and one of them refers to the same fossil that gave its name to this form of humanity: “Nevertheless, it must be admitted that some skulls of very high antiquity, such as the famous one of Neanderthal, are well developed and capacious” (Darwin, 1871a, Vol. I, p. 146). The second reference to a Neanderthal fossil mentions the mandible from the Belgian site of La Naulette: “Considering how few ancient skulls have been examined in comparison with recent skulls it is an interesting fact that in at least three cases the canines project largely; and in the Naulette jaw they are spoken of as enormous” (Darwin, 1871a, p. 126). Darwin had actually held the Forbes’ Quarry Neanderthal skull from Gibraltar in his hands. This specimen was found in 1848, before the discovery in 1856 of the skeleton at the Feldhofer grotto in the Neander Valley for which the species Homo neanderthalensis (or subspecies, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, according to some researchers) was named. In a letter to J. D. Hooker dated September 1, 1864, Darwin wrote: “F. (Falconer) brought me the wonderful Gibraltar skull” (Menez, 2009). The reason behind Darwin’s lack of interest in the Neanderthals may stem from the judgment made previously of these same specimens by Thomas Henry Huxley in his Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature in 1863: “the Neanderthal cranium is by no means so isolated as it appears to be at first, but forms, in reality, the extreme term of a series leading gradually from it to the highest and best developed of human crania.”
Darwin was in search of a “missing link,” a transitional form between modern humans and the chimpanzee or gorilla. At that time, a fossil fulfilling the role of linking two large zoological groupings had already been found. Archaeopteryx was incorporated into the third edition (1866) of The Origin of Species: “and still more recently, that strange bird, the Archeopteryx, with a long lizard-like tail, bearing a pair of feathers on each joint, and with its wings furnished with two free claws, has been discovered in the oolitic slates of Solenhofen. Hardly any recent discovery shows more forcibly than this how little we as yet know of the former inhabitants of the world.” (Darwin, 1859, 1866)
The discovery of Homo erectus in 1891 in Java might have satisfied Darwin. Alternatively, he may have considered it too human and, with its reduced cranial capacity, only slightly more primitive than the Neanderthals. It is possible that the authentic missing link (or, more appropriately, “fossil link”) for Darwin would have been the Taung child, discovered in 1924 and of such a primitive aspect that it took 20 years until it was finally accepted as our ancestor by the majority of the scientific community.
Darwin believed that the origins of humanity most likely lay in Africa, although the discovery of fossil apes in Europe made him question this. In The Descent of Man (Darwin, 1871a, p. 199) he reflects on the topic: