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When the first Neanderthal fossils were dug up in the early 19th century CE (Engis child in 1830 CE and Forbes Quarry adult in 1848 CE) they were not immediately recognized as a kind of archaic human. Instead, the skeletons' peculiar anatomy, which clearly differed from modern humans, was explained away as resulting from diseases such as rickets. However, after a skeleton was discovered in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856 CE, the subsequent research was influenced by the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859 CE, and the ball began to roll. By 1864 CE the mysterious skeletons had been assigned to the species Homo neanderthalensis.
What we see as “classic” Neanderthals, with the full set of features associated with them, did not appear until around 70,000 years ago.
When & where did they live?
Owing to the difficulties that the process of evolution adds to the classification of species, there is no clear-cut date for the initial appearance of Neanderthals. Rather, we recognise that the first Neanderthal-like features appeared between c. 600,000-c. 400,000 years ago, with a progressively stronger expression of their morphology developing throughout time. Between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago their features are clear and recognisable, although what we see as “classic” Neanderthals, with the full set of features associated with them, did not appear until around 70,000 years ago.
Neanderthals share a common ancestor with modern humans in Africa, between c. 550,000 and c. 750,000 years ago. They are usually identified as Homo heidelbergensis, although a 2016 CE study suggests a divergence date for Neanderthals so far back in time it rules them out, and instead proposes Homo antecessor as the best candidate. Whoever it may have been, a group of this common ancestor species migrated into Europe, where it evolved not only into the Neanderthals but also into their sister group, the Denisovans, these two branches diverging more than 390,000 years ago, perhaps between 430,000-473,000 years ago. The common ancestor group that remained in Africa evolved into homo sapiens.
Neanderthals were very widespread: specimens have been found ranging from Spain and the Mediterranean to Northern Europe and Russia, as well as throughout the Near East, and as far east as Uzbekistan and Siberia.
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Considering the fact that Neanderthals evolved from their predecessor in Ice Age Western Eurasia and lived there for such a length of time, they needed to be well-adapted to the often cold climate. Short and stocky, with Neanderthal men averaging around 169 cms and Neanderthal women around 160 cms tall, and sporting broad and deep ribcages, these humans had a different build than the taller and lankier modern humans. Their heavy brow ridges, large faces with appropriately large noses, and lack of chin further set them apart.
Otherwise, Neanderthals share a whole host of derived features with modern humans, among which are enlarged brains (their brain cases were even larger than ours), and they also had less of a protruding face than many earlier archaic humans. These features make Neanderthal skulls markedly different from our own. Regarding hair and skin colour, Neanderthals likely had high variability – certainly higher than the arriving modern humans. Pale skin and red hair are suggested by the DNA from two specimens from Italy and Spain, whereas darker skin and brown or red hair are indicated in three individuals from Vindija, Croatia.
The fossil record also betrays that Neanderthals were anything but pushovers; they led harsh and dangerous lives. Almost all well-preserved adult skeletons show some sign of trauma, usually around the head or neck region, perhaps related to hunting strategies in which they had to come close to large prey animals. The fact that the majority of these lesions had healed or partially healed means that the individuals in question were socially cared for and recovered from their injuries to hunt another day. However, not everyone was that lucky; on average, Neanderthal adult life expectancy was very low, clearly owing to the physically stressful and dangerous nature of their lives.
Both the powerful build and amount of trauma seen in Neanderthals indicate they were active hunters, and what we know about the high reliance on meat in their diet ties in with the amount of energy hunting would have required. They ate mostly herbivore meat, from mammals such as bison, wild cattle, reindeer, deer, ibex and wild boar. Interestingly, the very largest of the Ice Age herbivores, woolly mammoths and woolly rhinoceros, actually represent a large part of the Neanderthal diet. It would have been no mean feat to bring these animals down, even for a coordinated group of skilled hunters – which the Neanderthals would have been. Besides meat there was also a strong plant component to their diet, most likely consisting of legumes and grasses, seeds and fruits. Moreover, it is clear that Neanderthals cooked their food and maybe even knew medicinal uses of plants.
As far as the tools Neanderthals used, they are most commonly (but not exclusively) associated with Mousterian lithic technology. Flint flakes were turned into side scrapers, retouched points, and small hand-axes, usually from locally available material. Very few bone tools are known, but wooden tools were most likely used, too. From at least 200,000 years ago Neanderthals had the ability to control fire, when we know it was used as a tool to produce birch-bark pitch, although they likely used it much earlier already, as controlled use of fire appeared throughout Europe from 400,000 years ago onward.
Not big on building their own structures (although exceptions are known), their fires would predominantly have lit caves or other natural shelters, in which the living areas that have been found are relatively small and a bit chaotic, showing no clear focus of activity. Hearths are well defined, though, and probably played a central role not just with regard to cooking or warmth but also for tool production.
