One well-known population of Archaic Homo sapiens are the Neanderthals, named after the site where they were first discovered in the Neander Valley, or “thal” in German, located near Dusseldorf, Germany. Popularly known as the stereotypical “cavemen” examined at the outset of this chapter, recent research is upending long-held beliefs about this group of Archaics. Neanderthal behavior was increasingly complex, far beyond what was exhibited by even other Archaic Homo sapiens discussed throughout this chapter. We implore you to forget the image of the iconic caveman and have an open mind when exploring the fossil evidence of the Neanderthals.
It is important to understand why Neanderthals are separated from other Archaic Homo sapiens. Unlike the rest of Archaic Homo sapiens, Neanderthals are easily defined and identified in many ways. Evidence suggests the time period when Neanderthals lived was between 150,000 and 40,000 years ago. There is a clear geographic boundary of where Neanderthals lived: western Europe, the Middle East, and western Asia. No Neanderthal fossils have ever been discovered outside of this area, including Africa. This is a bit curious, as other Archaics seem to have adapted in Africa and then migrated elsewhere, but Neanderthals’ regional association makes sense in light of the environment to which they were best adapted: namely, extreme cold weather. Additionally, Neanderthals have a unique and distinct cluster of physical characteristics. While a few aspects of Neanderthals are shared among some Archaic Homo sapiens, such as the types of tools, most Neanderthal anatomical and behavioral attributes are unique to them.
Neanderthals lived during some of the coldest times during the last Ice Age and at far northern latitudes. This means Neanderthals were living very close to the glacial edge, rather than in a more temperate region of the globe like some of their Archaic Homo sapiens relatives. While able to survive in arctic conditions, most Neanderthal sites dating to the glacial periods were found farther away from the severe cold, in a steppe tundra-like environment, which would have been more hospitable to Neanderthals, and their food sources, both flora and fauna (Ashton 2002; Nicholson 2017; Richter 2006).Their range likely expanded and contracted along with European glacial events, moving into the Middle East during glacial events when Europe became even cooler, and when the animals they hunted would have moved for the same reason. During interglacials, when Europe warmed a bit, Neanderthals and their prey would have been able to move back into Western Europe. Clearly, the true hallmark of Neanderthals is their adaptation to an unstable environment, shifting between warm and cold, as the climate was in constant flux throughout their existence (Adler et al. 2003; Boettger et al. 2009).
Many of the Neanderthals’ defining physical features are more extreme and robust versions of traits seen in other Archaic Homo sapiens, clustered in this single population. Brain size, namely an enlargement of the cranial capacity, is one such trait. The average Neanderthal brain size is around 1,500 cc, and the range for Neanderthal brains can extend to upwards of 1,700 cc. The majority of the increase in the brain occurs in the occipital region, or the back part of the brain, resulting in a skull that has a large cranial capacity with a distinctly long and low shape that is slightly wider than previous forms at the far back of the skull. Modern humans have a brain size comparable to that of Neanderthals; however, our brain expansion occurred in the frontal region of the brain, not the back, as in Neanderthal brains. This difference is also the main reason why Neanderthals lack the vertical forehead that modern humans possess. They simply did not need an enlarged forehead, because their brain expansion occurred in the rear of their brain. Due to cranial expansion, the back of the Neanderthal skull is less angular (as compared to Homo erectus), but not as rounded as Homo sapiens, producing an elongated shape, akin to a football.
Another feature that continues the trend noted in previous hominins is the enlargement of the nasal region, or the nose. Neanderthal noses are large and have a wide nasal aperture, which is the opening for the nose. While the nose is only made up of two bones, the nasals, the true size of the nose can be determined by looking at other facial features, including the nasal aperture, and the angle of the nasal and maxillary, or facial bones. In Neanderthals, these indicate a large, forward-projecting nose that appears to be pulled forward away from the rest of the face. This feature is further emphasized by the backward-sloping nature of the cheekbones, or the zygomatic arches. The unique shape and size of the Neanderthal nose is often characterized by the term midfacial prognathism—a jutting out of the middle portion of the face, or nose. This is in sharp contrast to the prognathism exhibited by other hominins, who exhibited prognathism, or the jutting out, of their jaws.
