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The World's Largest Neanderthal Finding Site


In the year 1899, the fossil remnants of the Homo sapiens neanderthalensis species were found at the excavation site located at the Hušnjak hill in Krapina. During a six-year research at the site, led by highly expert Dragutin Gorjanović-Kramberger, a total of 876 single fossil Neanderthal fossil remains were found, placing Krapina in the world"s scientific heritage as the world"s richest Neanderthal finding site.

The Site

The Krapina proto-human, scientifically known as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis was discovered in 1899, at the time of geological and panteological explorations at the Hušnjak hill in Krapina started. The excavations lasted for six years, supervised by Professor Dragutin Gorjanović-Kramberger, a famous Croatian geologyst, paleonthologyst and paleoanthropologyst. His works contributed significantly to the European and world science about the fossil man. The half-cave in Krapina was soon listed among the world"s science localities as a rich fossil finding site, where the largest and richest collection of the Neanderthal man had ever bin found.
In the sandy deposits of the cave about nine hundred remains of fossilised human bones were found - the fossil remains belonged to several dozen different individuals, of different sex, from 2 to 40 years of age. Numerous fossil remnants of the cave bear, wolf, moose, large deer, warm climate rhinoceros, wild cattle and many other animals were also found. Over a thousand pieces of various stone tools and weapons from the paleolytic era were found, all wittnessing to the material culture of the Krapina proto-human. This rich locality is approximately 130.000 years old.

There are various theories concerning the interpretation of the Krapina site itself, which is - even today - a subject of many discussions. After over a century, the site itself is still very attractive, due to its paleonthological value and a large number of fossil samples found there. The site is protected as a paleonthological monument of nature, and widely known as a geological, paleonthological, paleoanthropological and archeological locality. It"s listed as one of the richest paleolytic habitats of the Neanderthal man in Croatia and Europe.

Site History

The rich Neanderthal man finding site in Krapina was discovered in 1899, at the time of hot discussions about the evolution and origin of man. The excavations lasted for six years (1899.-1905), supervised by Dragutin Gorjanović-Kramberger, a famous Croatian geologist and paleonthologist. In the deposits, which were over eight meters thick, a lot of human fossilised bones were found, as well as numerous remains of other now extinet-out pleistocen animals (Ursus spelaeus, Rhinoceros mercki, Bos primigenius, Alces alces, Megaceros giganteus and many others.).

Over a thousand stone tool pieces of the Mousterian culture were found (Gorjanović-Kramberger, 1899; 1906; 1913;). The Quarternary layers in the half-cave at the Hušnjak hill in Krapina stratisgraphically belong to the time of the last Riss - Würm interglacial period, (Malez, 1970 a), - the time period ranging from 130,000 up to 50,000 years before today. The most significant remnants found in Krapina are most definitely the proto-human remains. A total of 876 individual human remains were found - out of which 196 are single teeth, and the others are cranial and postcranial skeletal parts (Radovčić et. al. 1988).

At the site an entire skeleton was never found - the bones gathered were from different body parts, ranging from the skull to the bones of the feet. Even though the bones were mostly poorly preserved, they were significount for me interpreting the anatomy of the Krapina Neanderthals. Most of our knowledge of the Krapina Neanderthals comes from Dragutin Gorjanović-Kramberger, who published over sixty scientific works and two monographies based on his research of the remains found in Krapina (1906., 1913.). His paleoanthropological works contribute significantly to the European and world science of the fossil man, even today. After the studies done early this century, and a century long existance of the Krapina collection, the interest for studying Neanderthal man is still present today - especially during the last two decades - due to the discussions about the mechanisms of biological evolution and the roots and origins of modern man.

After the work done by Gorjanović-Kramberger, during the sixties, a more detailed stratisgraphical analysis of the site and designations of the cultural and faunistycal remains was undertaken (Malez, 1970a; 1970b; 1970c). In those works, done during the seventies and eighties, the most noticable are the works and contributions of American researchers, namely F.H.Smith, E. Trinkaus and M.H. Wolpoff . Smith (1976) was the first to do a more complete description of the Krapina collection after Gorjanović, and he also compared it to the Neanderthals of western Europe and the Near East. Trinkaus (1978.) dealt escpecially with the functional aspects, and Wolpoff (1979.) did some paleodemographic research based on the remains of the teeth. During the last two decades a total inventarisation and catalogisation of the collection has been performed (Trinkaus, 1975; Smith, 1976; Musgrave, 1977; Radovčić et al., 1988). Next to them, some authors (Ullrich, 1978; Russel, 1987; Minugh-Purvis, 1988 and others) performed different paleoanthropological researches which contributed to our knowledge about the Neanderthal man. Even today the collection of the remains of the Krapina proto-human even today draws the attention of numerous paleoanthropologists because of its paleonthological value and a large number of fossil samples.

The Explorer

Dragutin Gorjanović-Kramberger, a famous Croatian geologist, paleontologist and paleoanthropologist was born on October 25, 1856, the year of the discovery of the first Neandarthal man in Germany. As a young boy he showed interest in gathering the fossil remnants of plants and fish from the surrounding areas of Zagreb. In Zagreb he finished four grades of (real) gymnasium, and a part of his The Preparandium (Teachers Academy), and then went to study at the University of Zürich. From Zürich he went to München, where he started his paleontology studies. He studied with a famous European paleontologist Karl Zittel, who taught him everything he knew.  He got his Ph.D. in 1879 at the University of Tübingen, writing his dissertation on fossil fish from the Carpate mountains . The work was published in the famous Paleontographica magazine later that year in Cassel. In 1891 he was named the head principal of the Geology and Paleontology Department of the National Museum in Zagreb.