Traditionally, Neanderthals were depicted as cognitively inferior to the arriving modern humans, with a less sophisticated culture and lack of symbolic thought that would have given our ancestors the edge. However, this image has now been overturned; Neanderthals were clearly a complex group. Besides coordinated hunting (for which effective communication is needed), caring for their wounded, advanced use of fire and tool production, Neanderthals have been known to intentionally bury their dead. Moreover, stalagmite rings built by the Neanderthals in Bruniquel cave in France, dated to 176,500 years ago, show planning, control of the underground environment, and perhaps symbolic use. They also perforated and coloured marine shells, and, strikingly, seem to have used red ochre at a site in Maastricht-Belvedère as early as a stunning 200,000-250,000 years ago, drawing it level with the time range documented for the African record for the use of ochre. These were no simple brutes, and their disappearance cannot be explained away by a large perceived gap in intelligence between our species.
Around 55,000 years ago, the main wave of modern humans that had left Africa met the Neanderthals in the Near- and Middle East, where they interbred. This was not the first time the two species met, however – there is also some evidence of genetic exchange between the two species happening roughly 100,000 years ago, possibly in the Near East. The later event of c. 55,000 years ago left the biggest genetic mark on our species, though, and from the Near East modern humans then spread across Eurasia, reaching Europe at the earliest around 45,000 years ago. They came in much larger numbers, both in group size and overall population density, than the present Neanderthals, who suddenly faced competition for resources. Not long after (on a prehistoric timescale, that is), around 40,000 years ago, the Neanderthals vanished from the fossil record.
Besides competition, another factor that may have played a role in the Neanderthals' disappearance is the climate, which was much more unstable around that time than previously recognised. This may have stressed their population, which was already many times smaller than the invading modern humans' numbers, leaving them vulnerable to their impact.
Moreover, interbreeding with Neanderthals helped modern humans adapt to the colder climate in Europe, as their genes impacted our skin colour and hair. Due to our ancestors mixing with Neanderthals after leaving Africa, in total, non-African humans possess on average around ~2% Neanderthal DNA. However, the two groups were clearly only on the cusp of biological compatibility, as research has shown that interbreeding led to decreased fertility as well as miscarriages when male babies possessed a Neanderthal Y chromosome. This would have decreased the total Neanderthal genetic contribution. When combining this with the vast difference in population sizes between the two groups, it may suggest interbreeding played a significant part in explaining why Neanderthals vanished – perhaps they were partially 'absorbed' into our population. In the end, the Neanderthals' disappearance must have come down to a combination of many different factors, including vast competition, the harsh environment, as well as some measure of interbreeding. We are only beginning to uncover the exact details of the genetic influence they had on us, though, so we are definitely not done with them yet.
The ancient history of Neanderthals in Europe
The femur of a male Neandertal from Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave, Germany. Credit: © Oleg Kuchar, Museum Ulm
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have retrieved nuclear genome sequences from the femur of a male Neanderthal discovered in 1937 in Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave, Germany, and from the maxillary bone of a Neanderthal girl found in 1993 in Scladina Cave, Belgium. Both Neanderthals lived around 120,000 years ago, and therefore predate most of the Neanderthals whose genomes have been sequenced to date.
By examining the nuclear genomes of these two individuals, the researchers could show that these early Neanderthals in Western Europe were more closely related to the last Neanderthals who lived in the same region as much as 80,000 years later, than they were to contemporaneous Neanderthals living in Siberia. "The result is truly extraordinary and a stark contrast to the turbulent history of replacements, large-scale admixtures and extinctions that is seen in modern human history," says Kay Prüfer who supervised the study.
Intriguingly, unlike the nuclear genome, the mitochondrial genome of the Neanderthal from Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave in Germany is quite different from that of later Neanderthals—a previous report showed that more than 70 mutations distinguish it from the mitochondrial genomes of other Neanderthals. The researchers suggest that early European Neanderthals may have inherited DNA from a yet undescribed population. "This unknown population could represent an isolated Neanderthal population yet to be discovered, or may be from a potentially larger population in Africa related to modern humans," explains Stéphane Peyrégne who led the analysis.
- The Maxillary bone of a Neandertal girl from Scladina Cave, Belgium. Credit: © J. Eloy, AWEM, Archéologie andennaise
- Scladina Cave. Credit: D. Bonjean, © Archéologie andennaise
The study is published in Science Advances today.
Processing of samples in the ancient DNA laboratory and analysis of the sequencing data generated. Credit: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Neanderthals Were Predators and Territorial Like Us
Anatomically modern humans left Africa about 200,000 years ago. We know that they encountered Neanderthals because there is some evidence of interbreeding between the two hominins. This may indicate that the two species lived in harmony and even cooperated.
