Roughly 200,000 years ago, Neanderthals came into existence across Eurasia. They were named after the Neander Valley in Germany, where the first fossils of one of the earliest groups of archaic humans were found. Commonly referred to as ‘cavemen’, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that our perception of Neanderthals isn’t all that accurate to the facts.
Despite what you might think, Neanderthals weren’t dumb, hairy brutes who struggled to survive. Neanderthals are our closest extinct relatives, and over the years, we’ve begun correcting our past falsehoods and learned far more about our distant cousins. What we’ve gathered is how comparable they were to modern day humans.
Not only were Neanderthals similar to us in appearance, albeit stockier, shorter, and with more prominent facial features, but their way of life had some striking similarities to that of our own. Neanderthals, the earliest foundations of homo sapiens and misunderstood throughout history, are now being revealed as lovers of art, brilliant thinkers, and fearless hunters. However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
10. Unique Voices
When we think of Neanderthals, or what we more commonly refer to as ‘cavemen’, we usually jump straight to thinking they communicated in grunts. While it’s true they weren’t equipped with the most advanced or sophisticated vocabularies, their communication style wasn’t as primitive as grunting.
Neanderthals’ body structure meant that complex speech patterns were possible. Similarly to modern humans, they had a hyoid bone in the neck supporting their tongue. Neanderthals and humans both have this bone, which helps to make vocalization possible.
While we are (and, in their case, were) both able to speak thanks to this pivotal bone, that doesn’t mean we sounded the same. Neanderthals’ throats, nasal cavities, and chests were shaped differently than modern humans. The combination of their unique composition and posture affected the phonetic qualities of Neanderthals’ speech patterns. The overall consensus is their voices were much louder than ours are, and much higher in pitch.
9. Sharing Molecular Structure with the Wooly Mammoth
Neanderthals and wooly mammoths roamed the world around the same time. Considering the Neanderthals’ superior hunting skills, and wooly mammoth’s 12,000-pound bodies meant they were often the targets. In what is a unique example of convergent evolution, Neanderthals and wooly mammoths have recently been found to share molecular signs.
Wooly mammoths’ origins are in Africa, where their ancestors, Mammuthus rumanus, lived until migrating to Eurasia. Through this migration, they adapted to the different conditions of Eurasia, which presented colder weather than that of Africa. Their physiology depicted in later studies was one that could handle these conditions when these genomes were mapped and isolated.
Neanderthals have also been linked to African roots, having migrated to Eurasia, meaning they too had to adapt to these vastly different conditions. Through the studying of both genomes, evidence has shown that they likely adapted to these conditions around the same time, sharing ecological habitats, and Neanderthals ate wooly mammoths. This has led to the plausible conclusion that Neanderthals and wooly mammoths both share similarities in their molecular structure through migration and adaptation to their new environment.
8. Early Artists
In 2018, a study was released that detailed the findings of what is believed to be the earliest instances of art. Found in three caves across Spain were paintings of animals, geometric signs, dots, handprints, engravings, and hand stencils, using a black and red substance that mimics modern paint, all more than 65,000 years old.
This important discovery gave us critical insight into art’s origins within homo sapiens societies. It also provided information into some of the earliest instances of culture within archaic humans. There was also evidence to suggest that Neanderthals used early examples of jewelry with body ornamentation found that dated back 40,000 to 45,000 years.
The evidence found in these caves also proved that while the cave paintings were over 65,000 years old, other findings in the cave such as perforated seashell beads dated back over 115,000 years, meaning Neanderthals and art weren’t segmented to a specific time period, but existed throughout their place in the Earth’s timeline. While they were no Da Vinci or Van Gogh, they were true pioneers of art and culture, long before structured societies existed.
7. Skilled Hunters
The need to survive usually makes anyone learn a few tricks to help get them their next meal. Neanderthals were no exception to this logic. During their time roaming Eurasia, evidence has proven them to be extremely capable hunters. Thanks to a healthy combination of wit and skill, they easily could capture and kill game and had impressive cognitive capabilities, which helped them coordinate attacks.
Neanderthals worked together to hunt down food across Eurasia. Evidence has suggested that Neanderthals had extraordinary hand dexterity and therefore could yield advanced hunting gear for their time, including stone-tipped spears to hunt down their prey. Beyond their weapon of choice and power in numbers approach, Neanderthals were not short on strength. Bones of our distant anthropological cousins showed many fractures that are like those found in professional rodeo performers.
This combination of strength, teamwork, and their intelligent approach to hunting in learning migration patterns and the timing of their stays in certain parts of Eurasia meant they did not just survive, but they thrived as hunters.
6. Masters of Fire
A study by the University of Colorado-Boulder examined prior uses of fire within Neanderthal societies, and what they found was contradictory to what we believed was a primitive discovery and use of fire.
Our earliest belief of Neanderthals and fire was that while it was used, it wasn’t used continuously. Upon further examination of various Neanderthal sites across Europe, the theory shifted and researchers were surprised that they might have been wrong, and based on evidence, Neanderthals could masterfully control and use fire.