The teeth of the Neanderthals follow a similar pattern seen in the Archaic Homo sapiens, which is an overall reduction in size, especially as compared to the extremely large teeth seen in the genus Australopithecus. However, while the teeth continued to reduce, the jaw size did not keep pace, leaving Neanderthals with an oversized jaw for their teeth, and a gap between their final molar and the end of their jaw. This gap is called a retromolar gap.
The projecting occipital bone present in other Archaic Homo sapiens is also more prominent in Neanderthals, extending the trend found in Archaics. Among Neanderthals, this projection of bone is easily identified by its bun shape on the back of the skull and is known as an occipital bun. This projection appears quite similar to a dinner roll in size and shape. Its purpose, if any, remains unknown.
Continuing the Archaic Homo sapiens trend, Neanderthal brow ridges are prominent but somewhat smaller in size than those of Homo erectus and earlier Archaic Homo sapiens. In Neanderthals, the brow ridges are also often slightly less arched than those of other Archaic Homo sapiens.
In addition to extending traits present in Archaic Homo sapiens, Neanderthals possess several distinct traits. Neanderthal infraorbital foramina, the holes in the maxillae or cheek bones through which blood vessels pass, are notably enlarged compared to other hominins. The Neanderthal postcrania are also unique in that they demonstrate increased robusticity in terms of the thickness of bones and body proportions that show a barrel-shaped chest and short, stocky limbs, as well as increased musculature. These body portions are seen across the spectrum of Neanderthals—in men, women, and children.
Traditionally, many of the unique traits that Neanderthals possess were seen as adaptations to the extreme cold, dry environments in which they often lived and which exerted strong selective forces. For example, Bergmann’s and Allen’s Rules dictate that an increased body mass and short, stocky limbs are common in animals that live in cold conditions. Neanderthals were said to have matched the predictions of Bergmann’s and Allen’s Rules perfectly (Churchill 2006). In addition, the Neanderthal skull also exhibits adaptations to the cold. Neanderthals’ large infraorbital foramina allow for larger blood vessels, increasing the volume of blood that is found closest to the skin, which helps to keep the skin warmer. Their enlarged noses resulted in longer nasal passages and mucus membranes that warmed and moistened cold air before it reached the lungs. The Neanderthals’ larger nose has long been thought to have acted as a humidifier, easing physical exertion in their climate, although research on this particular trait continues to be studied and debated (Rae et al. 2011).
New research, however, seems to suggest that these unique skeletal adaptations might not have been strict adaptations to cold weather (Evteev et al. 2017; Pearce et al. 2013). For example, large brow ridges might have served as a way to shade the face from the sun. The increased occipital portion of the brain, some researchers state, was to support a larger visual system present in Neanderthals. This visual system would have given them increased light sensitivity, which would have been useful in higher latitudes that had dark winters. And, while recent modeling of nostril airflow on reconstructed Neanderthal specimens supports the notion that Neanderthals had extensive mucus membranes inside their noses, the data shows that modern Homo sapiens are superior to Neanderthals in our ability to use our noses as a way to warm and cool air. However, Neanderthals were able to snort air through their noses better than we can. Why is this important? When combined with the fact that Neanderthals tended to prefer a more temperate, tundra-like environment, and that other physical traits suggest that Neanderthals had huge bodies that needed massive amounts of calories to sustain them, the picture gets clearer. Massive amounts of energy would have been required to power a Neanderthal body, and anything that might have made them more calorically efficient would have been favored. Efficient breathing, through larger noses into large lungs, meaning deeper breaths, would have been favored. To further save energy expenditure, body sizes might have been sacrificed as well. These same types of adaptations are similar to ones seen in children today who are born in high altitudes, not cold climates. Figure 11.7 provides a summary of these unique features of the Neanderthal.
|Distinct Neanderthal Anatomical Features|
|Brain Size||1,500 cc average|
|Skull Shape||Long and low|
|Brow Ridge Size||Large|
|Nose Size||Large, with midfacial prognathism|
|Dentition||Reduced, but large jaw size, creating retromolar gap|
|Occipital Region||Enlarged occipital region, occipital bun|
|Other Unique Cranial Features||Large infraorbital foramina|
|Postcranial Features||Short and stocky body, increased musculature, barrel-shaped chest|
A classic example of a Neanderthal with all of the characteristics mentioned above is the nearly complete La Ferrassie 1 Neanderthal, from France. This is a male skeleton, with a brain size of around 1640cc, an extremely large nose and infraorbital foramina, brow ridges that are marked in size, and an overall robust skeleton (Figure 11.8).