Nicholas R Longrich, who teaches evolutionary biology and paleontology at the University of Bath, Britain wrote in Science Alert that “It's tempting to see them in idyllic terms, living peacefully with nature and each other, like Adam and Eve in the Garden.” Many philosophers believed that war and violence are modern phenomena that were biproducts of civilization.
Prehistoric Neanderthals or Homo Sapiens? It's difficult to say as we were so similar. (Gorodenkoff / Adobe Stock )
But as Longrich writes in Science Alert “Biology and paleontology paint a darker picture.” Neanderthals were predators and they were hard-wired to be territorial. They would defend their territory with violence, and they would work in a cooperative way to fight off all trespassers. This means that the extinction of Neanderthals could not have been easy.
IQ: How Clever Were Neanderthals?
[I was wondering how high the IQ of the Neanderthals were? Some scientists had said they were not that clever. I recall in one documentary that a scientist said that Neanderthals had as many injuries as a rodeo cowboy from actual physical contact with animals in hunting with spears. But other studies seem to suggest that they were quite clever. Jan]
When geologist William King introduced a new species of human, Homo neanderthalensis, to the European scientific community in 1864, he wasn’t very generous toward our extinct evolutionary cousins.
"I feel myself constrained to believe that the thoughts and desires which once dwelt within it never soared beyond those of a brute," King concluded after examining the skull that had been found in the Neander Valley, Germany, a decade earlier.
It was a lousy, and lasting, first impression. Thus, "Neanderthal" became not only a new species, but a pejorative term. However, research has come a long way since then: So how smart were the Neanderthals, based on what we know today? [The 10 Biggest Mysteries of the First Humans]
An ongoing riddle
Anthropologists’ early perception of Neanderthals was partly rooted in racist ideology that one’s intelligence or humanity could be assessed from skull shape, said João Zilhão, a professor at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA) at the University of Barcelona. Many of those scientists also shared a view that evolution was all about progress, and that ancestral human species like Neanderthals were necessarily much more "primitive" than humans are today. Those assumptions have been discredited (if not hard to shake from Western science and pop culture). Humbling new discoveries over the past few decades have helped to rehabilitate Neanderthals’ reputation as people who were a lot like us.
"The only way to assess their intelligence — whatever that means, but that’s a different issue — is by what they did," Zilhão told Live Science. And it turns out that Neanderthals did a lot of things that were once thought to be exclusive to modern human culture.
They worked stones and bones into tools and ornaments much like the kind created by modern humans who were alive at the same time. (Neanderthals lived in Europe and Southwest Asia from about 400,000 to 40,000 years ago.) They invented glue using tar from birch bark to attach wooden handles to stones. They made necklaces from eagle talons. Neanderthals used fire to cook food, and new studies on stone tools suggest they had the technology to spark fires, too. (In other words, they didn’t just have to chase embers when lightning struck to fuel their hearths.)
Some evidence suggests Neanderthals also had spiritual and ritual practices. Tombs discovered at sites like La Chapelle-aux-Saints in southwestern France show that these archaic humans buried their dead. At another site in France, researchers discovered that Neanderthals descended deep inside a cave and created enigmatic stone circles out of stalagmites 176,000 years ago.
The extent of Neanderthals’ symbolic abilities is still debated they were alive at the same time as modern humans were creating some of the first abstract and figurative cave art, but few artworks have been attributed to these people. However, in 2018, in a win for the Neanderthals, researchers reported that 65,000-year-old abstract images in Spanish caves must have been created by Neanderthals. (Scientists think that modern humans didn’t get to Western Europe until about 42,000 years ago.)
Based on their bones, we know that Neanderthals were capable of at least making complex sounds. It’s hard to prove that Neanderthals had language because they didn’t leave us any writings (although neither did anatomically modern humans from the same period). But some researchers have argued that they probably did have sophisticated ways of communicating.
What’s more, genetic evidence has shown that modern humans mated with Neanderthals before these individuals disappeared about 40,000 years ago. Many of us today still have 1 to 2 percent Neanderthal DNA, findings that suggest that modern humans who encountered these individuals saw them as people, too.
DNA from cave dirt tells tale of how some Neanderthals disappeared
Estatuas cave in northern Spain was a hive of activity 105,000 years ago. Artifacts show its Neanderthal inhabitants hafted stone tools, butchered red deer, and may have made fires. They also shed, bled, and excreted subtler clues onto the cave floor: their own DNA. “You can imagine them sitting in the cave making tools, butchering animals. Maybe they cut themselves or their babies pooped,” says population geneticist Benjamin Vernot, a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA), whose perspective may have been colored by his own baby’s cries during a Zoom call. “All that DNA accumulates in the dirt floors.”
