Neanderthal or Neandertal?

The first such fossil was discovered in 1856 in the Neander Thal, or "Neander Valley" in German, and became known as "Neanderthal Man". In 1904, German spelling was regularized to be more consistent with pronunciation, and "thal" became "tal". In 1952 Henri Vallois proposed that it should be spelt as the Germans spell it, and the "-tal" spelling has become widely used since then. The "-thal" spelling persists most strongly in England.

'Neanderthal' can be pronounced with either a 't' or a 'th' sound - both are acceptable and widely used in English. The German pronunciation, however, has always been 't' (German has no 'th' sound).

None of this affects the taxonomic name of the Neandertals. William King proposed the name Homo neanderthalensis in 1864. Since then, opinion has fluctuated as to whether they should be considered Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (a subspecies of Homo sapiens) or a separate species, Homo neanderthalensis. For the first half of the 20th century, they were usually considered a separate species. For the last few decades they have usually been considered a subspecies, but recently Homo neanderthalensis has been gaining in popularity again. In either case, the 'h' must remain in the name, because the laws governing biological nomenclature forbid changing the spelling.

It is fascinating to think that, but for a matter of historical chance, we might now be classifying Neandertals as Homo stupidus! (Or, even stranger, Homo sapiens stupidus: "stupid wise man".) Ernst Haeckel created that name in 1866. Fortunately for the Neandertals, who have a bad enough image problem as it is, King's name was published two years earlier and hence has priority. (Wolpoff and Caspari, Race and Human Evolution, 1997, p.271)

The Neander Tal was named after a minister, Joachim Neumann, who used to take walks there in the late 17th century. Neumann composed many hymns, some of which are still sung today. Wanting to use a Greek pseudonym, Neumann, whose name means "new man", chose "Neander", a translation of his name into Greek. By a strange coincidence, the "New Man Valley" named for him after his death gave its name to a new type of human that was discovered there.

See also science fiction author Robert Sawyer's page on the 'Neanderthal or Neandertal' question. For my site, I chose the 'Neandertal' spelling, while Sawyer makes a good case for the 'Neanderthal' usage. As he says, it basically comes down to a matter of choice. (I went with 'Neandertal' mainly because Trinkaus and Shipman used it in their excellent book The Neandertals.)

This page is part of the Fossil Hominids FAQ at the Archive.

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