When quarry workers dislodged a skullcap and a bunch of bones from a cave near Düsseldorf in 1856, little did anyone realize the remains would reveal an entirely new branch on the tree of life, that of the genus Homo and its many constituents, including Homo neanderthalensis, to which those bones belonged. The name “Neanderthal” probably conjures an image in your mind: maybe a club-wielding, knuckle-dragging oaf, or perhaps simply a hairier, more muscular version of a modern human.
But how did we get these images, one that in recent decades has swung out of fashion? (Though that hasn’t stopped “Neanderthal” from being employed as an insult.) Scientists’ understanding of Neanderthal features, from their general stature to details of their DNA, has overhauled the old consensus about the species. Misconceptions seeded at very start of human origins research have slowly been uprooted, giving us an increasingly nuanced look at these extinct people.
“There wasn’t just one way of being a Neanderthal,” said Rebecca Wragg Sykes, an archaeologist and author of the book Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art. “We talk about the Neanderthals, but there were many, many ways of being a Neanderthal through time and across space.”
Neanderthals were a species of hominin whose range spanned Eurasia for several hundred thousand years, up until about 40,000 years ago. Their bones and artifacts like art and tools have been found in over 20 different countries and allow us to understand a bit about their habits, abilities, and anatomy. Neanderthals had oblong skulls and thick, pronounced brows, which may have developed for structural support or, perhaps, communication. (Recent research has indicated the brows weren’t important for Neanderthal’s biting ability, as some had suggested.) They were a barrel-chested bunch, shorter than humans today, with big lungs and impressive physiques. “You would not want to have an arm wrestling match with one of them,” Wragg Sykes said.
According to John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin, we know what Neanderthals looked like thanks to three lines of evidence: how Neanderthal bodies compare to those of other hominins (comparative anatomy), how those bodies actually worked compared to other species (comparative physiology), and, more recently, their genomes, thanks primarily to DNA found on the toe bone of a Neanderthal woman from Siberia’s Altai Mountains. The comparative physiology element also adds color to Neanderthal archaeological sites, helping researchers understand how they differ (and relate) to those of Homo sapiens. “We understand the basic sort of descriptiveness of what makes a Neanderthal a Neanderthal in terms of its skeleton, but we also have a much better picture now of what Neanderthals were like as living organisms—how they functioned. And the picture that comes back to us from that is that they were extremely well-adapted to the intensive life of a hunter gatherer,” Wragg Sykes said.
Misunderstandings of Neanderthals were, from the beginning, a combination of ignorance about the diversity of the genus Homo and European researchers’ tendencies to see these fossils as a backwards, less-successful creature than Homo sapiens (and especially white, European Homo sapiens). Being the first fossil hominins ever found, early analysis of Neanderthal skeletons (including the first specimen from Germany) led some scientists at the time to conclude they were disfigured Homo sapiens, hampered by diseases like rickets but otherwise one of us. Neanderthals were inscribed in the scientific ledgers as Homo neanderthalensis by geologist William King in 1864 (named for the valley in which those bones were found) after scientists realized other Neanderthal bones were turning up at sites with Ice Age animal remains. That implied the human-looking bones were something else entirely, something quite old. European scientists turned to their expertise in the racist pseudoscience phrenology, positing that Neanderthals could be related to Aboriginal Australians, who were being killed en masse by the British settler colonies at the same time the Neanderthal was discovered. Neanderthals were labeled as primitive, a label that only began to change in the early 20th century, Wragg Sykes and Hawks explained.
Early artistic depictions melded notions about their backwardness with evidence of their sophistication. Images of ape-like people holding hafted axes cropped up (a “weird contradiction,” Wragg Sykes said). By the mid-20th century, representations of Neanderthals had improved, showing them as more human than those very early imaginings. But they were still shown as hunched over—“demoralized,” Hawks said. Today, that’s changed.
As much as we know now about Neanderthals’ general shapes and sizes, we know much less about Neanderthal sexual differences. Skeletally, there’s not much to go on, which makes it hard to identify Neanderthal remains as certifiably male or female. “How we estimate sex in Neanderthals really weird, honestly, because we try and apply techniques that we would use today in humans to individuals who we know overall were more robust,” said Caroline VanSickle, an anthropologist at A.T. Still University.