He and MPI-EVA geneticist Matthias Meyer report today in Science that dirt from Estatuas has yielded molecular treasure: the first nuclear DNA from an ancient human to be gleaned from sediments. Earlier studies reported shorter, more abundant human mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from cave floors, but nuclear DNA, previously available only from bones and teeth, can be far more informative. “Now, it seems that it is possible to extract nuclear DNA from dirt, and we have a lot of dirt in archaeological sites,” says archaeologist Marie Soressi of Leiden University.
“This is a beautiful paper,” agrees population geneticist Pontus Skoglund of the Francis Crick Institute. The sequences reveal the genetic identity and sex of ancient cave dwellers and show that one group of Neanderthals replaced another in the Spanish cave about 100,000 years ago, perhaps after a climate cooling. “They can see a shift in Neanderthal populations at the very same site, which is quite nice,” Skoglund says.
To date, paleogeneticists have managed to extract ancient DNA from the bones or teeth of just 23 archaic humans, including 18 Neanderthals from 14 sites across Eurasia. In search of more, Vernot and Meyer’s team sampled sediment from well-dated layers in three caves where ancient humans are known to have lived: the Denisova and Chagyrskaya caves in Siberia and Estatuas cave in Atapuerca, Spain.
In what Skoglund calls “an amazing technical demonstration,” they developed new genetic probes to fish out hominin DNA, allowing them to ignore the abundant sequences from plants, animals, and bacteria. Then, they used statistical methods to home in on DNA unique to Neanderthals and compare it with reference genomes from Neanderthals in a phylogenetic tree.
All three sites yielded Neanderthal nuclear and mtDNA, with the biggest surprise coming from the small amount of nuclear DNA from multiple Neanderthals in Estatuas cave. Nuclear DNA from a Neanderthal male in the deepest layer, dating to about 113,000 years ago, linked him to early Neanderthals who lived about 120,000 years ago in Denisova cave and in caves in Belgium and Germany.
But two female Neanderthals who lived in Estatuas cave later, about 100,000 years ago, had nuclear DNA more closely matching that of later, “classic” Neanderthals, including those who lived less than 70,000 years ago at Vindija cave in Croatia and 60,000 to 80,000 years ago at Chagyrskaya cave, says co-author and paleoanthropologist Juan Luis Arsuaga of the Complutense University of Madrid.
At the same time, the more plentiful mtDNA from Estatuas cave shows declining diversity. Neanderthals in the cave 113,000 years ago had at least three types of mtDNA. But the cave’s Neanderthals 80,000 and 107,000 years ago had only one type. Existing ancient DNA from Neanderthal bones and teeth had also pointed to a falloff in genetic diversity over the same period.
Arsuaga suggests Neanderthals thrived and diversified during the warm, moist interglacial period that started 130,000 years ago. But about 110,000 years ago, temperatures in Europe dipped suddenly as a new glacial period set in. Soon after, all but one lineage of Neanderthals disappeared. Members of the surviving lineage repopulated Europe during later, relatively warm spells, with some taking shelter in Estatuas cave.
Those survivors and their descendants include what Arsuaga calls the “famous” classic Neanderthals, such as skulls from Vindija and La Ferrassie in France. He notes they had bigger brains—up to 1750 cubic centimeters (cm 3 )—than earlier Neanderthals, whose cranial capacities were no larger than 1400 cm 3 . Arsuaga says this mirrors a similar pattern in modern humans in Africa, who also underwent a surge in brain size and multiple population replacements with the onset of the ice age.
"This pattern—dispersal over perhaps long distances and population replacement or admixture—is one that we find almost everywhere we look,” in humans or other mammals, says Beth Shapiro, a molecular biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Cave dirt DNA is likely to yield more clues. Paleogeneticist Viviane Slon, a co-author of the Science paper now at Tel Aviv University, says she and the MPI-EVA team are analyzing ancient DNA from sediments at dozens of sites worldwide. “Hopefully soon, we’ll start to get a very high-resolution, fine-scale view of ancient humans and who was where at what time,” she says.
How Neanderthals lost their Y chromosome
Neanderthals have long been seen as uber-masculine hunks, at least compared with their lightweight human cousins, with whom they competed for food, territory, and mates. But a new study finds Homo sapiens men essentially emasculated their brawny brethren when they mated with Neanderthal women more than 100,000 years ago. Those unions caused the modern Y chromosomes to sweep through future generations of Neanderthal boys, eventually replacing the Neanderthal Y.
The new finding may solve the decade-old mystery of why researchers have been unable to find a Neanderthal Y chromosome. Part of the problem was the dearth of DNA from men: Of the dozen Neanderthals whose DNA has been sequenced so far, most is from women, as the DNA in male Neanderthal fossils happened to be poorly preserved or contaminated with bacteria. “We began to wonder if there were any male Neanderthals,” jokes Janet Kelso, a computational biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and senior author of the new study.
