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Why are Neanderthals named after a 1600s pastor?

Neanderthal museum, Germany: Detailed wax figure of Neanderthal man with spear

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Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 10/22/23

This 17th-century clergyman inadvertently gave his name to the famous prehistoric species, but his namesakes have far exceeded him in fame.

When Joachim Neander, a 17th-century Calvinist clergyman, went for long walks in a nearby valley, he never could have dreamed that he would give his name to the fossils found there many years later.

A sudden change of heart

Neander’s life story is interesting on its own, even apart from his connection to Neanderthal fossils. 

His father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather were all pastors. But young Joachim didn’t want to follow their path for a time, until he heard a life-changing sermon.

According to Neander’s biography in Our Hymns, Our Heritage:

As a teenager, Neander rebelled and chose friends who were a bad influence. One evening, when he was twenty years old, he and his friends attended a church service for the purpose of making fun of the new pastor. Providentially, the words spoken that night made such an impression on Neander that he stayed afterward to pray. He later came to faith in Christ through that same pastor, and they remained friends their whole lives. 

His story is very hopeful for Christian parents who are concerned about the influences on their children. Of course, Neander did go on to become a pastor, in the family line.

Sadly, Neander died at the young age of 30 from tuberculosis, but he gave the world some beautiful poetry and music before his death. 

Most famously, he wrote “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” while he was ill. This masterpiece of hymnody reminds us to trust in God’s ways even when things are hard, and to worship him in all things. 

The famous valley

Before he became a pastor, Neander worked as a teacher in the town of Düsseldorf. While living there, he often visited the nearby valley of the Düssel river, a beautiful place that inspired much of his writing. 

He even held gatherings and services in the valley, and his love for it was well known. As a result, in the early 1800s, the valley was renamed in his honor: “Neanderthal,” as thal (pronounced “tal”) means “valley” in German

It turns out that valley would become famous for more than just inspiring Neander. In 1856, sensational news rocked the world when the first identified specimen of a Neanderthal man was found there. 

That valley became the name of Neanderthals, and it turned out to be the perfect name as Neander is a variation on the name Neumann, meaning “new man.” How appropriate for the first known fossil of this kind!

That’s the story of how a 1600s clergyman inadvertently gave his name to the famous prehistoric species. But his namesakes have far exceeded him in fame. Neanderthals are known around the world and much studied, while far fewer are familiar with Joachim Neander today. 

Yet Neander’s legacy lives on in the beautiful music and poetry he wrote. Perhaps whenever we hear about Neanderthals, we can take a moment to remember the story of Joachim Neander, whose life was a witness to the words of his most famous hymn:

Praise to the Lord …

Hast thou not seen

How thy desires all have been

Granted in what He ordaineth?

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