How do we know what Neanderthals looked like?

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Graphically: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images)

When quarry workers dumped a skull and a pile of bones from a cave near Düsseldorf in 1856, few realized that the remains would reveal a completely new branch on the tree of life, the genus Homo and its numerous ingredients, including Homo neanderthalensis, to which these bones belonged. The name “Neanderthal” probably gives you an idea: maybe a stick holding a stick, pulling the joints or maybe just a hairier, more muscular version of a modern man.

But how did we get these images, the ones that have gone out of fashion in recent decades? (Although that didn’t stop him from being a “Neanderthal.” employed as an insult.) Scientists’ understanding of Neanderthal traits, from their general stature to the details of their DNA, has reversed the old consensus on the species. The misconceptions that arose at the very beginning of research into human origins have been slowly eradicated, giving us an increasingly nuanced view of these extinct people.

“There wasn’t just one way to be a Neanderthal,” said Rebecca Wragg Sykes, an archaeologist and author of the book. Kinship: Neanderthal life, love, death and art. “We are talking about it the Neanderthals, but there were many, many ways to be Neanderthal through time and through space. “

A man watching a Neanderthal model at a 2014 Spanish show.

A man watching a Neanderthal model at a 2014 Spanish show.
Photo: CESAR MANSO / AFP (Getty Images)

Neanderthals were a species of hominin whose range spanned Eurasia for several hundred thousand years, 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 little about their habits, abilities and anatomy. Neanderthals had elongated skulls and thick, pronounced eyebrows, which could be developed for structural support or, perhaps, communication. (Recently research pointed out that the eyebrows were not important to the Neanderthal’s ability to bite, as some have suggested.) They were a pile of barrel-shaped breasts, shorter than today’s humans, large lungs, and impressive build. “You wouldn’t want to have a 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 these bodies actually worked relative to other species (comparative physiology); and more recently, their genomes, thanks primarily to DNA found on the toe bone of a Neanderthal from the Altai Mountains in Siberia. The comparative physiological element also adds color to Neanderthal archaeological sites, helping researchers understand how they differ (and relate) to those from homo sapiens. “We understand the basic kind of describing what makes a Neanderthal Neanderthal in terms of its skeleton, but we also now have a much better picture of what Neanderthals were like as living organisms – how they functioned. And the picture that comes back to us is that they were extremely well adapted to the intense life of hunter-gatherers, ”said Wragg Sykes.

An outdated Neanderthal model from the 1950s in Chicago’s Polish Museum.

An outdated Neanderthal model from the 1950s in Chicago’s Polish Museum.
Photo: Henry Guttmann Collection / Hulton Archive / Getty Images (Getty Images)

Neanderthal misunderstandings were from the beginning a combination of ignorance about gender diversity Homo and the tendency of European researchers to see these fossils as a backward, less successful creature than homo sapiens (and especially white, European homo sapiens). Since fossil hominins were first found, early analysis of Neanderthal skeletons (including the first specimen from Germany) led some scientists at the time to conclude that they were mutilated. homo sapiens, hampered by diseases like rickets, but otherwise one of us. Neanderthals were recorded in scientific books as Homo neanderthalensis geologist William King in 1864 (named after the valley in which these bones were found) after scientists realized that other Neanderthal bones appeared at some location of Ice Age animal remains. This meant that the bones of the human appearance were something quite different, something quite old. European scientists have turned to their expertise in racist pseudoscience, setting it up Neanderthals could be linked to Aboriginal Australians, who massacred colonies of British settlers 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 art depictions combined notions of their backwardness with evidence of their sophistication. Images of people like monkeys holding axes were cut out (a “strange contradiction,” Wragg Sykes said). In the middle of the 20th century, the performances of Neanderthals improved, showing them as more human than those of very early imaginations. But they are still portrayed hunched over – “demoralized,” Hawks said. That has changed today.


The less we now know about the general shapes and sizes of Neanderthals, the less we know about the gender differences of Neanderthals. Skeletally, there is not much that could be done, which makes it difficult to identify Neanderthal remains as certified male or female. “How we evaluate sex in Neanderthals is really weird, honestly, because we’re trying to apply techniques we would use in humans today to individuals we know are more robust overall,” said Caroline VanSickle, an anthropologist at AT Still University.