But in a technical breakthrough, Max Planck graduate student Martin Petr designed a set of probes that used the DNA sequence from small chunks of modern men’s Y chromosomes to “fish out” and bind with DNA from archaic men’s Y chromosomes. The new method works because the Neanderthal and modern human chromosomes are mostly similar the DNA probes also reel in the few basepairs that differ.
The researchers probed the fragmentary Y chromosomes of three Neanderthal men from Belgium, Spain, and Russia who lived about 38,000 to 53,000 years ago, and two male Denisovans, close cousins of Neanderthals who lived in Siberia’s Denisova Cave about 46,000 to 130,000 ago. When the researchers sequenced the DNA, they got a surprise: The Neanderthal Y “looked more like modern humans’ than Denisovans’,” Kelso says.
This was a “puzzle,” Petr says, as earlier studies showed the rest of the Neanderthal nuclear genome is a closer match for Denisovans. That suggests the two groups diverged from modern humans about 600,000 years ago. But the appearance of the unusual Y chromosome parallels another genetic takeover: Neanderthal remains dating from 38,000 to 100,000 years ago contain the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of a modern human woman, instead of the ancient Neanderthal mtDNA found in earlier fossils. In that case, an early H. sapiens woman likely interbred with a Neanderthal man more than 220,000 years ago and their descendants carried the modern mtDNA.
The best scenario to explain the Y pattern is that early modern human men mated with Neanderthal women more than 100,000 but less than 370,000 years ago, according to the team’s computational models. Their sons would have carried the modern human Y chromosome, which is paternally inherited. The modern Y then rapidly spread through their offspring to the small populations of Neanderthals in Europe and Asia, replacing the Neanderthal Y, the researchers report today in Science . Interestingly, the modern human mates were not ancestors to today’s H. sapiens—but were likely part of a population that migrated early out of Africa and then went extinct. Traces of Neanderthal DNA in living humans were inherited from a separate mixing event between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago.
Researchers aren’t sure exactly why the replacement happened. Natural selection may have favored the H. sapiens Y chromosome, because Neanderthals had more deleterious mutations across their genomes, Kelso says. Neanderthals had smaller populations than moderns, and small populations tend to accumulate deleterious mutations, especially on the X and Y sex chromosomes. Modern humans, with their bigger, more genetically diverse ancestral populations, may have had a genetic advantage. Another possibility is that once Neanderthals had inherited a modern human mtDNA, their cells might have favored interaction with the modern human Y, says computational biologist Adam Siepel of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, who was not part of the study.
The best way to test this scenario is to get DNA from early Neanderthals to see whether their Y chromosome looked more like the one in Denisovans. In the meantime, the study shows the admixture between modern humans and Neanderthals was “a defining feature of hominin history,” says population geneticist Josh Akey of Princeton University, not part of the study. Not only did it give modern humans Neanderthal DNA, but it also changed Neanderthals in fundamental ways.
A Neanderthal's stroke of bad luck
Imagine, if you will, being a typical Neanderthal man. According to The Natural History Museum, London, you're short, standing below 5'7". Your arms and legs aren't as long as your Homo sapiens cousin's, but, girl, you thicc. Your body is muscular and powerful. You're built not to run down your prey, but to ambush it and take it down in close combat. To modern humans, you'd be a pretty funny looking person. Sorry, but it's true. Your face protrudes outward, you'd have a large brow and squat skull cap, and you'd be pretty much absent chin, but you have large, goofy front teeth to make up for it. So, you've got that going for your Neanderthal self.
There you are, in all your awkward Neanderthal glory, walking through what would later be southern Italy, looking for food, a mate, or maybe you're walking off the silly feeling from those mushrooms you found in that field. Then — BAM! — you fall. Had you been looking down, you may have noticed the sinkhole you were about to walk into, but you didn't. Now, you're stuck. You're shouting or grunting for help, but, according to Discovery, scientists haven't yet proven if you can or cannot speak, so who knows if anyone could understand your pleas. Regardless, you remained in that sinkhole, the days passing by while you anxiously starved to death. And, like the unluckiest Neanderthal in history, your body would remain there for tens of thousands of years.
Neanderthal in the mirror: our changing perceptions of these ancient humans
Nobody alive today remembers a time before we knew the Neanderthals. Yet their discovery happened very recently in the wider context of human history – barely five generations back. 1856 is the official Neanderthal “ground zero”, when bones materialised in a cloud of clay clods and black powder from the Feldhofer cave, near Düsseldorf in Germany.
