Flashback! ‘I saw a neanderthal man driving a tram’

Early drawings of what became known as Neanderthal man—based primarily on a skeleton found at La Chappell-aux-Saints in France—showed this supposedly early ape-like man as a stoop-shouldered, bent-kneed, thick-lipped, hairy cave man. Later research suggested that this particular individual probably suffered from osteoarthritis, which would have caused his curved back. More complete skeletons have shown Neanderthal men to have been as human as we are. In fact, the La Chapell skull had a larger brain than the average man today.

But it is interesting to look back at early thoughts about ‘ape-men’ and ‘missing links’. The following report appeared in Australia’s Adelaide Advertiser newspaper in 1951—even before Piltdown man was exposed as a hoax. It shows that even then, some experts believed that a ‘missing link’ between man and his alleged ape-like ancestor probably did not exist.

This is the newspaper report:

‘“I saw a Neanderthal man driving a tram on Saturday, and you will find plenty of them among your friends”, the Professor of Anatomy and Histology at Adelaide University (Professor A. A. Abbie) said yesterday.
‘He was giving the second of the 1951 university public lectures on “New Evidence on Human Evolution”, in the new Medical School.
Showing a slide of a Neanderthal man as he would appear shaved and in modern dress, Professor Abbie said: “This man would not attract much attention in public today.”
‘It appeared that geologists and anthropologists had wasted time looking for a “missing link”, between man and his ape-like ancestors which probably did not exist, he added.
‘Reconstructions of early ape-like men, such as the Neanderthal, Heidelberg, Java and Piltdown Men, all showed differences from the human which were too specialised for them to have been direct human ancestors.
‘The problem had been complicated by the discovery of a modern-type human skull which was older than any of them.
‘This raised the disturbing possibility that there may have been no ancestor of man—that he appeared fully formed.’