In the previous article we looked at various of the more crucial, basic points made by Bernard Heuvelmans in his recently translated work of 1974, Neanderthal: the Strange Saga of the Minnesota Iceman (Heuvelmans 2016). Most of my comments in that previous article pertain to the first nine chapters of this twelve-chapter book. In this second and final part of the review, we look at some curious details of the case, and specifically at the evolutionary hypotheses that Heuvelmans discusses. If you haven’t read the first part and need a basic intro on what the iceman is, or was, look at this Tet Zoo article first (an adapted excerpt from my 2016 book Hunting Monsters).
The basics of the iceman story are well known, and the basic narrative of Neanderthal will, thus, be familiar to those who already know the case. However, there are a large number of details that haven’t been discussed elsewhere. Some took me by surprise. For one thing, it appears that Heuvelmans wrote a full-length monograph on the specimen, a few hundred pages long and unpublished so far as I’m aware. Given his ability to rapidly publish the initial technical paper on the iceman in an apparently sound scientific journal (Heuvelmans 1969) it is slightly surprising that he never got this grand work into print. Presumably it sits, unpublished, in the Heuvelmans archives, and presumably it explains why this book does not include the detailed anatomical data I thought it did.
Heuvelmans (2016) also describes spending an entire year working on the generation of an enormously detailed illustration of the iceman. He does acknowledge that such effort might transpire to be a waste of time, but this is because he hoped that the body would one day fall into the hands of a zoological institution, not because he considered it probable that it might be a hoax.
In some of the literature denouncing Heuvelmans’ endorsement of the iceman it is proposed that he was in an especially fragile and susceptible condition during his time in the United States due to the sad and sudden death of his daughter. I had no knowledge of these circumstances prior to reading the book and was upset by the events he described: he was away from home, unable to rapidly return, and informed that his daughter had literally weeks to live. Heuvelmans (2016) argues – and I’m inclined to agree – that such personal circumstances must not be seen as relevant to his thoughts and conclusions on an alleged frozen Neanderthal. I’m not a psychologist and others who are also not should avoid making drive-by accusations of this sort.
No replacement model. A well known aspect of the iceman tale concerns the clear anatomical difference present between the object as first examined by Heuvelmans and Sanderson, and the object as observed and photographed after the furore of 1968-69. Teeth are clearly visible in the younger photographs; a contrast with the closed mouth in the Heuvelmans and Sanderson originals. The explanation offered for this discrepancy is that the original corpse was removed and hidden (either by Hansen, or by an unhappy top-tier owner, whoever that was) and then replaced by a less realistic model. The story of the ‘replacement model’ is as much a part of the iceman legend as is the discovery of the frozen corpse in the first place. However… most surprising to me was Heuvelmans’ opinion – expressed without equivocation – that there was no replacement model, and that the object said to be such was actually the original carcass, reposed after thawing and re-freezing, and ‘hidden in plain sight’. This view flatly contradicts popular cryptozoological lore in which it is widely stated that the iceman viewed by people after the Heuvelmans-Sanderson pronouncements of 1969 was a replica and not the original.
Here is what Heuvelmans (2016) says: “There was only one point on which my views diverged from Sanderson’s, as well as from all others who had looked into the matter, and that was on the nature of the specimen exhibited by Hansen after April 20 (1969). I was the only one to believe that it was still the actual corpse [emphasis in the original]. True, I had a definite advantage over everyone else – I was the only one to have many excellent photos of the original exhibit … I had been sent a few color slides of Hansen’s new exhibit. After a comparison with my own, I had to agree with the evidence: it was the same and only specimen [emphasis in original].”
Moving on – what was that about “non-standard evolutionary hypotheses”? This book covers two such hypotheses and discusses them in sufficient depth to make it required reading for those interested in such things.
To begin with, Heuvelmans makes statements about our views on the pattern and detail of hominin evolution that I did not find objectionable. Anyone familiar with the literature on fossil hominins will be aware of arguments whereby Neanderthals can be made to look a certain way according to the bias of whomever produced the reconstruction. Heuvelmans states, and I quite agree, that our views on hominin life appearance have frequently been influenced by our own social and cultural biases, by the way in which certain species have been framed in the evolutionary narrative – hero or villain, brutish peasant or high-born – and by our expectation of what a given animal should look like within the context of the evolutionary model favoured at the time. We increasingly pride ourselves on abandonment of the erroneous ‘march of progress’ view of evolution where members of a given lineage are perceived as half-formed intermediates heading in the direction of a given goal, or where humans are considered ‘more evolved’ than other hominins, hominids and primates. Heuvelmans has quite a modern take on this issue. So far, so good.
All of this is marred, however, by a view of Neanderthals that – while undeniably interesting (a la All Yesterdays) – is surely erroneous, and I’m left wondering whether Heuvelmans developed this view only because of his hypothesis on Neanderthal survival.
