American physical anthropologist Ales Hrdlicka is most widely known for theories concerning Homo Neandertalensis and New World migrations. Born in Bohemia in 1869, Hrdlicka entered the United States in 1882. Similar to other immigrants, he held a nominal job as a cigar maker while attending night school. Encouraged to seek a profession in the medical field, Hrdlicka entered the Electic Medical College of New York City. After graduating in 1982, he entered the New York Homeopathic College, whereby he graduated in 1894. Hrdlicka’s internship in the New York Homeopathic Hospital for the Insane resulted in an academic publication (1895), possibly resulting in the opportunity for research at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1897 to 1898. Returning to Europe, Hrdlicka went to Paris, France, to study anthropology under the auspices of L. P. Manouvrier. After completing his studies, he returned to the United States as an associate for the New York Pathological Institute. Moreover, he was the director of physical anthropology for the American Museum of Natural History in 1899 and curator of the physical anthropology collection at the Smithsonian Institution in 1910.
Ales Hrdlicka’s contribution to physical anthropology was extensive. Inquiries into the taxonomical relationship between Homo Neandertalensis and Homo sapiens resulted in several publications, most of which entailed critical analysis of the evidence within a logical framework. In viewing Homo sapiens’ development as being a product solely in the Old World, Hrdlicka developed a theory of migration that could account for the populating of the New World. Besides his achievements in these academic areas, he established the American Journal of Physical Anthropology (1918) and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (1928). Always open-minded, Hrdlicka continued his point of inquiry throughout his professional career, stressing morphological variation of our species, phenotypic expressions among all populations within the Americas, and the evaluation of hominid taxonomical structures in light of new evidence. These qualities can be seen throughout his life and anthropological career.
Contributions and Perspectives
Taxonomical structures and origin of descent have become controversial and uncertain. Questions concerning essential morphological features and shared characteristics have compounded an already complex problem. In this manner, the exact nature and placement of Homo Neandertalensis in relation to Homo sapiens is a point of critical inquiry. Hrdlicka came to view Homo Neandertalensis as a continuous branch in human evolution, unlike the commonly held view that it is an extinct ancestor from Homo sapiens. This view was imparted to his definition of Neandertal man within a continuous evolutionary framework.
Hrdlicka defined Neandertal man as being the man and the period of the Mousterian culture (his italics). This phase can be found in multiple encampments found in Europe, Crimea, and parts of North Africa and Asia Minor. Primarily associated with the Mousterian culture, this phase or “Mousterian man” cannot be strictly defined by the fauna that was prevalent during that period of time. Rather, Mousterian Man existed during the last part of the interglacial and well into the final glacial period. According to Hrdlicka, Mousterian man is a transitional phase between Acheulean man and Aurignacian man. This can be seen in the sequences of culture depicted among them. Perhaps dictated by the ebbing then advancing glacial periods, cultural evidences could be found in both open and sheltered sites. From the Chellean to the Aurignacian, the same occupational behavior can be seen: the utilization or reutilization of sites by the previously held distinct phases of Acheulean, Mousterian, and Aurignacian man.
To further this continuity, Hrdlicka illustrated the cultural similarities shared among these phases of humankind. Thus, accordingly, each phase is characterized as being chiefly hunters with association with the use of fire. Bones and other refuse can be found in the area of inhabited caves. Agriculture, domesticated animals, and food storage are unknown. Clothing was probably made from animal skins, as suggested by the evidence of tools (for example, stone and bone). In this manner, the sequence of industries is seen as being progressive, whereby the Mousterian industry can be viewed as being transitional phase between Acheulean man and Aurignacian man. Without any significant and abrupt advancement between phases, the development of art that is associated with Aurignacian man cannot be the sole factor in the segmenting of these phases. Varying artistic expressions, though not pictorial, can be found in the Mousterian culture. Any discontinuity or advancements can be viewed as being accumulative and localized. In fact, evidence suggests that sporadic discontinuity between phases (for example, when the earliest Aurignacian does not follow Mousterian) discounts a total collapse or cultural extinction.