VanSickle explained that whether a Neanderthal specimen is labeled male or female depends on their relative body size to other individuals found at the same site. But sometimes there’s just one individual at a site, or the bones on a site come in a jumbled heap; beyond those problems, there’s the bigger issue that comparing individuals within a site means you don’t see their size relative to all other known Neanderthals. Supposedly male and female specimens from a cave in Spain could both be smaller than two female specimens from France, which were deemed female because they were smaller than the males at that site.
VanSickle said that measuring the width of the sciatic notch in the pelvis is a useful indicator for sex, because female Neanderthals would tend to have wider hips for giving birth. But pelvises often come out of the ground pulverized. We also don’t know if and how Neanderthal social roles were gendered, and we certainly don’t know how they conceived of gender in a broader sense. But we know some things: the forearms of Neanderthal women got more of a workout than their biceps, for instance, and their arms seem more evenly toned than those of male Neanderthals, which could indicate that they were working a lot of hides, as Wragg Sykes described in a recent essay for Aeon.
Of course, every species contains great variation, and specific fossil finds have given paleoanthropologists ideas about what individual Neanderthals looked like and even what their lives were like. “Sometimes you get extraordinary evidence of someone’s life, and we factor that into how they appeared,” Hawks said. “That’s not just in terms of portraying—so someone can see what that person looked like—but portraying the evidence of the life that’s written on their body, which conveys more about their life than anything, any story we can tell about it, really.”
Shanidar 1, a male Neanderthal specimen found in a cave in Iraq in 1957, is known for having lost an arm during his life, as well as having reduced vision, possible deafness, and an awkward gait. All this researchers determined from his skeleton. It was a tough life back then, and researchers have argued that the survival of Shanidar 1 into his 40s shows Neanderthals provided strong social support for one another. Similarly, the La Chapelle-aux-Saints Neanderthal (depicted as a primitive, stooping creature by scientist Pierre Marcellin Boule, furthering the old caveman stereotype) had debilitating osteoarthritis.
DNA has also provided major clues to these lost people. Chunks of the Neanderthal genetic code suggest some individuals may have had red hair, for example, and there was likely skin tone variation across populations that ranged from what is now Wales to the Arabian Peninsula to China. We don’t know how hairy our relatives were in general, though we certainly love to depict them as quite shaggy. From a bird’s-eye view, though, the Neanderthal genome has taught us about great diversity within the species.
“What we’ve learned from genetics and their ancient DNA is that there were Neanderthal populations that were more different from each other in genetic terms than anybody that lives at the same geographic distance today,” Hawks said. “If you look at the extent of Neanderthals from Spain to Central Asia, the people that live in these places today are vastly more like each other genetically than the Neanderthals that lived in those places.”
But the biggest surprise from Neanderthal DNA is that it’s still around: All humans living today possess some amount of genetic information inherited from Neanderthals, revealing that our Homo sapiens ancestors regularly interbred with them.
Framing scientists’ view of what Neanderthals looked like, from the Victorian era to now, is the box we tend to put them in. We see them as somehow innately different from us, and that colors our interpretations of their bones and their archaeological remains. “It’s almost like, there’s the question of how science operates in its relation to culture and preconception,” Wragg Sykes said. “So there’s our knowledge, but there’s also the things that we are willing to allow ourselves to see or that we are able to see because of our expectations.”
“And so one thing I find really fascinating in many of the more recent portraits of Neanderthals—scientifically based portraits—is that they look back at us now and return the gaze so much more than they used to. And I think that reflects our understanding—that we know them a lot more intimately,” she added.
Far from the violent, unthinking brutes they were once portrayed as, today’s depictions of Neanderthals take into account that they decorated themselves, made art, cared for the sick and wounded, and perhaps even buried their dead. They were people, with all the complexity that entails.
More: Did Neanderthals Have the Capacity for Verbal Language?