Neanderthals, so he explains, were likely covered by a hairy pelt (p. 173), possessed a remarkable ‘ultra-human’, upturned nose in which the nostrils pointed directly forwards (p. 179) (something like that of snub-nosed monkeys), “had no lips at all and a widely stretched mouth” (p. 180), had hands in which the thumb was both more elongate and “less readily opposable” than that of H. sapiens (pp. 182-185), had extraordinarily broad feet with curled toes that functioned in rock-climbing (p. 186), were probably capable of accruing fat stores and of indulging in a semi-hibernation (p. 211) and had “bigger eyes” that gave them “the option of vanishing into the night” (p. 211). It is also argued that Neanderthals were seen and depicted by our species as ‘beasts’ fit for hunting, extermination or even domestication as beasts of burden.
The view of Neanderthal appearance and biology endorsed in the book is thus vaguely reminiscent of Vendramini’s notorious (and also erroneous) view in which, so it’s proposed, Neanderthals were black-skinned, big-eyed, hunchbacked uber-predators utterly unlike the sophisticated people of current mainstream palaeoanthropology. These ‘bestial’ views of Neanderthals might be jarring if new to you: as I might have said previously, they are, however, a mainstay of the cryptozoological literature (e.g., Loof-Wissowa 1994, Bayanov 1996, de Sarre 1996, Raynal 2001). To clarify, however, Heuvelmans does not promote his particular view of Neanderthals because he regards it as the typical condition for the species (unlike Vendramini): rather, he argues that Neanderthals became this way after evolving from ancestors more like H. sapiens. Let’s look at this idea in more detail…
De-hominisation. Heuvelmans’ view is that Neanderthals underwent a profound change as they abandoned material culture and took to a more ‘bestial’ way of life, the evolutionary process involved being termed de-hominisation. De-hominisation, as a supposed reverting to a more bestial form, is typically imagined as a sort of ‘de-evolution’. It is of course no such thing given the redundancy of that term: evolution means heritable change occurring across generations, it does not mean ‘evolution towards the specific form we have in mind as the best or most recently evolved’. Regardless, the de-hominisation hypothesis is a familiar trope of the cryptozoological literature, integral to the popular idea (within the cryptozoological research community) that Neanderthals have persisted as relict forms of remote, forested or mountainous regions where they avoid the attention of their cousin H. sapiens by being secretive, nocturnal and mostly solitary.
The primary reason for the existence of the hypothesis is an attempted rationalisation of those abundant anecdotes and stories relating to hairy wild people across Eurasia. It never had a firm grounding, and it is like so many other evolutionary hypotheses in the cryptozoological literature in that it requires the existence of an entire new phase in evolutionary history – one involving profound ecomorphological novelty – for which we have no material evidence (Conway et al. 2013). Assuming for the moment that it might be worth taking seriously, it is – to repeat points made above – flatly at odds with everything we’ve learnt about Neanderthals in recent years. They have become more sophisticated, more technologically advanced and capable, more socially complex the more we have discovered; they might still have looked quite distinct from us but a view that they were, or were becoming, less like us over time is very much at odds with the evidence we have.
Moving on, what might also surprise some are Heuvelmans’ (2016) references to evidence that hominins did not evolve from ape-like forms, but that the converse was more likely true; that anthropoid apes and humans did not descend from “some kind of archaic pongid ape like Dryopithecus. It had to be more like man than like a brachiating ape. It was probably some kind of infra-pygmy, a round-headed gnome, walking upright, in other words, the Eoanthropus imagined by leading anthropologists such as Marcellin Boule in France and Henry F. Osborn in the USA” (p. 41). The view that hominin-like proportions and posture evolved deep in hominid history – that the living non-human apes and their fossil relatives are the specialised descendants of such forms – has been revisited many times since and has at least a few modern champions. However….
Initial Bipedalism. Long-term readers of this blog and of the arcane cryptozoological literature will recall that pongoid man is one of several icons of cryptozoology mentioned at times within the context of initial bipedalism, a hypothesis which proposes that the human body shape and habit of erect walking are not recent evolutionary innovations, but ancient ones primitive not only to hominoids or primates but perhaps to mammals and even to a far more inclusive clade of vertebrates (the model was covered here on Tet Zoo ver 2, back in 2008). The hypothesis has predominantly been promoted by ichthyologist François de Sarre whose writings have often made reference to Bernard Heuvelmans and his work (e.g., de Sarre 1996, 1997).
Indications that Heuvelmans was a proponent of this hypothesis have always been evident in his better-known works. In On the Track of Unknown Animals, there is a curious passage in the yeti chapter wherein Heuvelmans (1995) states that “man has retained the plantigrade feet of a primitive mammal … that cannot have evolved from the apes’ prehensile feet … It is the other way round: apes’ feet seem to have evolved from feet like man’s” (p. 171 of 1995 edition).
Neanderthal provides the full exposé, the denouement. After discussing de-hominisation, Heuvelmans (2016) states “In this work, which challenges such a solid anthropological belief as the extinction of the Neanderthals, I would have preferred not to also bring in a rather heretical theory of human origins. But that can’t be avoided. It should have been expected from the pen of a discipline of Dr. Serge Frechkop. Those who are familiar with his work are aware of my former master’s preference for non-ape theories of human origin, including those of Ranke, Kollman and Osborn, and especially Max Westernhöfer’s theory of initial bipedalism. For over thirty years I have mulled over these ideas … and find that every new discovery in paleontolology has confirmed their soundness. I am well aware that my insolence in defending these theories here will bring as many sarcasms, critiques, and even insults as my candid description of the frozen specimen of a contemporary Neanderthal” (p. 224).
