Boule's Error: On the Social Context of Scientific Knowledge

By Van Reybrouck, David | Antiquity, March 2002 | Go to article overview
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Boule's Error: On the Social Context of Scientific Knowledge

Van Reybrouck, David, Antiquity


On August 3, 1908, two young French clergymen with a passion for prehistory, the brothers Am6d6e and Jean Bouyssonie, discovered in a cave near the village of La Chapelle-aux-Sains (Department of Correze) an almost intact Neanderthal skeleton. Recognizing both the importance of their find and their own inexperience with such fossils, they handed the skeleton to Marcellin Boule, professor of palaeontology at the Mus6um national d'histoire naturelle in Paris.

Boule's extensive study of the find became the most complete report on Neanderthal anatomy since the species was first discovered in 1856 (Boule 1911-1913). In his view, the La Chapelle-aux-Saints specimen demonstrated the existence of an enormous morphological gap between Neanderthals and modern humans, and suggested that in many instances the former were more akin to extant great apes. Their jutting head with heavy brow-ridges, receding forehead and low cranial vault, as well as their bent knees, arched feet and ape-like great toes made them unlikely forerunners of the Cro-Magnon stock. The gist of the argument centred around the analysis of the fossil vertebrae which showed that the Neanderthal's spinal column was more C-shaped than S-shaped (as is the case with modern humans), resulting in a stooping posture reminiscent of non-human primates (FIGURE 1). Neanderthals, therefore, were not our immediate ancestors, but rather evolutionary dead-ends that had been swept out of Europe by invading Upper Palaeolithic people. For Boule, the recently discovered Piltdown Man (in reality a modern skull associated with an orangutan mandible) was a much more convincing ancestor.


Repeating these conclusions in his influential textbook on human evolution (Boule 1921), this view became the standard perspective on Neanderthal morphology and phylogeny for decades to come, not just in France, but also, upon the translation of the book, in Britain and Germany. For at least 40 years, scholars generally subscribed to his vision of the Neanderthal as an `espece archaique et disparue' in which `the brutal outlook of this vigorous and heavy body' was echoed in the `most rudimentary and most miserable' technology (Boule 1921: 240, 244). And although Boule himself strongly objected, the stooped, slouching, shuffling Neanderthal became a favourite theme for artist's reconstructions, such as the statue in front of the National museum of prehistory at Les Eyzies or Kupka's often-reprinted painting of the beastly savage (FIGURE 2). The primitive Neanderthal thus became part of the popular imagination of prehistory.


By the 1950s, however, scholars begun to doubt the validity of Boule's reconstruction. Re-analysing the skeletal remains themselves, W. Straus & A.J.E. Cave (1957) discovered that the La Chapelle-aux-Saints skeleton was that of an aged, heavily arthritic individual. Though Boule had noticed the presence of osteoarthritis on many of the vertebrae, he did not seem to have drawn the implications of this regarding truncal erectness and fully human stance. He would thus have misread certain pathological deformations for general evolutionary traits. Because he had apparently also dismissed some more `advanced' features of the fossil, such as its large cranial capacity and the fact that it had been deliberately buried, scholars began to wonder why such a competent and dedicated researcher as Marcellin Boule could have been so mistaken in his analysis and interpretation.

In recent years, this episode in the history of human palaeontology has attracted some historiographic attention (Hammond 1982; Bowler 1986: 87-104; Albarello 1987; Trinkaus & Shipman 1993: 180-95; Tattersall 1995: 45-7). With this paper I do not intend to add yet another explanation for `Boule's error', let alone solve the issue of the Neanderthal's place in nature. But studying the varying accounts of this cause celebre will allow me to develop some ideas about a tenacious issue in the history of science, i.

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