Neanderthal Culture: Tool Making and Use
One key Neanderthal adaptation was their cultural innovations, which are an important way that hominins adapt to their environment. As you recall, Homo erectus‘s tools, Acheulean handaxes, represented an increase in complexity over Oldowan tools, allowing more efficient removal of meat and possibly calculated scavenging. In contrast, Neanderthal tools mark a significant innovation in tool-making technique and use with Mousterian tools (named after the Le Moustier site in southwest France). These tools were significantly smaller, thinner, and lighter than Acheulean handaxes and formed a true toolkit. The materials used for Mousterian tools were of higher quality, which allowed for both more precise toolmaking and tool reworking when the tools broke or dulled after frequent reuse. The use of higher-quality materials is also indicative of required forethought and planning to acquire them for tool manufacture. It is noteworthy that the Neanderthals, unlike Homo erectus, saved and reused their tools, rather than making new ones each time a tool was needed.
Mousterian tools are constructed in a very unique manner, utilizing the Levallois technique (Figure 11.9), named after the first finds of tools made with this technique, which were discovered in the Levallois-Perret suburb of Paris, France. The Levallois technique is a multistep process that requires preparing the core, or raw material, in a specific way that will yield flakes that are roughly uniform in dimension. The flakes are then turned into individual tools. The preparation of the core is akin to peeling a potato or carrot with a vegetable peeler—when peeling vegetables, you want to remove the skin in long, regular strokes, so that you are taking off the same amount of the vegetable all the way around. In the same way, the Levallois technique requires removing all edges of the cortex, or outside surface of the raw material, in a circle before removing the lid. The flakes, which will eventually be turned into the individual tools, can then be removed from the core. The potential yield of tools from one core would be many, as seen in Figure 11.10, compared to all previous tool-making processes, in which one core yielded a single tool. This manufacturing process might be considered the ultimate zero-waste tool-making technique (Delpiano et al. 2018).
Neanderthal tools were used for a variety of purposes, including cutting, butchering, woodworking or antler working, and hide working. Additionally, because the Mousterian tools were lighter than previous stone tools, Neanderthals could haft, or attach the tool onto a handle, as the stone would not have been too heavy (Degano et al. 2019). Neanderthals attached small stone blades onto short wood or antler handles to make knives or other small weapons, as well as attached larger blades onto longer shafts to make spears. New research examining tar-covered stones and black lumps at several Neanderthal sites in Europe suggests that Neanderthals may have been making tar by distilling it from birch tree bark, which could have been used to glue the stone tool onto its handle. If Neanderthals were, in fact, manufacturing tar to act as glue, this would predate modern humans in Africa using tree resin or similar adhesives by nearly 100,000 years.
Evidence shows that raw materials used by Neanderthals came from distances as far away as 100 km. This could indicate a variety of things regarding Neanderthal behavior, including a limited trade network with other Neanderthal groups or simply a large area scoured by Neanderthals when collecting raw materials. While research on specific applications continues, it should be clear from this brief discussion that Neanderthal tool manufacturing was much more complex than previous tool-making efforts, requiring technical expertise, patience, and skills beyond toolmaking to carry out.
Neanderthal Culture: Hunting and Diet
With their more sophisticated suite of tools and robust muscular bodies, Neanderthals were better armed for hunting than previous hominins. The animal remains in Neanderthal sites show that, unlike earlier Archaic Homo sapiens, Neanderthals were very effective hunters who were able to kill their own prey, rather than relying on scavenging. Though more refined than the tools of earlier hominins, the Neanderthal spear was not the kind of weapon that would have been thrown; rather, it would have been used in a jabbing fashion (Churchill 1998; Kortlandt 2002). This may have required Neanderthals to hunt in groups rather than individually and made it necessary to approach their prey quite closely (Gaudzinski-Windheuser et al. 2018). Remember, the animals living with Neanderthals were very large-bodied due to their adaptations to cold weather; this would have included species of deer, horses, and bovids (relatives of the cow).
