Saturday 30 October 2010

Meandering to Neandertal

One of the differences between Berlin, where I lived from 1998 to 2002, and Düsseldorf is that Berlin is a huge, sprawling city whereas here I am able to get out of the city very rapidly.  Although my office in the Alt Stadt is only 3 kms west of my apartment, if I continue a mere 1.3 kms east from my home I will already have left the city and find myself in the Grafenberger Wald.

Looking at my maps, I realized that heading in a slightly different direction I could easily get to the village of Neandertal, which is a suburb of Mettmann, which in itself looks pretty much like a suburb of Düsseldorf.  Usually, you think of scientists making great paleontological discoveries in the dessert or badlands, far from civilization, but this most famous of discoveries is only a short bike ride away, surrounded by bakeries and beer gardens.  I went to the Very Popular Search Engine and using the “Walking” function rather than the automotive one, I was easily able to map out a quiet route.

The weather was excellent one Sunday and I was joined by my colleague Henri on our expedition.  Given the short distance, we both used our city bikes for the ride.  The route was really good as some sections were entirely given over to pedestrians and cyclists.  Unfortunately, as we neared the small town of Erkrath we discovered that the nicely-paved bike path was actually very bumpy but since there was no auto traffic we switched to the main road.  Bike paths are all well and good but they really need to be maintained properly!

There was a bit of traffic in Erkrath and then we were on a better bikepath alongside a fairly busy road, the L357.  We were following a small river, which was in fact the Düssel, after which the city is named and of which there are only slight traces in the metropolitan area.  The ride was very pleasant as there was forest on both sides of the road.  Occasionally someone went by on a racing bike, not on the bike path.  In Brandenburg, my own experience was that drivers would lean on their horns if they saw this as cyclists in Germany are actually obligated to ride the bikepath if it is marked with a blue sign, but nobody seemed to care much here.

We passed a small park on the right which seemed connected to the museum and then came to a large stone, commemorating the discovery of the famous bones.  It was near a little footbridge across the stream but we continued on to the museum, which was a short distance ahead and on the left.  It was a popular place as there was quite a bit of traffic here.
The Neandertal Museum (photo by Hochtief)
As is usually the case in Germany, there were plentiful bike racks and after locking up we entered the modern building, constructed in 1996 after a design competition involving some 130 architects in 1993.  It is a concrete structure fronted with Japanese glass and the layout inside is quite simple: a spiral ramp that climbs four floors and which represents evolution.

Stepping into the main lobby, you are met with a cheerful-looking reconstruction of a Neanderthaler.  (Incidentally, the German spelling of “Thal”, or valley, was changed in the late 19th Century to the simpler “Tal.”  The old orthography is still used when referring to the cave people, but the village itself seems to use both spellings.)  After getting the admission ticket, and a genuinely useless audio guide that requires you to plug in to stations along the way, we walked through the introductory section, which was about the natural history of Neandertal.  The region was a choice spot for landscape painters of the Düsseldorf School due to the dramatic gorge through which the river flowed.  To my surprise, the name was only applied in the early 19th Century to the area.  It was named in honour of Joachim Neander, a Calvinist theologian and poet, who enjoyed going to the area in the 1670s.  His family name was actually Neumann but his grandfather had turned it into Greek, which was apparently a fashion of the time, and “Neander” means “New Man,” as “Neumann” does in German.  This was certainly a happy coincidence.

The paintings showing the gorge of the Düssel were lovely but having ridden along the river I could not imagine where it would be as the banks were quite flat on both sides.  The answer is simple: there is no gorge anymore.  It was quarried in the 19th Century to provide building materials until nothing was left.  It was during these digging operations that workmen, in 1856, discovered the 40,000 year old human remains that became famous as Homo neanderthalensis.  At first, the discoverers thought they might be bones of a bear, but a local schoolteacher, Johann Carl Fuhlrott, believed them to be bones of an ancient human species, and together with a professor of anatomy from the University of Bonn, Hermann Schaffrath, announced the discovery of another human species in 1857.  At first, this was not accepted as it ran counter to literal Biblical interpretation but the publication of Darwin’s  “On the Origin of Species” in November 1859 provided an explanation.  Although Neanderthal bones had been discovered in Belgium and Gibraltar earlier, it was only through the work of Fuhlrott and Schaffrath, today credited as the founders of paleoanthropology, that their significance was understood.

Between the original discovery and excavations in the 1990s on the same spot (then between a car repair shop and a storage shed!), a total of sixteen Neanderthal bones were found.  This would not seem to be enough to establish a museum on but in fact the museum tells the story of human development.  After providing the story of the discovery, the pathway takes you through important milestones, classified under five general themes such as “Life and Survival,” or “Myths and Religion” and so forth.  The museum was well-attended and it was heartening to see the number of enthusiastic children.  The displays were very clear and the ideas well-documented.

After our visit to the museum, we went back across the main road and walked over the footbridge to look at the area where the bones had been found.  There is really nothing much there now but a timeline is built into the path so that you can trace major developments from the arrival of Neanderthalers in the valley 200,000 years ago to the present.  The original discovery site is marked with red-and-white poles and there is an area indicating the kind of plants that would have been in the valley in prehistoric times.

An easy ride brought us back to Düsseldorf and Café Bazaar on Grafenberger Allee for a coffee.  In all we had ridden a mere 23 kms, but gone back in time to the origins of humans.  I will revisit the friend Neanderthaler in November when there will be a special display on mammoths–and everybody loves those!

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