthal Museum, a museum devoted to a site where fossilized bones of early humans were found in the 19th century by limestone quarry workers. The museum wasn't very impressive, but the reason was that funds were being raised for a new building. In the interim, they were sort of camping out in a very small space. There were, however, well maintained trails around the museum and it seemed only natural to me that one of them must lead to the cave, the original site where the bones were found.

After viewing the very modest artifacts on display, I asked one of the people at the entrance desk where the site was where the bones were found. She looked at me, shrugged her shoulders and said, "Keine Ahnung" (= no idea.) It seemed an inadequate answer for the museum dedicated to the discovery of the first species defined as human other than our own. I assumed she had misunderstood my question. I explained further that I wanted to visit the cave where the bones were originally found. I'd like to hike there with my family. Is it in the area? "I think it must be close," she said, "but I really have no idea where it is. It's probably paved over now."

Huh? they've lost the original Neanderthal site? It seemed incredible but further exploration led me to this story. It details the facts around another set of Neanderthal artifacts that were lost in France. I don't know how the rest of you feel about this, but my faith in archeology was substantially shaken by these revelations. Losing one important Neanderthal artifact is a tragedy. Losing two begins to sound like carelessness.

This past Sunday I went again to Neanderthal, and good news! They've built the new museum building, pictured above. They've also found the original site of the cave, lost during the limestone quarrying that went on there. They also found further artifacts and bones at the site. The bones fit perfectly with the original bones found in 1856. It's a resolution I didn't dare hope for. If you're in the area, I can recommend a visit to the museum. And let's hear it for Ralf Schmitz and Jurgen Thissen, of Germany's Office for the Preservation of Archaeological Monuments who rediscovered the cave. They've really saved the archaeological bacon.

No comments: