Evolving the German ideal?

by Cornel  

First of all, I should say that this post shouldn't be taken too seriously. It presents a simple elaboration on my first impressions of the Neanderthal museum, which I visited last summer. I must also note that at the time of my visit I was exceedingly tired, as I went there directly from the airport after a 20 hour flight from Vancouver, so it's quite possible that I missed or misinterpreted a few things - if that's the case, please send me a message and I will be happy to correct my post. Ok, with that out of the way, let me say that although I found the museum to be alright, I was a bit disappointed; It's certainly no Musée National de Préhistoire. Honestly, I am not sure what I was expecting to see, but given the fame of the site I was hoping the museum would be a bit more engaging and that it would have more original artifacts on display. What I found instead was a neat yet small museum, perfectly suited for school children and the average layman but basically of no real interest for visitors who already know something about Neanderthals. Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad museum - it actually has some interesting Neanderthal reconstructions, the audio tours are good for the layperson, and it's clearly worth the visit if you happen to be in or near Dusseldorf. But there was only one thing that made a strong impression on me: I couldn't help but think that the main display cases on the second floor showcased nothing less than hominin evolution towards the German ideal.

As you can see in the pictures attached below, the first in the series is a female australopithecine. Now, I don't know, maybe australopithecines did have the bodies of well proportioned (by late 20th/early 21st century standards) modern human females, but I find it a bit surprising that they had no body hair whatsoever - indeed, although not shown in the picture, her legs looked freshly waxed. You may, of course, think I'm reading too much into it, but you should see the care with which the pubic hair was put in place by those who made the reconstruction, as well as the amount of body hair present in other reconstructions - the lack of hair was no mistake. All in all, I found the australopithecine slightly... bizarre.

Next in the series is the Neanderthal. Looking somewhat eastern European, the black haired Neanderthal was more or less OK. Not too many comments on him. Then comes the Cro-Magnon, who, fittingly enough, looks a bit French. The black haired woman certainly had an air of modernity about her. Last but certainly not least, an oddly "northern" looking fellow, tall, blonde, and blue eyed, closes the series. And there you have it. Human evolution, from australopithecines to Germans.

I don't want to necessarily criticize the museum for this display - after all, other reconstructions of modern humans there looked less stereotypically German and, ultimately, the modern human had to resemble someone or other... why not a German? Still, not all Germans are blonde, nor tall, and certainly not all modern humans fit the ideal presented here. I don't really have a ready answer for how this series should have looked, nor is it my role to give one. What I can say is that the visual reinforcement of certain discourses have the strange power of perpetuating structures of perception (in a Bourdieuian sense), and that can be a dangerous thing. In any case, what I wanted to point out is simply the biases inherent in our reconstructions of past as well as in our readings of the present - my own post, and my reading of the display, is certainly no exception.

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