Neanderthal experts gather in Galway to pay tribute to their scientific godfather

Term ‘homo neanderthalensis’ first coined on university campus 150 years ago

Neanderthal man who lived from about 120,000 years ago to 30,000 years ago. Photograph: Tom McHugh/Field Museum, Chicago/Science photo Library

Neanderthal man who lived from about 120,000 years ago to 30,000 years ago. Photograph: Tom McHugh/Field Museum, Chicago/Science photo Library

Sat, May 24, 2014, 01:00

International experts on our much misunderstood and somewhat maligned ancestor, the Neanderthal, gather in NUI Galway today– the campus where the term for the primitive species was first coined.

The 150th anniversary of this scientific milestone will be marked by President Michael D Higgins, along with specialists including Prof Svante Pääbo, the first person to sequence the DNA of Neanderthal people.

It was at the former Queen’s College, Galway, that geology professor William King designated Homo neanderthalensis as a separate species from ourselves.

His suggestion in 1864 was both “extraordinary” and “revolutionary”, according to one of the symposium organisers Dr John Murray.

Just five years before that, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species had been published, and so Prof King became a celebrity, earning a privilege afforded to very few scientists, said Dr Murray. The geologist was the first, and one of just a handful since, to name a new fossil human species and establish its antiquity.

Named after the Neander Valley in Germany, where evidence of their existence was first uncovered, Neanderthals or “Neandertals” are believed to have lived from between 600,000 and 350,000 years ago across Eurasia.

They were shorter, more heavily built and stronger than us, with no chins and foreheads sloping backwards.

Their brains were slightly larger, and they were expert hunters, with evidence of injuries from close contact with large animals.

It is thought that they made tools and weapons, wore ornaments, and created living spaces in caves – a type of behaviour developed before the advent of humans.

Other evidence suggests that they were using fire to make pitch from tree bark.

Scientists believe there was successful breeding between Stone Age and Neanderthal man, given the weak genetic barrier between the two.

Recent research has suggested that it was interbreeding, rather than lack of intelligence as previously thought, that led to their eventual extinction some 40,000 years ago – though the precise date for their demise is disputed.

Prof Pääbo, who is director of the Department of Evolutionary Genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, will give the keynote address in NUIG this evening .

President Higgins, along with members of the King family, will attend this free public talk, which organisers stress is “specifically aimed at a general audience”. It takes place at 5.30pm in NUIG’s O’Flaherty Theatre.

More information on the weekend symposium, entitled ‘From Fossils to the Genome’, is at neanderthal150.org.