The greatest distinction in the Neandertal phase from any other phase is within the morphological features exhibited by Mousterian man. According to Hrdlicka, the Mousterian period should be arranged in three stages, inferior, middle, and superior. However, the act of stereotyping this phase by specimen Spy No. 1 and La Chapelle had far removed the possibilities of a prototype Mousterian man, perhaps casting shadows of doubt on specimens such as the Gibraltar skull, Banolas jaw, and Ehringsdorf jaw. Traditionally, the classical description of the Neandertal includes moderate stature with stocky build. The skull is oblong, with a low forehead and prominent supraorbital torus. The facial region exhibits both low vault and forehead, a large nose, full maxilla, and a heavy mandible with large teeth. These characteristics, including variations, suggested to Hrdlicka that Mousterian or Neandertal man was a transitional phase to modern Homo. Although it is easy enough to compare and contrast the morphological subtlety between these forms, Hrdlicka suggests that the cranial capacity, including variation, is comparable to both the Aurignacian and present primitive man. Furthermore, as archaeological evidence suggests, Homo sapiens always followed the Mousterian phase, never coexisting or preceding. In Hrdlicka’s evaluation, some of the morphological features of Neandertal present in primitive Homo seem to suggest a branching lineal progression from one form to another.
Questions concerning the placement of this form within an evolutionary taxonomical structure are a source of discussion. Similar to controversies surrounding other hominid forms, the lack of sufficient number of specimens and gaps in the evolutionary ladder, including cultural aspects, will always be a point of critical inquiry. Though not deterred or dejected, anthropology does have the ability to reconstruct the past based on physical evidence with rational speculation. There are three carefully examined theories about the fate of the Neandertal. The first suggests that Neandertal underwent extinction and was replaced by Homo sapiens. The second theory states that Neandertal coexisted with Homo sapiens and eventually formed a hybrid. The third theory states that Neandertal evolved into Homo sapiens. Hrdlicka was in favor of the third theory. Based on the archaeological evidence, weather patterns based on periods of glaciation, the adaptive capabilities of Homo (cultural), reduction of morphological features, and variation, Hrdlicka supported the basis of his conclusion. Today, DNA analysis suggests that Neandertal phase had diverged (branched) around 650,000 years ago, only to be displaced by Homo sapiens. Vying for the same ecological niche, Homo sapiens probably had out-competed Neandertals for valuable resources and reproductive power, all of which translates into extinction. This process had eventually contributed to their extinction. Although Hrdlicka’s view still resonates with some anthropologists, Neandertal represents an extinct phase in human evolution.
Besides his interest in hominid evolution, Hrdlicka was also known for his evaluation of the American aborigines. According to Hrdlicka, the evidence suggests that the Americas were never a place of origin; thus, the aboriginal population must have migrated to the Americas. The following characteristics mark them as having a common ancestor: color of skin (from yellowish to solid brown), straight black hair, mental characteristics, low heartbeat rate, dark-brown eye color, well-developed nasal bridge and large malar regions, and moderate-length neck, hands, and feet. Considering the phenotypic expressions exhibited by aboriginal populations, the placement of their origin points to the inhabitants of the Tibetans, Upper Yenisei natives, and some northeastern Asiatic populations. Whether by land, ice, or water, this population came to the North American continent via the Bering Strait during the Holocene period. In a short period of time, this population spread rapidly and underwent differentiation. In its totality, the aboriginal population represents one homotype, with variation on both the phenotypic and cultural level.
Against the odds, Ales Hrdlicka attained the American dream. Intelligence, hard work, and perseverance created the foundations for the possibilities of his future contributions. Considering all forms of evidence (for example, physical specimens and cultural artifacts), Hrdlicka presented a logical hypothesis concerning the sequence of hominid phylogeny. Furthermore, his analysis of the populating of the New World had contributed to the overall understanding of natural history in the Americas. Though today, his understanding would draw severe criticism, and perhaps sociopolitical sanctions, his contributions, nevertheless, increase the awareness of the unity of our species in its origin and development.
- Hrdlicka, A. (1904). Directions for the collecting information and specimens for physical anthropology. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
- Hrdlicka, A. (1907). Skeletal remains suggesting or attributing to early man in North America. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
- Hrdlicka, A. (1936). The coming of man from Asia in the light of recent discoveries. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute.