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::: center home >> events >> lunchtime >> 2005-06 >> abstracts

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

Abstract:  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 and racism.  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 Republic took 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. 

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Revised 3/6/08 - Copyright 2006