Isotopes from Neanderthal bones show that meat was a significant component of their diet, similar to that seen in carnivores like wolves (Bocherens et al. 1999; Jaouen et al. 2019; Richards et al. 2000). In addition to large prey, their diet included ibex, seals, rabbits, and pigeons. Though red meat was a critical component of the Neanderthal diet, evidence shows that at times they also ate limpets, mussels, and pine nuts. Tartar examined from Neanderthal teeth in Iraq and Belgium reveal that they also ate plant material including wheat, barley, date palms, and tubers, first cooking them to make them palatable (Henry et al. 2010). While Neanderthals’ diet varied according to the specific environment in which they lived, meat comprised up to 80% of their diet (Wiẞin et al. 2015).
Neanderthal Culture: Caring for the Injured and Sick
While the close-range style of hunting used by Neanderthals was effective, it also had some major consequences. Many Neanderthal skeletons have been found with significant injuries, which could have caused paralysis or severely limited their mobility. Many of the injuries are to the head, neck, or upper body. Thomas Berger and Erik Trinkaus (1995) conducted a statistical comparative analysis of Neanderthal injuries compared to those recorded in modern-day workers’ compensation reports and found that the closest match was between Neanderthal injuries and those of rodeo workers. Rodeo professionals have a high rate of head and neck injuries that are similar to the Neanderthals’ injuries. What do Neanderthals and rodeo workers have in common? They were both getting very close to large, strong animals, and at times their encounters went awry.
The extensive injuries sustained by Neanderthals are evident in many fossil remains. Shanidar 1 (Figure 11.11), an adult male found at the Shanidar site in northern Iraq and dating to 45,000 ya, has a lifetime of injuries recorded in his bones (Stewart 1977). Shanidar 1 sustained—and healed from—an injury to the face that would have likely caused blindness. His lower right arm was missing and the right humerus shows severe atrophy, likely due to disuse. This pattern has been interpreted to indicate a substantial injury that required or otherwise resulted in amputation or wasting away of the lower arm. Additionally, Shanidar 1 suffered from bony growths in the inner ear that would have significantly impaired his hearing and severe arthritis in the feet. He also exhibited extensive anterior tooth wear, matching the pattern of wear found among modern populations who use their teeth as a tool. Rather than an anomaly, the type of injuries evident in Shanidar 1 are similar to those found in many other Neanderthal fossils, revealing injuries likely sustained from hunting large mammals as well as demonstrating a long life of physical activity.
The pattern of injuries is as significant as the fact that Shanidar 1 and other injured Neanderthals show evidence of having survived their severe injuries. One of the earliest-known Neanderthal discoveries—the one on whom misinformed analysis shaped the stereotype of the species for nearly a century—is the La Chapelle-aux-Saints Neanderthal (Trinkaus 1985). The La Chapelle Neanderthal had a damaged eye orbit that likely caused blindness and suffered arthritis of the spine (Dawson and Trinkaus 1997). He had also lost most of his teeth, many of which he had lived without for so long that the mandibular and maxillary bones were partially reabsorbed due to lack of use. The La Chapelle Neanderthal was also thought to be at least in his mid-forties at death, an old age for the rough life of the Late Pleistocene—giving rise to his nickname, “the Old Man.” To have survived so long with so many injuries that obviously precluded successful large game hunting, he must have been taken care of by others. Such caretaking behavior is also evident in the survival of other seriously injured Neanderthals, such as Shanidar 1. Long thought to be a hallmark modern human characteristic, taking care of the injured and elderly, for example preparing or pre-chewing food for those without teeth, indicates strong social ties among Neanderthals.