Up until the time of his discovery in Krapina he had worked in different areas of geology, paleontology and minerology. From 1899 to 1905, he led the geological excavations in Krapina and studied in detail the recovered fossil material. A very important part of his studies was a systematic and extremely regular method he used during the exploration of the site itself , which even today makes the understanding of the geological-pantheological relations of the complex easier. He led a precise diary of the excavations, stratisgraphic location of the findings, and made geological profiles and a detailed inventory of the Krapina collection. Also, his ability to recognize the various fragmented parts of the bones and ability to interpret the morphological differences and various changes on the bones themselves. Gorjanović had many discussions concerning the value of the Krapina collection, and he consulted and exchanged opinions with many famous experts worldwide.
He wrote numerous scientific works and led discussions concerning the discovery which made him famous world-wide. In the year 1906 he published his first monography, entitled "Der Diluviale Mensch von Krapina in Kroatien", the most significant work written dealing with the Krapina neanderthal. He recieved a golden medal from the king Franz Joseph I, and the title of the court advisor. H. Virchow, a famous anatomyst of the time, named him "the king of dilluvium".

He was the first man ever to use the x-ray to analyze the fossil bones. He participated in several scientific gatherings in Europe and gave a significant contribution to the Croatian geological science. He was also the founder of the Geological commision for the Kingdom of Croatia and Slavonia, which was a predecessor of the Geological Institute in Zagreb today. All in all, he published 237 works. He was named the court counsellor, honorary citizen of Zagreb, Krapina and Karlovac, honorary doctor at the Zagreb University, honorary member of the Choir of Croatian doctors, and the Croatian Natural History Society. After his death in 1936 up until today, many scientific gatherings dedicated to his greatest work have been held.
First and foremost, he was a tireless museum worker, an expert and an all-round scientist, as proved by his personality and entire scientific opus. The caring for his work is noticeable in the collection itself, his library, his works and scientific bonds he had with experts and institutions worldwide. He was one of the best paleontologist - his knowledge preceeding the time in which he lived. The amount of energy, consistency and careful attention he had while studying the remnants was incredible, as was the relentnesness and versatility of his work.

The Collection

The collection of the remains of the Krapina proto-human is a part of the world"s scientific heritage, and it represents one of the largest collections of remains of the fossil man found ever in one spot. For that very reason, this collection is probably one of the best samples for studying possible population relationships of the fossil man in general, especially pertaining to the Neanedrthal species. It is convenient for various morphological research and determining of the variable samples. It also contains the largest teeth collection of the fossil man.

The fossil remains of the Krapina Neanderthal consist mainly of fragmented remains from various parts of the skeleton. These skeletal remains belong to the fossil remains of several dozen individuals (up to eighty), and show the specific biological variability of the neanderthal man. The main subjects concerning the Neanderthal man discussed in the paleonthrophological science has always been its place in the flow of evolution of the modern man.
Scientists agree that Krapina prehistoric man represents the progressive following in the evolution of modern man. Kramberger himself at the beginning of this century compared this collection to some other rich osteological collections of the world, and linked the anatomy of the Krapina neanderthals with modern man. The discovery in Krapina was a proof that the fossil man really did exist, and that the remains found do not belong to some pathological creatures, but normal individuals.
The Krapina proto-human, judging from its anatomy, was probably robust-built - which is also the reflection of their way of life. It is considered that he lived a nomadic life, constantly searching for food and shelter. The cave was used as his habitat, indications of which are the layers of ashes found in the deposits. He used fire, and knew how to make primitive tools from stone used in everyday life. His stone tools are mostly crude, shaped as a knife or scratching tools, made mostly from river stones found around the cave. They are typical of the Mousterian culture. Besides stone, he also used bone tools. It"s considered that his average height was approximatly 160 cm, deducted from the studies of the various limb bones.

Unfortunately, an entire skull was never recovered, but only the fragments of frontal, parietal and occipitaltiljnih) bones. Some of them have prominent ridges over the eyes as well as the slanted brow. Most fossil findings were gathered in the deposits of the fourth layer of pleistocen (Homo sapiens Neanderthalensis zone). Interesting enough, a lot of the bones were found at a single spot, which was and remains until today the cause of many arguments. Since an entire skeleton was never found - most of the findings are fragmentary - the interpretation of Krapina findings mostly inspired differing opinions.
Some researchers think that the charred and fragmented bones are a proof of cannibalism, and that the bones themselves were intentionally torn apart and broken in order to get to the bone marrow inside of them. On some of the parietal bones there are visible scratching signs, which is also related to the act of cannibalism. However, other scientists think that the Krapina cave could have been a ritual site, where the dead were buried, and that is why a large number of human bones was found there.

The fragmentation of the findings is thought to have been caused by cracking in the process of sedimentation or as a direct consequence of the excavation marks. It is also considered that some healed broken bones from the Krapina collection indicate that there was some sort of care for the diseased relatives, including cannibalism. It all goes to show, we can how interesting various interpretations can be, and why the Krapina proto-human finding site in Croatia is truly unique, specific and mysterious.

Author of text: Vlasta Krklec
Photos are property of Museum of Evolution Husnjakovo, Krapina
(c) Museum of Evolution Husnjakovo, Krapina - www.krapina.com

(D.H., 09.01.2009)