This was the first recognised find. Nearly three decades earlier, a Neanderthal skull-top had been discovered in a Belgian cave, but its unusual anatomy was less obvious because it was a child. In 1848 yet another skull emerged, this time from near the Forbes military battery on Gibraltar. This nearly became the “type” fossil for the species. But its true significance only became clear just after the Feldhofer find had been given a scientific moniker: Homo neanderthalensis, after the Neander “thal” (valley), where it was discovered.
But the Forbes skull, which belonged to a Neanderthal woman who lived around 90,000 years ago, does have a first to its name, as the subject of the earliest reconstruction of a hominin fossil. On 19 July 1864, just a few days after the skull had arrived in England by ship, biologist Thomas Huxley sketched “Homo Hercules columarum”, or Pillars of Hercules man, a reference to the classical name for the Rock of Gibraltar. Based on the skull, Huxley envisioned ape-like features including a hairy pelt (skin) and a short tail. Strikingly, there are long feet with opposable toes (also an ape-like feature).
“Homo Hercules columarum” will go down in history as the world’s first reconstruction of a Neanderthal. It was, of course, far from the last. From the 1860s onwards, imaginations bloomed and artistic interpretations started multiplying. In the century and a half since Huxley drew the Forbes woman, anatomists, authors and artists have produced hugely diverse depictions of this human species – everything from threatening brutes rendered on canvas to hyper-realistic digital portraits. This diversity is a reflection of both the evolution of artistic tastes and our growing knowledge of how the Neanderthals lived, inspired by archaeological discoveries. But, crucially, it is also a manifestation of the way in which they force us, as fellow humans, to reconsider ourselves.
In search of culture
For all its status as a “first”, “Homo Hercules columarum” wasn’t entirely original. In fact, it bore a resemblance to an illustration published in 1838 by Pierre Boitard in Magasin Universel: “L’homme fossile”. Despite being portrayed as a kind of “missing link” to other apes, “L’homme fossile” sports a carnivore’s pelt and carries a wooden-handled stone axe.
Perhaps the most “civilised” of the early visions of the Neanderthals was that by Ernest Griset in Harper’s Weekly, 1873. The presence of (minimal) clothing in the form of a worked animal skin and a hafted stone axe are reminiscent of “L’homme fossile”, but significantly the body is upright, and there’s no hint of hairy skin. Aside from a woman lying despondently in the cave’s rear, there are two apparently domesticated dogs next to a finely crafted stone-tipped spear.
Griset’s illustration was somewhat speculative – it wasn’t until the 1880s that Neanderthal bones were actually excavated in association with stone artefacts. From that point onwards, it was certain that, as Griset seems to have surmised, Neanderthals did have culture.
The impact of the discovery of Neanderthals beyond the scientific sphere in the second half of the 19th century and onwards should not be underestimated. Along with other reality-shaking discoveries – radio waves, electro-magnetism, the existence of galaxies beyond our own – it had a dramatic impact on culture. Not only was the age of the Earth vastly greater than once conceived, but the feet of other types of human had once walked the land. This all fed into the mélange of excitement and existential anxiety that underlay the nascent genre of science fiction and fantasy literature.
Within two decades of the Feldhofer finding, novels featuring prehistoric humans began appearing, meeting the appetite of a society struggling to situate itself in cosmological terms. And interestingly, cross-overs can be seen in other ways: some of the same artists illustrating popular science books featuring Neanderthals were also producing art for Jules Verne’s novels Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) and From the Earth to the Moon (1865).
By the first decades of the 20th century, artistic interpretations of Neanderthals were splitting into different visions. Marcel Boule, an eminent anatomist, studied one of the first “in-situ” Neanderthal skeletons, from La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France. His 1911 publication not only provided the first full anatomical guide to their skeletons, but also included the Edwardian version of 3D graphics: stereo photographs allowed readers to transcend the flat pages and meet the gaze of those vast, empty eye-sockets.
The artist Franz Kupka produced an immensely influential reconstruction of this Neanderthal, known as the “Old Man”, in 1909. It envisioned a gorilla-like, stooped creature with bared teeth and a hefted branch or bone. Though Kupka apparently collaborated with Boule, his Neanderthal’s feet are overly ape-like this is more akin to a missing link than a near relation.
Just two years later, the “Old Man” also appeared in the Illustrated London News. Commissioned by another expert, Arthur Keith, this image showcased a different perspective. Keith’s vision of Neanderthals was not as dead-end failures, but as our ancestors, and the result was an almost domestic Neanderthal with a sizeable but tidy beard, sitting carefully making tools by a blazing fire, complete with jewellery.
Around the same time, reflecting the contemporary influence of white supremacy, including eugenics, distinctly racialised images of Neanderthals began to emerge. This is most explicit in a colour illustration from the book Leben und Heimat des Urmenschen, written by Ludwig Wilser, a German populariser of race science and ardent Aryanist. Published the year after Kupka’s reconstruction, this Neanderthal is similarly bent over, but also has a primitive divergent toe. Beneath its fur, the skin colour is brown, while head hair and beard are both tightly curled. This is intended to be read as a black person. What’s more, there are no cultural items – the Neanderthal is simply carrying a branch and boulder.
