Today, we think that the discovery of neanderthal fossils were a revelation. At the time, they were just another thing to argue about. Here’s why one talented scientist confused a neanderthal with a Cossack.

Neanderthal remains came to light in the 1800s. One of the first sets of remains to be unearthed is what’s now known as Neanderthal 1, discovered in 1856 under meters of mud in a cave. If its discoverers expected praise, they were disappointed. Now we know it to be the remains of an early human. Back then, it was considered everything from a forgery to a failure of scientific observation.


One of the people leading the charge against it was Rudolf Virchow. Virchow was a dedicated and intelligent man, who used the wide range of his skills to examine disease from multiple angles. He’s best known for his work in cellular pathology, and he described diseases from leukemia to spina bifida. His work describing so many maladies might have helped him make the wrong call when it came to the neanderthal skeleton. Those who accepted that it was a real fossil, naturally had to answer the question of what exactly it was, if it wasn’t an early version of humanity. August Mayer, a paleontologist, had come up with an interesting alternate theory.

The fossils, Mayer claimed, were the remains of a Cossack, one of the many who had come into Germany in the very early 1800s. This one was old, and had spent most of his life on horseback. This, along with rickets due to poor nutrition and a touch of arthritis, accounted for the strange shape of the bones. As for the skull, the cossack had probably died of a cranial injury. In his confusion he had crawled into a cave. And if he subsequently got covered with a great deal of dirt, well, caves are muddy.


Virchow took a look at the remains and agreed with Mayer. Virchow’s fame gave what would otherwise be an outlandish theory legs. Virchow was not a disinterested source. A critic of Charles Darwin, he didn’t believe in evolution and certainly didn’t believe in early humans. His disbelief was ideologically driven, but not by the ideology we tend to see today. Virchow was witnessing the beginning of what came to be known as “social darwinism,” and he didn’t care for it. He wanted to help people in bad situations, not dismiss them as the expendable losers of society. Unfortunately for him, he did allow his ethical concerns to make him pick the wrong factual side.

[Source: The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack, by Ian Tattersall]

Image: Matt Celeskey