Who Were the Neandertals?

So now that we know how and when the Neandertals evolved (from an earlier post), let’s talk about who they were and how they behaved. Physically, they were in very many ways similar to us. They were different too, but it’s easy to focus on differences and forget how similar we are. So I’ll describe some differences but keep in mind that you are starting with an image of the modern human body, and modifying from there. Someone once asked me whether Neandertals had extra or different bones than we do. The question surprised me, but since it was asked I’ll answer it here. No, we don’t. We share the same type and number of bones as the Neandertals, and essentially every other Hominin species. In fact, we share the same bones with non-human primates. To go even further, most of our bones are similar to all mammals. Some four-legged animals may have one bone that is basically two of our bones fused together, but otherwise the same. It’s part of evolution. We have the same “body map” as all living beings – head, torso, four limbs – because we all evolved from the same organism. But I digress. Anyway, the difference between our bones and Neandertals’ bones are in shape and size (actually in density and internal structure too, if you’re curious).

Neandertals were generally shorter and stockier than we are. They had a barrel shaped rib cage, making their torso much wider. They had shorter lower arms and leg bones, proportional to their upper arms and legs. Their fingers were wider and did not taper to the tips like ours do. The skull is where you can most easily see the most striking differences. Their nose is much bigger and wider than ours. They have a large, protruding brow ridge, and their cheek bones go straight back instead of out, which makes their face stick out much more than ours. This is called prognathism, your dog having the most extreme example – in animals, it’s called a snout.55-45894-skulls-1363198263 Their skull had a long, low, stretched out shape, like an American football, whereas ours is comparatively very round, like a basketball. And this skull had enough room in it for a brain that was as large as, or in fact slightly larger than our own. As for the rest, we can’t know from the fossil record. However, there is DNA evidence that leads us to believe that they had pale skin and even freckles and red hair.

Some scientists conclude that Neandertals’ shorter, stockier, more compact body was adapted for colder weather. They include the size and shape of their nose as part of this argument (but some disagree). The argument goes that it warmed cold air before it reached the brain. Other scientists argue that these adaptations were merely a result of reproductive isolation (see earlier post). This is a blog, not an academic paper, so I get to state my opinion that is not backed up by research. (Wooo! I’m drunk with power and freedom!) I favor the reproductive isolation explanation. One reason I think the cold-adapted theory falls short is that the climate fluctuated throughout Neandertals’ time on earth – it was not continuously freezing cold. But another reason is when I look at northern populations, I don’t see similar adaptations. You could make this claim about Eskimos, but explain Scandinavians then, who are tall and lanky. Danes even sometimes have a little upturned or pointy nose (I have a Scandinavian background myself, probably why the argument strikes me as inadequate). Yes, Scandinavians populated that region in only the last 15,000 years, so maybe not enough time for cold-weather body adaptation, but still… something about it seems off to me, and I just don’t buy it. But to be clear, this is my opinion not a research paper and I have no data to back me up. Maybe one day I will do some real research into it.

So what were the Neandertals like, then? Who were they? I get Google alerts for news on Neandertals/Neanderthals (can be spelled either way) and part of the time the article is about how some frat boys have behaved badly or someone has said something bigoted. Nothing to do with actual Neandertals. Type #neanderthal into Twitter and you are unlikely to see paleoanthropological posts. Actually, don’t do that search on Twitter. The last time I did, it was an absolute horror show of racist memes. Really chilling stuff. Sometimes becoming technologically sophisticated means learning what NOT to look up online. Anyway. Were Neandertals really big dumb cavemen who lived like animals and died out because we are smarter and just plain better? In a word: No. In two words: Absolutely not.

It’s surprising to me how pervasive this misperception of Neandertals still is in our culture. In the past, scientists did think of Neandertals as ape-men, but their perception changed in the 1950s, and there is now really no reason to think that the Neandertals were any less intelligent than we are. Neandertal brains were not smaller than ours, and in fact were often slightly bigger. Although we can never know what it sounded like or how it was constructed, there is really no doubt Neandertals had language. This image of Neandertals as unevolved ape-men is so frustratingly common among even highly educated people that it got me thinking, this kind of outdated or just misinformed thinking is probably common to many fields, if not all. Dear readers, what basic concept in your field does the public have completely wrong? I’d love to hear about it. Enlighten us in the comments below!


