By Kuntal Samadder
On Thursday 10th October, NUI Galway hosted a lecture by Professor Chris Stringer on Neanderthals. Professor Stinger, of the Natural History Museum London, is one of the most high-profile experts in human origins research. During the 5th annual William King Lecture at NUI Galway, Professor Stinger was awarded the William King Medal for his exceptional contribution to the understanding of human evolution.
The naming of Homo Neanderthalensis dates back in the year 1863, when Queens College Galway’s (as NUI Galway was known back then) first Professor of Geology and Mineralogy, William King, proposed the formal scientific name for Neanderthal people. In order to honour the scientific legacy of Professor King, a series of lectures were established in his name in 2015. Co-organiser of the lecture, Professor Heinz Peter Nasheuer of Biochemistry, NUI Galway, spoke of Professor King’s legacy, stating, “William King would go on to become the first scientist to successfully name a new human species based on actual fossil remains. It was a remarkable achievement, and also an extremely important step in the early development of palaeoanthropology in the Nineteenth Century”.
Prof. Stringer started working at the Natural History Museum in 1969 but joined permanently in 1973. His early studies centred around the relationship between Neanderthals and early modern humans in Europe, but through his extensive study on the recent African origin model for modern human origins, Prof Stringer now aims to reconstruct the evolution of modern humans globally, through a collaboration with archaeologists, dating specialists, and geneticists. His research findings have addressed one of the most fundamental questions in science: “What does it mean to be human?”
At the lecture, entitled, “The evolution and fate of the Neanderthals” , Professor Stringer commented that: “The last ten years have seen many exciting developments in the study of Neanderthals – from how they evolved through to when they disappeared, including the remarkable discovery that most of us alive today have about 2% of their DNA in our genomes. In my lecture, I will be presenting some of the latest evidence about these close relatives of ours”.
Professor Stringer is a Fellow of the Royal Society and an Honorary Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. In 2004, he was awarded the Rivers Memorial Medal from the Royal Anthropological Institute and, in 2008, won the Frink Medal of the Zoological Society of London. More recently, he was elected a Member of the American Philosophical Society. To date, he has published over 400 papers and books, and his recent output has included ‘The Origin of our Species’, ‘Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story’ and ‘Our Human Story’.
During the lecture, those in attendance were held spellbound by the eloquence of storytelling. Prof. Stringer praised the audience for raising very appropriate questions during the Q&A session at the end of the lecture.
Dr. John Murray, from the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences at NUI Galway, and co-organiser of the lecture, stated, “We are really delighted to welcome one of the world’s leading and most highly respected Neanderthal experts to NUI Galway. Professor Stringer is an icon to many in palaeoanthropology; his research on those most enigmatic of prehistoric people, the Neanderthals, has enlightened and inspired in equal measure. His investigations also continue in the spirit of work initially begun by William King here over a century and a half ago. The awarding of the King Medal to Professor Stringer, here in the institution where their formal scientific name was first coined, thus represents fitting completion of this scientific circle”.