Nobody really knows when the discovery of fire took place. There are theories but no solid conclusions, so the theory around Neanderthals and fire was primitive in its assessment. With evidence such as fireplaces, remnants of charcoal, burned bones, heated stone artifacts, and burned sediment, it’s become difficult to deny that we had been incorrect in believing Neanderthals weren’t competent in using fire; it was instead present in almost every aspect of their way of life.
5. Respect for their Elders
One aspect of our understanding of Neanderthals that has evolved through the findings of bones across various caves is that they likely not only had great respect for the elderly in their tribes, but also cared for them until their deaths.
When bones were found in southwest France, they discovered the bones of a man who’d lost his teeth before being buried. They also realized based on the structure of his leg bones that he likely could barely walk in the later years of his life. This meant that before he died, he could barely survive on his own.
The lead author of the study, William Rendu, said that the evidence found in his bones suggests he was not only buried with respect, but that he was also taken care of until the very end of his life by the community. While Neanderthals could have been callous and allowed this man to die long before natural causes, they instead took care of him until the end. This meant that Neanderthals showed a great deal of intelligence, empathy, and conscience for others.
4. Thoughtful Burial Practices
It was long thought that modern humans were the first to conceive the idea of digging graves to bury the dead. But over time, evidence has suggested that Neanderthals may have intentionally buried their dead, too.
This was first discovered in 1908 in the south of France when a Neanderthal tomb was found. Inside, they found bones that were well-preserved. The finders of these bones believed this proved Neanderthals intentionally buried their dead, while skeptics argued otherwise.
Between 1999 and 2012, seven caves were excavated across the La Chapelle-aux-Saints, where the 1908 discovery was made. They found several remains in the caves, including two children, an adult, and reindeer. While no tools or weapons were discovered to support the idea that these graves were intentional, the depth of the pits were found to not be a natural feature of the cave itself.
Further findings from 1908 suggested that Neanderthals were deliberate and quick in their burying practices to preserve bones. This was supported by how intact the bones were, with little to no cracks or smoothing that would have resulted from natural erosion.
It’s believed that beyond the act of burying their dead, they were ceremonial in the process, akin to modern human funerals. This theory was born from findings of fire pits, and tools found at Des-Cubierta Cave in Madrid, where it’s believed the cave was a place to bury and mourn the dead.
3. Humans and Neanderthals Bred Quickly
Modern humans began migrating from Africa over 100,000 years ago. They’d eventually cross paths with Neanderthals in Eurasia. In 2010, researchers sequenced Neanderthals’ full genome for the first time.
They discovered that small bits of Neanderthal DNA lived on in modern humans, supporting the idea that these two subsets of the human species did, in fact, mate.
The discovery has been studied even further since 2010, and what they found was that the inherited DNA exists in present-day Europeans and Asians, but not Africans. A particular study of DNA from a 45,000-year-old modern human in Romania helped to pinpoint a more accurate timing of when this encounter first occurred, placing it between 50,000 and 65,000 years ago.
Studies have proven that mating occurred, but pinpointing how it happened remains up for debate. Evidence has only proven that the primary provider of interbreeding was between Neanderthal men and modern women. While that’s not to say the reverse isn’t possible, it was less likely as the neanderthal genome would have been stronger in children conceived with neanderthal women.
2. Climate Change Linked Disappearance
In what might be a cautionary tale, Neanderthals’ disappearance has been linked to the effects of climate change. There are conflicting theories regarding what happened to Neanderthals and why they disappeared, but one theory suggests that climate change is the primary cause.
Around the time of their existence, the climate was going through a process of changes nowhere near on the scale we’re seeing today, but still severe enough that they could thin a species out substantially. Eurasia was experiencing extreme examples of dry climate and cold climate at opposing times. It’s theorized that this event not only caused devastation on the Neanderthal population, but also affected migration patterns and animal populations, which resulted in an inconsistent hunt for Neanderthals.
The opposing theory suggests that modern humans and Neanderthals mating caused the population to decrease over several generations until it no longer existed. This was aided by the increasing number of modern humans migrating to Eurasia.
1. Modern Diseases Have Roots in the Distant Past
A 2014 Harvard Study discovered a surprising link between Neanderthals and a variety of illnesses and variants that affect modern humans. The research led by Harvard Medical School concluded that modern humans inherited genetic material from Neanderthals through cohabitation and crossbreeding.
While yes, Neanderthals are no longer around today, their genetic code does still exist within non-African people who often show an average of 2% Neanderthal genomes are present in modern day human genomes.
Some of the variants homo sapiens inherited affect our risk of acquiring diseases such as type-2 diabetes, lupus, Crohn’s disease, biliary cirrhosis, and even impacts our smoking behavior. Beyond disease, it also can be the reason for infertility, or characteristics of our skin and hair.
This is not to say that every gene given to modern humans by Neanderthals is necessarily bad. We still don’t even know the full extent of the findings, as studies still continue to this day. Regardless, it’s clear that through interbreeding and the process of adaptive introgression, humans took a piece of this vastly misunderstood past human species with them into the future.