Final Thoughts. Neanderthal is well illustrated throughout with both black and white photos and diagrams. A colour montage depicting the iceman itself – Heuvelmans made this montage and evidently took care to avoid distortion when photographing the specimen from slightly different angles – appears on the cover. Footnotes are a mix of Heuvelmans’ own notes combined with translator notes on the various weird turns of phrase that do not translate well. A number of typos have slipped through (‘Homo abilis’ is used several times, which seems weird). The lack of an index is most unfortunate and makes the volume very difficult to navigate.
Also at the back of the volume is an afterword by Loren Coleman; it is essentially a personal take on his own encounters with the iceman and extensively relates the thoughts of Coleman’s friend and colleague, the late Mark Hall. Here there is yet more theorising and speculating about the iceman; there’s lot of talk of models being created, and even photos of the model as displayed today at the Museum of the Weird in Austin. But it’s mixed with the idea that the object was originally a genuine corpse: like Sanderson, Hall did not think that the iceman was a Neanderthal, but instead a surviving member of the erectus lineage.
I regret that I did not find myself agreeing with several of the points made in this section. Firstly, for all the evidence indicating that it was a hoax all along, the text ends in open-ended fashion (“The parasites seen on the body, the vegetable matter viewed in the teeth […] all point to the Minnesota Iceman having been an actual carcass. Maybe it was”; p. 246). Secondly, the entire section endorses the viewpoint that the later (post-April 1969) images were of the supposed replacement model, Heuvelmans’ strongly worded pronouncement to the contrary being ignored. And, thirdly, Coleman implies that Heuvelmans was a victim of “the scientific establishment” in that “he never managed to stir up the interest of professional anthropologists and paleoanthropologists” (p. 246). This is patently untrue. We know that several prominent workers of the time did look into the story – John Napier at the Smithsonian among them – and even took it seriously enough to contact the FBI, eventually concluding for good reason that the object was not a real body at all (Regal 2013).
Neanderthal is a weird book. It provides the full backstory to the case from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, and elucidates the author’s favoured hypotheses on topics touched on in his other works but not previously discussed at length. Bernard Heuvelmans inhabited what many modern researchers would consider an unusual intellectual landscape; as if the promotion of almost 140 unknown animal species was not unusual enough on its own (Heuvelmans 1986), he imagined these creatures within the context of evolutionary scenarios that were decidedly heterodox and at odds with the data accepted by the majority of his peers. Indeed, this book probably provides more insight on Heuvelmans’ opinions and interpretations of evolutionary patterns than any other (the caveat being that there are several of his books that I have never read since they are yet to be translated from the original French). For these reasons the book is of great value to those interested in the history of cryptozoological thought and speculation, on arcane evolutionary hypothesising, and also potentially to those researching the history of 20th century thought on hominin evolution.
For previous articles relevant to issues discussed here, see...
- Aquatic proto-people and the
theoryhypothesis of initial bipedalism
- The Cryptozoologicon (Volume I): here, at last
- Is Cryptozoology Good or Bad for Science? (review of Loxton & Prothero 2013)
- My New Book Hunting Monsters: Cryptozoology and the Reality Behind the Myths
- If Bigfoot Were Real
- The Strange Case of the Minnesota Iceman
- A Review of Neanderthal: The Strange Saga of the Minnesota Iceman, Part 1
Refs - -
Bayanov, D. 1996. In the Footsteps of the Russian Snowman. Crypto-Logos, Moscow.
de Sarre, F. 1996. About the survival of relict hominoids from the point of view of a zoologist. In Downes, J. (ed) CFZ Yearbook 1996. CFZ (Exeter), pp. 98-111.
de Sarre, F. 1997. Were aquatic pre-humans the first vertebrates to enter the land? In Downes, J. (ed) The CFZ Yearbook 1997. CFZ (Exeter), pp. 142-156.
Gribbin, J. & Cherfas, J. 1981. Descent of man – or ascent of ape? New Scientist 91 (1269), 592-595.
Heuvelmans, B. 1969. Note preliminaire sur un specimen conserve dans la glace, d’une forme encore inconnue d’hominide vivant Homo pongoides (sp. seu subsp. nov.). Bulletin de I’Institut Royal des Science Naturelles de Belgique 45, 1-24.
Heuvelmans, B. 1986. Annotated checklist of apparently unknown animals with which cryptozoology is concerned. Cryptozoology 5, 1-26.
Loofs-Wissowa, H. 1994. The penic rectus as a marker in human palaeontology? Human Evolution 9, 343-356.
Raynal, M. 2001. Jordi Magraner’s field research on the bar-manu: evidence for the authenticity of Heuvelmans’ Homo pongoides. In Heinselman, C. (ed) Hominology Special Number 1. Craig Heinselman (Francestown, New Hampshire), unpaginated.