Another of the most bestial depictions of the Neanderthals appeared just two years later in a book by Henry Knipe. Here a small family group, once again hairy and dark-skinned, huddle against a clifflooking both petrified and aggressive. The female holds an infant and stick, the male a rock.
A lack of “spark”
By the end of the 1920s, Neanderthals had made the transition from books to exhibition halls, as the subject of a large-scale diorama (scene) in Chicago’s Field Museum. Made by the sculptor Frederick Blaschke, the bodies of a number of Neanderthals are gorgeously realistic, even beautiful. Blaschke took some care, too, to represent the archaeological evidence, with one woman working animal hides using a stone tool. Yet what’s most arresting about these embodied Neanderthals is their lack of “spark”. The postures are mostly passive, even dejected their expressions downcast or vacant. They do not resemble beings at home in the world, and look as if they’re waiting for their own extinction.
And it’s this very theme that came to the fore after the Second World War when extermination of those classed as subhuman had been industrialised. William Golding’s novel The Inheritors (1955) presents us as aggressors, spreading through the world. His gentle Neanderthal protagonist, Lok, describes the incomers as: “…like a famished wolf in the hollow of a tree… They are like the river and the fall… nothing stands against them.”
Relatively peaceable Neanderthals also began appearing in mid-20th-century art. Czech artist Zdeněk Burian not only had them hunting small game, but also managed to make a cannibalism scene appear as a calm response to death, rather than murderous carnage. In Burian’s painting, the Neanderthals are still noticeably dark-skinned. It’s possible this was being drawn from anthropology itself, since theories that it had taken non-white human races longer to become “sapiens” persisted through the 1960s and beyond.
It was actually one notable proponent of this idea, Carleton Coon, who was responsible for what became something of a “meme” in Neanderthal reconstructions: dressing them in modern clothing. His sketch, in a 1939 book, of a male sporting business attire and a hat, was echoed in 1957 by anatomists William Straus and AJE Cave who stated that if a Neanderthal was “reincarnated and placed in a New York subway – provided that he were bathed, shaved and dressed in modern clothing – it is doubtful whether he would attract any more attention than some of its other denizens”. In the 1990s, a sculpture for the Neanderthal Museum, Germany was presented in a suit, complete with newspaper in his pocket.
As the 20th century wore on, however, archaeology itself began to mature, with better excavation and recording, and increased use of scientific methods for dating and analysis. This filtered out from academia, and began altering how the public perceived Neanderthals more widely.
Deep plant lore
By the 1980s Jean Auel’s hugely popular Earth’s Children novels were portraying Neanderthals not as inherently violent, but as compassionate and knowledgeable with a hybrid gestural-vocal language, and deep plant lore. The epic story begins when Iza, a Neanderthal woman, rescues Ayla, a young Homo sapiens girl who is near death. In doing so, she forces us to see ourselves through different eyes: “Peculiar looking little thing, she thought. Rather ugly in a way. Her face is so flat with that high bulging forehead, and little stub of a nose, and what a strange bony knob beneath her mouth… And so thin, I can feel her bones… Iza put her arm around the girl protectively.”
Meanwhile, in the genre of “palaeoart”, illustrators such as Mauricio Antón began homing in on the individuality of Neanderthals, as well as underlining the social worlds in which they lived.
Since 2000 the gap between us and Neanderthals has shrunk further. The latest research suggests that they were top hunters with diverse diets, technologically sophisticated and innovative, dealt with the dead in varying ways and appear to have had an aesthetic interest in materials like pigment. It’s fascinating, then, that as they have come closer to us behaviourally, one of the most dramatic changes in reconstructions from the past 20 years is the direction of gaze. Rather than us observing Neanderthals, they now stare back at us. Even more, they increasingly appear confident, even happy. Dutch palaeoartists Adrie and Alfons Kennis were responsible for the first smiling sculpture, based on the original Feldhofer find. A later Kennis brothers work, from 2016, extends this emotional theme, representing the adult woman from Forbes Quarry, Gibraltar. Her eyes crinkle as she smiles contentedly (even proudly), embraced around the hips by a young boy. Partly hiding, his face communicates curiosity beneath nervousness.
What’s most touching about this pair (named Nana and Flint) is that, while their earthly remains lay less than a kilometre apart, in reality they could never have met. She lived and died around 90,000 years ago, and he – only five years old when he died – some 40 millennia later.
Intriguingly, the Kennis brothers are also responsible for reconstructions that reveal something the world had never before seen: an attractive Neanderthal.
