Neanderthal Museum, Erkrath

Neandertal is a small valley somewhat north of Duesseldorf. In 1856, it became famous for the discovery of prehistoric human remains that were considered the first specimen of Homo Neanderthalensis: the Neanderthal Man. (The "h" was dropped from the official spelling of "Tal" in 1901, but it was kept it the Latin scientific name and accordingly, in the name of the museum in Erkrath).

The valley was named after Joachim Neander, a  a 17th-century German pastor, theologian and hymn writer. His grandfather had changed his original family name, Neumann, to its Greek translation Neander. He lived in nearby Düsseldorf and loved the valley where he found inspiration for his compositions.

The Neandertal was originally a limestone canyon widely known for its rugged scenery, waterfalls and caves. However, industrial mining during the 19th and 20th centuries removed almost all of the limestone and dramatically changed the shape of the valley. The picture above - showing the river Duessel near the museum - lets you imagine how the valley must have looked like before.

The bones of the original Neanderthal man were found in a cave during a mining operation. Neither the cave nor the cliff in which it was located exist anymore. This rock, called the Rabenstein (Raven´s rock) is the only remainder of the original limestone canyon. (No idea who the lady in the picture is). Today, it marks the entrance to the area where the Neanderthal remains were found.

As the cave was destroyed in the 19th century, the location of the discovery was lost for 100 years until archaeologists managed to rediscover it in 1997. Today, it is a park protecting what has not yet been excavated. The red and white poles mark the location of the original cave.

This area shows plants typical of the area in the time of the Neanderthal men.

If you want to know more, here´s an interview about the rediscovery (in German):

The footpath is designed as a timeline trying to illustrate the historical dimensions.

This chap greets you at the parking lot near the museum. He was made around 1930 for a local hotel owner and captures quite well how people used to imagine the Neanderthal man back then: Lots of muscle, little brain, closer to a monkey than to a man. He quickly became a popular subject for pictures and postcards and for a long time, was an inofficial symbol of the area.

The Museum

In the museum foyer, this friendly chap is an example of how present-day scientists believe the Neanderthal man to have looked: A lot less primitive and brutish and a lot more like us modern humans.

Donna: "I know which one of the two I´d rather meet in the dark..."

The original bones found in 1856. In 1997, when the site was rediscovered, the archaeologists actually found more parts belonging to the same skeleton.  (These are replicas, by the way: the original original bones are in a different museum.)

See those brow ridges?

Actually, the Neandertal finds were not really the first specimen of that particular species, they were just the first to be recognized as that. And their discovery was fortunately close to the publication of Charles Darwin´s "Origin of Species", which paved the way for even considering that these were the remains of ancient Europeans who had played a role in the origins of modern humans; a highly controversial theory at the time.  Today, the Neanderthal discovery is considered the beginning of paleoanthropology.

The museum chronicles the development of mankind and its lifestyle, from the means of protecting the body against the environment to tools and weapons.  

A simple spear and flint tools.

Tools, weapons and clothing become slightly more complex.

An arrow and a fishing net

A hoe and early pottery.

Modern tools, pottery, weapons and means of communication (books).

Stone age idols.

In the section about social structures, we were positively surprised to find a display illustrated with Playmobil. It is supposed to show a clan during the transition between Stone Age and the Metal Ages. The introduction of the chief brought the first centralized institution of power into existence. He embodied economic, judicial and military authority. The new social structure also enabled specialisation. The division of labor enabled members of the clan to focus on what they could do best.

Dropping in at a Neanderthal family´s tent.


Left: Crafting stone tools. -- Right: Teenagers already had mood swings back then.

And now it´s time for some skellys and skulls.

Homo habilis -- homo erectus

Homo neanderthalensis - homo sapiens

Victims of a prehistoric battle.

  Homo Blythe?

Donna: "I just realized where the title of GATTACA came from...  I feel like I´m on the set of some weird sci fi movie, anyway..."

Sonderausstellung: Monster und Mythen -- Special Exhibit: Myths and Monsters

The reason we had come to the museum was this special exhibiton conceived by the Natural History Museum, London.

A giant unicorn marks the entrance of the exhibition. The unicorn´s horn was believed to have powerful healing abilities. The myths probably originated from garbled descriptions of rhinos, of oryx antelopes (whose two slim horns can look like one from the side) and findings of narwhal tusks.

Entering the exhibition. "Eek! What´s that?"

 A Jenny Haniver is the modified and dried carcass of a skate or ray. For centuries, sailors sat on the Antwerp docks and carved these creatures out of dried skates: mermaids, devils, angels and dragons. They then preserved them with a coat of varnish. They supported themselves by selling their creations to sailors and to tourists visiting the docks.

One suggestion for the origin of the term was the French phrase jeune d'Anvers (young [person] of Antwerp). British sailors garbled this description into the personal name "Jenny Hanvers." 

The earliest known picture of a Jenny Haniver appeared in Historia Animalium vol. IV in 1558. Gesner warned that these were merely disfigured rays, and should not be believed to be miniature dragons or monsters, which was a popular misconception at the time. It is possible that Jenny Hanivers were the source of some tales of dragons during the Middle Ages, and they affirmed people's belief in dragons. Jenny Hanivers may also have started the legends of Mermaids. (Wikipedia).

Sightings of Mermaids were also explained by the sightings of dugongs which can look very much like a sitting human when seen from afar.                More about this:

The Chimera in Greek mythology was a three-headed monster, part lion, part goat and part snake. Sighting the Chimera was an omen of storms, shipwrecks, and natural disasters (particularly volcanoes). It was thought to live in Lycia (modern Turkey), in fact quite near where we spent our holiday once, and even in antiquity the Chimaera was regarded as a symbol of the volcanic character of the Lycian soil. Today, however, chimeras, part one species, part another, have become a reality, made possible by genetic engineering.

A Yeti scalp, brought to the Natural History museum in 1961 for DNA testing.

Reports of huge primate creatures are known from all over the world. Some may be based on finds of Gigantopithecus remains or even arcane memories of our species, as this giant ape (3 m tall) lived at the same time in the same areas as some hominids. Cryptozoologists explain many sightings of Yeti or Bigfoot with the possibility of an unknown living relative of Gigantopithecus.


These extinct oysters were thought to be the devil´s toenails.

The Roc is a huge eagle-like mythical bird, supposed to be able to carry an elephant in its claws. The world´s largest known bird was Aepyornis, a 3m tall running bird native to Madagascar and extinct since at least the 17th century. In some cases the eggs have a circumference of over 1m and a length up to 34cm. The egg volume is about 160 times greater than a chicken egg.

A young Komodo dragon - the largest living species of lizard, up to 3m in length, and its mythical relative, below.

In Greek mythology, a cyclops is a member of a primordial race of giants, each with a single eye in the middle of its forehead. The most famous one is Polyphemus who invited Odysseus and his crew to dinner when they were stranded on his island. "I´ve got this lovely Greek recipe that I´ve been aching to try out.."

A possible origin for the cyclops legend is the prehistoric dwarf elephant (mastodon) skulls – about twice the size of a human skull – that may have been found by the Greeks on Cyprus, Crete and Sicily. The large, central nasal cavity (for the trunk) in the skull might have been interpreted as a large single eye-socket. Given the inexperience of the locals with living elephants, they were unlikely to recognize the skull for what it actually was. (Wikipedia).

"Hm...? Is there anybody behind me...?"

An alien. The belief in aliens has taken the place of the belief in many mythical creatures.

(Nov 2009)