VanSickle explained whether the Neanderthal specimen will be labeled as male or female, depending on their relative body size relative to other people found in the same location. But sometimes there is only one individual on the site, or the bones on the site come in a mess; By these problems, there is a bigger problem that comparing individuals within a website means that you do not see their size compared to all other known Neanderthals. Allegedly, the male and female specimens from the cave in Spain could be smaller than the two female specimens from France, which were considered female because they were smaller than the males at that location.

A 1920s fresco by Charles Knight depicting a Neanderthal family in southern France.

A 1920s fresco by Charles Knight depicting a Neanderthal family in southern France.
Photo: STAN HONDA / AFP (Getty Images)

VanSickle said measuring the width of the sciatic incision in the pelvis is a useful indicator for gender because female Neanderthals would tend to have wider hips for childbirth. But the pelvis often comes out of the ground powdery. We also don’t know if and how Neanderthal social roles were born, and we certainly don’t know how they understood gender in a broader sense. But we know some things: Neanderthal women’s forearms exercised more than their biceps, for example, and their arms were more evenly tightened than Neanderthals ’hands, which could indicate they do a lot of skin, as Wragg Sykes described in a recent essay for Aeon.

Of course, each species contains great differences, 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 take that into account how they came about,” Hawks said. “It’s not just in terms of showing – so one can see what that person looked like – but showing the evidence of life written on her body, which conveys more about their lives 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 to have lost an arm during his lifetime, as well as reduced vision, deafness and uncomfortable gait. All this was determined by researchers from his skeleton. It was a hard life back then, and researchers claim that the survival of Shanidar 1 in his 40s shows Neanderthals strong social support for each other. Similarly La Chapelle-aux-Saints Neanderthal (portrayed by scientist Pierre Marcellin Boule as a primitive, stooped creature, continuing the old caveman stereotype) he had debilitating osteoarthritis.

Male Neanderthal skeleton La Ferrassie 1 in the Musee de l'Homme in Paris in 2018.

Male Neanderthal skeleton La Ferrassie 1 in the Musee de l’Homme in Paris in 2018.
Photo: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP (Getty Images)

DNA has also given major clues to these lost people. Pieces of the genetic code of Neanderthals suggest some individuals he may have had red hair, for example, and there were probable variations in skin tone among populations ranging from present-day Wales to the Arabian Peninsula to China. We don’t know how hairy our cousins ​​were at all, although we certainly like to portray them as pretty shaggy. However, from a bird’s eye view, the Neanderthal genome has taught us great diversity within a species.

“What we learned from genetics and their ancient DNA is that there were populations of Neanderthals that were genetically more different than anyone living at the same geographical distance today,” Hawks said. “If you look at the range of Neanderthals from Spain to Central Asia, the people who live in those places today are genetically more similar to each other than the Neanderthals who lived in those places.”

But the biggest surprise of Neanderthal DNA is that it still exists: all people living today possess a certain amount of genetic information inherited from the Neanderthals, revealing that it is ours homo sapiens ancestors regular crossing with them.


Framing scientists ’views on what Neanderthals looked like, from the Victorian era to the present day, is the box we usually put them in. We consider them somehow innate and different from us, and that colors our interpretations of their bones and their archaeological remains. “It’s almost like there’s a question of how science works in relation to culture and imagination,” Wragg Sykes said. “So there’s our knowledge, but there are also things we’re willing to allow ourselves to see or that we’re able to see because of our expectations.”

“And so one thing is really fascinating to me about many newer portraits of Neanderthals – scientifically based portraits – that they now look back at us and look back much more than they used to. And I think that reflects our understanding – that we know them much more closely, “she added.

Far from the violent, reckless animals they once portrayed, today’s depictions of Neanderthals take into account that decorated themselves,, made art, cared for the sick and the wifegrandfather, and maybe even burying their dead. They were people, with all the complexity that entails.

Read more: Did Neanderthals have the ability of verbal language?



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