Neanderthal Culture: Ritual Life
Such care practices may have been expressed upon death as well. Nearly complete Neanderthal skeletons are not uncommon in the fossil record, and most are well preserved within apparently deliberate burials that involve deep graves and bodies found in specific, often fetal or flexed positions (Harrold 1980). Discoveries of pollen in a grave at the Shanidar site in the 1960s led scientists to think that perhaps Neanderthals had placed flowering plants in the grave, an indication of ritual ceremony or spirituality so common in modern humans. But more recent investigations have raised some doubt about this conclusion (Pomeroy et al. 2020). The pollen may have been brought in by burrowing rodents. Claims of grave goods or other ornamentation in burials are similarly debated, although possible.
Some tantalizing evidence for symbolism, and debatably, ritual, is the frequent occurrence of natural pigments, such as ochre (red) and manganese dioxide (black) in Neanderthal sites that could have been used for art. However, the actual uses of pigments are unclear, as there is very little evidence of art or paintings in Mousterian sites. One exception may be the recent discovery in Spain of a perforated shell that appears to be painted with an orange pigment, which may be evidence of Neanderthal art and jewelry. However, many pigments also have properties that make them good emulsifiers in adhesive (like for attaching a stone tool to a wooden handle) or useful in tanning hides. So the presence of pigment may or may not be associated with symbolic thought; however, it definitely does show a technological sophistication beyond that of earlier Archaic hominins.
The Lasting Gift of Neanderthals: Tantalizing New Directions for Resear ch
Examining the more recent time period in which Neanderthals lived and the extensive excavations completed across Europe allows for a much more complete archaeological record from this time period. Additionally, the increased cultural complexity such as complex tools and ritual behaviors expressed by Neanderthals left a more detailed record than previous hominins. Intentional burials enhanced preservation of the dead and potentially associated ritual behaviors. Such evidence allows for a more complete and nuanced picture of this species.
Additional analyses are possible on many Neanderthal finds, due to increased preservation of bone, the amount of specimens that have been uncovered, and the recency in which Neanderthals lived. We should be cautious, however, to consider the potential bias of many Neanderthal sites. Overwhelmingly, Neanderthal skeletons are found complete, with injuries or evidence of disease in caves. Does this mean all Neanderthals lived a tough, disease-wrought life? Probably not. It does, however, indicate that the sick were cared for by others, and that they lived in environments that preserved their bodies incredibly well. These additional studies include the examination of dental calculus and even DNA analysis. While limited, samples of Neanderthal DNA have been successfully extracted and analyzed. Research thus far has identified specific genetic markers that show some Neanderthals were light-skinned and probably red-haired with light eyes. Genetic analyses, different from the typical hominin reconstruction done with earlier species, allow scientists to further investigate soft tissue markers of Neanderthals and other more recent hominin species. These studies offer striking conclusions regarding Neanderthal traits, their physical appearance, and their culture, as reflected in these artists’ reconstructions (Figure 11.12).
Dr. Svante Pääbo (Figure 11.13), of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, has been at the forefront of much of this new research, largely in the form of genomic studies (The Nobel Prize 2022). Awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2022, Pääbo is known primarily for his work with ancient DNA. He has successfully sequenced mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) as well as the entire Neanderthal genome from nuclear DNA. His genomic work has led to the realization that Denisovans are genetically distinct from Neanderthals, as well as the recent identification of a Neanderthal father and teenage daughter, which he discovered by looking for unique DNA markers in the fossil record. Additionally, Pääbo’s genomic work has provided researchers with additional lines of evidence regarding the connections between hominin fossils (such as Neanderthals) and modern people, their time of divergence, and current genetic overlap. The work of Pääbo has even formalized a new field of study within anthropology—paleogenomics. To stay up to date with Dr. Svante Pääbo’s work, be sure to follow his lab’s website.