Beers and perfumes
Just as it once appeared inconceivable that an artist would construct a handsome Neanderthal (such as the one shown at the start of this article), so the idea that one would inhabit the world of celebrity culture seemed equally far fetched. Yet all that changed in 2018–19, when visitors to Paris’s Musée de l’Homme were greeted by Kinga, created by the French sculptor Elisabeth Daynès. Kinga is a Neanderthal, but, sporting a playful expression, perfectly coiffured hair and an outfit designed by the renowned couturier “agnès b”, she is also uncannily modern. In front of her is a wall of media headlines about Neanderthals, as well as 21st-century brands referencing Neanderthals, such as beers and perfumes. She is basking in paparazzi flashes, lapping up the attention we’ve lavished on her kind for so long. She even holds an edition of the women’s magazine Causette, with herself on the cover as “Millennial Woman”.
These themes of connectedness continue to shine out from the most recent literature and art representing Neanderthals. Claire Cameron’s novel The Last Neanderthal (2017) includes luminous chapters imagining the life of “Girl” some 40,000 years ago, describing how she lives with what readers eventually realise is a foundling Homo sapiens boy. “Runt’s limbs were oddly slim. His chest was as narrow as a leg.… He had chattered. Rather than call the boy a crowthroat, she tried to listen. She was amused by the sounds. Fast and scaly, the words slithered past his ears and into the wind.”
In the sphere of digital media, the celebrated palaeoartist Tom Björklund has produced a series of realistic and profoundly affecting images, imbued with personality, even soul. His works are central features of a new exhibition scheduled to run later this year at the Moesgaard Museum, Denmark, which will feature portraits reminiscent of oil paintings together with scenes rooted in the latest archaeological discoveries.
It’s in this context of artists increasingly merging complex archaeological evidence with nuanced cultural views that my book Kindred was published last year. As well as featuring historical representations, I included two of Björklund’s portrait-type works, one of which is quite revolutionary. He depicts a male Neanderthal carrying a young child on his shoulders, both looking off to the side. Through the wider milieu of palaeoart, it’s extraordinarily unusual to see males interacting with children, never mind affectionately touching them.
Artistic representations of Neanderthals have been on an extraordinary journey over the past century and a half. Whatever the future has in store for us with new discoveries, we can be sure our drive to know Neanderthals will find new artistic expression. They exist as dry bones in glass cabinets, in digital 3D reconstructions, and in the very bodies of billions of people, but are also created anew in our imaginations.
Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ bestselling book, Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, was published by Bloomsbury Sigma in 2020. She discussed the Neanderthals on a recent episode of the HistoryExtra podcast
4. A Tendency for Depression From Archaic Genes
The same genetic inheritance regarding circadian rhythms is also associated with an increased level of chronic depression. Lack of sunlight is a known cause of depression among humans living in northern latitudes, and the prevalence of some of the mutations increases the farther a population is from the equator. Neanderthal alleles near the CDH6 gene are associated with an increased frequency of feeling unenthused and apathetic.
Addiction to substances such as tobacco is also influenced by these genes. While prevalent in less than 0.5% of the European population, one variant on the SLC6A11 gene increases the likelihood of addiction and is a positive predictor of smoking behavior.
About the Show
Eight years ago, there was an incredible breakthrough: the Neanderthal genome was first decoded. The greatest surprise was that most modern humans have inherited Neanderthal DNA, and that there is approximately two percent of their DNA inside everyone from outside sub-Saharan Africa. These genes have helped shape modern humans into what we are today, and they continue to affect us. So, what kind of people were our ancient ancestors?
This two-part series investigates what Neanderthals looked like and what would have happened when we met them. What we thought we knew about them is wrong. They weren’t hunched, grunting, knuckle-dragging ape-men at all. In a reconstructed, imaginary confrontation, we discover that they were faster, smarter, better-looking, and much more like us than we ever thought.
Our guide is Ella Al-Shamahi, a young rising star in Neanderthal research with an unusual sideline as a stand-up comic. She enlists the skills of Andy Serkis, the global movie star best known as Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" and Caesar in "Planet of the Apes," who uses his Hollywood magic to - for the first time ever - create a scientifically-accurate, 3-D, working avatar of a real Neanderthal.
In Andy Serkis’ studio, Ella brings together a core group of experts from all over the world – our Key Investigating Scientists - who are at the cutting edge of Neanderthal research. They help Andy translate the very latest Neanderthal science into digital design. Ella also gathers evidence by pursuing leads across the globe, meeting leading experts in their labs and at significant sites of Neanderthal discovery, from Iraqi Kurdistan to Gibraltar. Across the two shows, the scientists reveal ground-breaking discoveries about Neanderthal appearance, anatomy, movement, brain function, child development, diet, health, and culture.