Friday, 17 February 2006
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Neanderthal as Image and “Distortion”
in Early 20th-Century French Science and Press
Marianne Sommer, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich
12:00 noon, 3106 W.W. Posvar Hall
The paper discusses reconstructions of a Neanderthal skeleton
in clippings collected by Marcellin Boule of the Muséum d’Histoire
Naturelle. This allows engaging with the newspaper article as a
site of strife around a scientific object that involved fundamental
issues such as evolution and religion, at a time when dominant public
discourses were marked by a progressionism entwined with nationalism
Paleoanthropology is well known for
its strong presence in the media.
Who can remain disengaged when questions about human origins
and diversity are at stake? This paper looks at one specific instance
of the triangle between science, the media, and their publics. Marcellin Boule, director of the Muséum
d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, received a nearly complete Neanderthal
skeleton shortly after the turn to the twentieth century. It is his reconstruction of the La-Chapelle-aux-Saints
specimen that gave rise to the common notion of Neanderthals as
brutish and sub-human cavemen.
However, Boule alone could not have achieved either the popularity
or the longevity of the notion.
The newspapers of the Third
it on. From its very rebirth, the Neanderthal
specimen became an object of interest to scientists holding different
views of human evolution.
It also was of interest for a public whose Catholic and anticlerical
stances were voiced through the press, and for the modernist clerical
prehistorians who had discovered it. Nationalism, in an explosive mixture with
racist ideas, was at a peak in the wake of WWI, and French anthropologists
positioned themselves against the German community. In the process, the Neanderthal was reconstructed
by means of analogy and juxtaposition to "higher" and "lower" fossil
and living human "races".
It was aligned with the "other", with that which is not fully
human, with that which is not French.
Conceiving of reconstruction as referring to either verbal
or visual representation of the caveman from La Chapelle-aux-Saints,
this paper discusses the multiplication of Neanderthal images in
newspaper articles and illustrations that expressed particular scientific
and political interests. This
treatment of the newspaper as a site of encounters and knowledge
production among these various constituencies is afforded by a set
of articles on the specimen collected by the first person to physically
reconstruct the bones, Marcellin Boule, at the Muséum d'Histoire
Naturelle in Paris.
by the Dept. of Anthropology in sponsorship with the Program of
Cultural Studies, Center for Philosophy of Science, and the Dept.
of History and Philosophy of Science.