Neanderthal Culture: Communicating through Speech
To successfully live in groups and to foster cultural innovations, Neanderthals would have required at least a basic form of communication in order to function, possibly using a speech-based communication system. The challenge with this line of research is that speech, of course, is not preserved, so indirect evidence must be used to support this conclusion. It is thought that Neanderthals would have possessed some basic speech, as evidenced from a variety of sources, including throat anatomy and genetic evidence (Lieberman 1971). There is only one bone in the human body that could demonstrate if a hominin was able to speak, or produce clear vocalizations like modern humans, and that is the hyoid, a U-shaped bone that is found in the throat and is associated with the ability to precisely control the vocal cords. Very few hyoid bones have been found in the archaeological record; however, a few have been uncovered in Neanderthal burials. The shape of the Neanderthal hyoid is nearly identical to that of modern humans, pointing to the likelihood that they had the same vocal capabilities as modern humans. In addition, geneticists have uncovered a mutation present in both modern humans and Neanderthals—the FOXP2 gene—that is possibly linked to the ability to speak. However, other scientists argue that we cannot make sweeping conclusions that the FOXP2 gene accounts for speech due to small sample size. Finally, scientists have also pointed to the increasingly complex cultural behavior of Neanderthals as a sign that symbolic communication, likely through speech, would have been the only way to pass down the skills needed to make, for example, a Levallois blade or to position a body for intentional burial.
One of the enduring questions about Neanderthals centers on their intelligence, specifically in comparison to modern humans. Brain volume indicates that Neanderthals certainly had a large brain, but it continues to be debated if Neanderthals were of equal intelligence to modern humans. Remember, creatures with larger body sizes tend to have larger brains; however, scaling of the brain is not always associated with greater intelligence (Alex 2018). Brain volume (cranial capacity), cultural complexity, tool use, and compassion toward their kind all point to an increase in intellect among Neanderthals when compared to previous hominins.
Yet, new research is suggesting additional differences between Neanderthal brains and our own. For example, Euluned Pearce and colleagues (2013), from the University of Oxford, noted the frontal lobes of Neanderthals and modern humans are almost identical. However, Neanderthals had a larger visual cortex—the portion of the brain involved in processing visual information. This would have left Neanderthals with less brain tissue for other functions, including those that would have aided them in dealing with large social groupings, one of the differences that has been suggested to exist between Neanderthals and modern humans. Other differences were found when geneticist John Blangero, from the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, compared data from the Neanderthal genome against data from modern study participants. Blangero and his colleagues (Blangero et al. 2014) discovered that some Neanderthal brain components were very different, and smaller, than those in the modern sample. Differences were found in areas associated with the processing of information and controlling emotion and motivation, as well as overall brain connectivity. In short, as Blangero stated, “Neanderthals were certainly cognitively adept,” although their specific abilities may have differed from modern humans’ in key areas (qtd. in Wong 2015). This point has been echoed in other recent genetic studies comparing Neanderthal and anatomically modern human brains (el-Showk 2019).
Finally, scientists are fairly certain that Neanderthal brain development after birth was not the same as that of modern humans. After birth, anatomically modern Homo sapiens babies go through a critical period of brain expansion and cognitive development. It appears that Neanderthal babies’ brains and bodies did not follow the same developmental pattern (Smith et al. 2010; Zollikofer and Ponce de León 2013). Modern humans enjoy an extended period of childhood, which allows children to engage in imaginative play and develop creativity that fosters cognitive skills. Neanderthals had a more limited childhood, with less development of the creative mind that may have affected their species’ success (Nowell 2016).
The exact nature of Neanderthal intelligence remains under investigation, however. Some studies disagree with the idea that Neanderthal intelligence had limitations compared to our own, noting the extensive evidence of Neanderthals having limb asymmetry. Their tools also have wear marks indicating that they were hand-dominant. This is further supported by marks on Neanderthal teeth that demonstrate hand dominance. The Neanderthal “stuff-and-cut method” of eating, noted by David Frayer and colleagues (Frayer et al. 2012), would have seen Neanderthals hold a piece of meat in their teeth, while pulling it taut with one hand, and then using the other hand, their dominant one, to cut the meat off of the larger slab being held in their teeth. When looking at 17 Neanderthals and their tooth wear, only two do not show markings associated with a right-hand dominant individual eating in this manner. Further, it has been established that favoring the right hand is a key marker between modern humans and chimpanzees, and that handedness also relates to language development, in the form of bilateral brain development. That Neanderthals likely were hand-dominant suggests they had an indicator of bilateral brain development and a precondition for human speech.