Following in the footsteps of our distant ancestor – and meeting some of his four-legged friends
Why Neanderthal Man? Why is he the star in that collection of human ancestors, more famous than Peking man* and Heidelberg man, never mind the even less snappily named Homo Habilis and Australopithecus?
There may be sound scientific reasons for this, but I suspect that the onomatopoeic qualities of his name have a lot to do with it.
Neanderthal Man: the combination of lilting rhythm and dark vowels can easily make you believe that you hear the distant echo of heavy footsteps, the swing of a club and the mighty thud of its impact. In fact, the name sounds as though it had been made up to suit its rather squat bearer with his thick eyebrows and muscular physique.
Most of you will know that this is wrong, of course, but I am sure that some people would be surprised to hear that the Neanderthal is not a made-up name but an actual place.
Then again, even many of you may not be aware that you can actually visit the Neanderthal, cross most of it on a pleasant hike in northwestern Germany and round off your trip with an hour spent at the local museum or a cup of coffee in one of the two near-by cafés.
Most of the interest of the Neanderthal hike, of course, lies in the fact that it is a journey into human history’s early chapters – this is where the skull and bone fragments were found which gave rise to the idea that homo sapiens sapiens was not the only human species that this planet has ever produced.
And Neanderthal Man has not disappeared without a trace: it is estimated that we all (except for humans of African descent) have between 2 and 5 percent of Neanderthal DNA in our cells, and let’s face it: we all know chaps who might well have more than that. Which makes you wonder: could some mad “Jurassic Park” scientist recreate a version of Neanderthal Man out of this?
This is not as crazy as it may sound – for cattle, in fact, this has already been done, and you can see the result alongside the Neanderthal trail, in a large outdoor enclosure where (safely behind fences) auerochs and European bisons are roaming freely.
While the bisons, although by now a rare and endangered species, are “the real thing”, the auerochs are careful recreations of this extinct variety of wild cattle, bred by using genetic remnants of the original auerochs species – which died out in the 17th century – in the DNA of the modern cow.
So there is quite a lot see along the trail – although visible Neanderthal references are restricted to the last section of the hike, near the museum …
… and you have to use your imagination for most of the rest of the way, re-creating pre-historic landscapes in your mind. Thankfully, that is generally not too difficult.
Throw in some other attractive features from more recent periods of human history …
… and you have a pretty good hiking trail, fairly short (about 6 km) and easy enough for a family outing with small kids and grandparents.
If you want to do the Neanderthal hike, start the walk at the commuter train station of Hochdahl-Millrath between Düsseldorf and Wuppertal (lines S8 and S68) and turn left out of the station into Gruitener Straße.
After about 500 metres, you will a see a group of high-rise residential buildings on your right: turn left here into the small rural byway straight opposite, on the other side of the road, called Winkelsmühler Weg. Follow this lane for a while and turn left into the footpath, gently uphill where Winkelsmühler Weg itself turns downhill.
After this, you should always follow the signs of the A1 hiking trail which will lead you straight to the Neanderthal Museum.
From here, you can continue walking to the very spot where the now world-famous bone fragments were discovered in the 19th century, although that is about another 1 km away.
In the back of the museum, on top of a hill, there is another train station (called Neanderthal) with a frequent service to Düsseldorf.
* This is what he is still called, apparently. No self-respecting scientist would, it seems, use the term “Beijing Man”. Come to think of it, neither does Mrs. Easy Hiker’s hairdresser refer to her pet dog as a “Beijingese”, and rightly so.
Now that I have interrupted the flow of your reading already, I might as well add some other pieces of information that I have not managed to squeeze in the main body of the post: while the “thal” in “Neanderthal” is the German word for “valley”, the “Neander” does not, as one might expect, represent any part of the landscape as such, a mountain or a river for example, but was the nom de plume of a 17th century German church composer who lived in the area after whom the valley was subsequently named. His proper name was Neumann, “new man”, which he chose to translate into Greek, “neander”, for his alias.
And finally, according to new research, Neanderthal Man looked nowhere near as scary as in most older representations, something that would obviously include the statue outside the museum which I showed you right at the beginning – scientists now believe that he would, once he had his furs exchanged for a modern lounge suit, easily blend into the street life of any metropolitan city.