Actual stone blades I found while sieving at Saint-Cesaire. They are very sharp!

Let’s talk about the Stone Age and stone tools. Like the word “Neandertal,” the term “Stone Age” is often used in popular culture as shorthand for uninspired, primitive technology that is just slightly advanced from banging actual rocks together. Let me tell you, when you first hold a real stone blade or handaxe in your hands, you will be amazed at its beauty. The craftsmanship required is obvious to anyone, and I was quite surprised to pick one up and discover that still, after 20,000 or even 40,000 years, these tools can remain very sharp. Sharp enough to cut a modern archeologist. Making them required considerable planning – how will I go about accomplishing the task set out – and abstract thought – imagining a future object that will emerge from the stone. Making tools also meant teaching and learning– passing traditions down from one generation to the next. The stones used were chosen carefully, and sometimes gathered from far away. To say nothing of hunting itself. And it’s not just the tools themselves that give us these clues. Archeologists also study faunal remains (animal bones) and can discover how the animals were hunted. Scientists can learn about prehistoric people’s hunting strategies, from running herds of massive beasts like mammoths, woolly rhinos, and bison over cliffs (a very dangerous technique) to seasonal preferences based on the species, sex, or age of animal, to how blades and points were affixed to spears and arrows. So here’s the thing — stone tools and hunting strategies are all things we have learned, not just about Neandertals, but about nearly every other species previous to Homo sapiens. Yet another thing that makes us less than unique.


That’s me learning to throw spears with an atlatl at the Paleosite museum at Saint-Cesaire.


Evidence also exists that Neandertals ate plants that grew in different places and were ready for harvest at different times. This required knowledge of growing seasons and mental geographic and climatic maps. Not only was meat cooked, but plant food was also cooked and prepared in various ways. Neandertals also used herbs, most likely for flavor as well as medicinal purposes. We can’t know what their culture was like, meaning how their families and kin groups were arranged, what kind of rules and beliefs they had. But we learn amazing little tidbits through indirect evidence, like for example that men and women did different types of work. Still think calling a rude guy a Neandertal is an appropriate insult?

For a long time it was claimed (and still is by some) that Neandertals did not create art, that that was what separated us from them. This claim matters because, despite the awful ways in which our current Western society sends us the message that art is at best frivolous and at worst toxic and dangerous, art is important. Art means symbolic, abstract thought. It is an outward expression of an inner comp17TALON-blog427lex life that is not seen in any other animals. But recently some exciting new findings have emerged, like the discovery of an eagle talon necklace. This one is so groundbreaking, especially to a segment of scientists who believe firmly in Homo sapiens superiority, or at least important differences, that it is hotly debated. I even witnessed some of this debate at the Paleoanthropology Society meeting in San Francisco in April this year. I attended an interesting lecture and presentation of the latest findings connected with these eagle talons, and at its conclusion suddenly people were arguing passionately — dismissing the interpretation, interrupting each other, and getting a bit testy. Very exciting. Good times.

Why the hot tempers? Or at least the defensiveness?

Looked at in the big picture, the progress of science can be seen as a process of slowly diminishing our specialness in the universe. No longer the center of the heavens, with the sun revolving around us, our solar system is not only not the center of our galaxy, our galaxy is not even unique in any way. On a smaller scale, the development of the theory of biological evolution was threatening to most religions, because of its implication that God is no longer necessary for creation. So it should not be surprising, really, that even at the level of scientists who devote their careers to studying human evolution, there is reluctance to give up the notion that something special sets us Homo sapiens apart from all the other Hominid species. It becomes a deeply existential question: If we are not more intelligent or creative, not uniquely advantaged for survival, then how did we get here? Or maybe more fundamentally: Why us? Why here?

Seen in this light, is science really a rejection of religion, or is it possible that it is another way, a different tool, that humans use to ask what amounts to the same questions?

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2 Responses to Who Were the Neandertals?

  1. Harper Swan says:

    I’ve been looking forward to this particular post, and it didn’t disappoint! Really sums things up nicely. I hope you’ll continue blogging even though you’re back from France.

    My best,

    Harper Swan

    • vsteindal says:

      Thanks so much, Harper! I absolutely plan on continuing. Working on a couple of posts right now. Thanks for dropping by and reading it.

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