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From a valley in the Ardennes we head eighty miles across the Belgian border, to a valley on the River Düssel in western Germany.

Admittedly, a former limestone quarry on the outskirts of Düsseldorf might not sound like the most exciting destination on a round-the-world voyage. And that’s because it isn’t. But bear with me: Germany’s Neander valley has more than earned its place on our itinerary, as in the mid nineteenth century it was the site of a discovery that would not only earn it a place in our language, but change our understanding of human history forever.

This particular story begins twenty metres up the wall of a gorge in the Neander Valley, in a small cave known locally as the Kleine Feldhofer Grotte.

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One morning in August 1856, two quarrymen ascended the side of the gorge and began to excavate the cave’s floor, removing a thick deposit of hardened clay that had set over the valuable limestone below. But as they worked, their pickaxes suddenly struck bone, not rock. First the top of a skull, then a pair of thigh bones, a few arm bones, and finally some fragments of ribs and a shoulder blade all slowly emerged out of the earth.

It sounds like quite the find, but uncovering bones was par for the course in excavations like these, and the men’s discovery was promptly dismissed as nothing more than the worthless remains of a cave bear, or some other ancient animal. Thinking little more of it, they tossed the bones onto a pile of debris and carried on with their work. Luckily for us, however, that’s not where this story ends.

Word of the bones soon reached Wilhelm Beckershoff, the owner of the cave, and Friedrich Wilhelm Pieper, the owner of the mine. Curious to know what creature they had belonged to, the pair contacted a local schoolteacher and amateur naturalist named Johann Carl Fuhlrott, who visited the site to investigate. He instantly recognised that because they had been found fossilised beneath two solid feet of mud, they must belong to some very ancient creature indeed. But, even more important, they appeared to be human.

Fuhlrott gathered the remaining fragments together and took them to Hermann Schaaffhausen, professor of anatomy at the University of Bonn. Schaaffhausen’s expertise proved invaluable: he was able to note several subtle differences – the domed oval cranium, the prominent tapering browline, the low, apelike forehead – between these bones and ordinary human remains.

A year of painstaking research and analysis followed, until finally he and Fuhlrott came to an astonishing conclusion: the bones found in the cave must have belonged to a member of some ancient race of early humans, who likely roamed Europe sometime during the last Ice Age.

Fuhlrott and Schaafferhausen’s theory stunned and divided the scientific community in equal measure. At the time (a full two years before the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species) many people were not prepared to believe that such proto-humans had ever existed, and rejected all but a biblical explanation of the origin of man. Many were ultimately left to concoct ever more unlikely explanations of their own to reconcile their religious beliefs with Schaaffhausen’s compelling anatomical evidence. The bones, some said, were those of some long-dead Cossack cavalryman whose lifetime of horse riding explained the strong, bowed thigh bones. Others claimed they must have belonged to some misshapen sufferer of rickets who had died in exile, while the heavy receding brow must have been formed by nearconstant frowning and grimacing caused by pain from a badly healed fracture in one of the arms. Every last pathological straw was thoroughly clutched in an effort to discredit Fuhlrott and Schaaffhausen’s conclusion, but to no avail. As similarities between their find and other humanlike remains found elsewhere in Europe began to be observed, the wider scientific community steadily warmed to their remarkable conclusion.

Finally, in 1863, the influential Irish geologist William King proposed once and for all that the Feldhofer bones, and those of other specimens like it, belonged not only to some ancient archaic human but to a member of an entirely distinct species. King gave this species the name Homo neanderthalenis, literally ‘man of the Neander Valley’, and we’ve acknowledged our distant Neanderthal cousins ever since.

From frankfurters to Black Forest gateaux, and from homburgs (a style of hat named after Homburg, near Wiesbaden) to hamburgers (named after Hamburg, not because they’re made of ham), German towns and cities have contributed a lot more to our language than the name of an ancient hominid. The dictionary also lists a number of light-hearted (if somewhat less welcome) German-inspired words and phrases.

A German comb, for instance, was nineteenth-century slang for the fingers of a hand run through a person’s hair. A German duck, for some long-forgotten reason, was a bed louse. And a German goitre is a bulging belly – a reference to the fine quality and bloatingly high calorific content of German beer. But when it comes to unwelcome etymological connotations, the next stop on our journey fares among the worst in the language.

Ironically, this discovery – which shook the erstwhile unshakeable nineteenth-century belief in Christian creationism – took place in a valley named in honour of a devout Calvinist theologian and hymn-writer. Joachim Neander (1650-1680) delivered sermons and held religious services in the valley while working as a schoolteacher and minister in Düsseldorf in the late 1600s. After his death, the valley that he had so admired was named in his honour.

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