A brief history guide to Neanderthals, plus 7 fascinating facts

Neanderthals have so often been written off as brutish and primitive. Here, archaeologist Rebecca Wragg Sykes gives an introduction to Neanderthals and how they relate to modern humans – plus she shares seven reasons why our understanding of the species has been revolutionised

A Neanderthal skull and some of the tools used by the Neanderthals. (Photo by Getty Images)

What is a Neanderthal? “From an evolutionary point of view, they are hominins,” Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes explained on an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast, “so they are within the Homo genus. For a long time, they were believed to be not much to do with us, in terms of direct ancestry – they were thought to be more like a branch, like cousins. That’s changed now; at least in part, they did contribute to our genetic legacy. That’s where they sit in an evolutionary sense.”

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Similarly, it was long thought Neanderthals were primarily European hominins. But, Wragg Sykes explains, we now also understand that they’re a Eurasian species, with an extremely wide geographical range. “They extended from Wales through to Siberia, central Asia and in the Near East,” she says.

In terms of when they existed, there’s evidence of proto-Neanderthals emerging 400,000 years ago. “But they only become clearly visible in fossil and archaeological terms around 350,000 years ago,” explains Wragg Sykes. “They appear to disappear from the archaeological record around 40,000 years ago – except their genes did continue, and they’re present in billions of people today.”

And why are they so significant? “Neanderthals were the first hominins that we realised were hominins,” she explains. “They’ve been with us for 160 years, all the way through the development of human evolutionary science, so they give a really interesting case study for how our ideas change, how the methods that we use to investigate them have completely transformed as well.”

Listen to the full conversation with Rebecca Wragg Sykes below, and read on for 7 fascinating facts that bust the myths that the species was primitive and unintelligent…


1

Neanderthals were not ‘missing links’

When they were discovered more than 160 years ago, Neanderthals blew everyone’s minds. The ideas of 19th-century naturalists Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin about natural selection weren’t yet published, and the notion that humans had ancient, vanished relations was scarcely imaginable. While the first Neanderthal fossils were compared with apes, biologists of the time like Thomas Huxley could see how much more similar they were to humans. In fact, the Neanderthal lineage only split from our shared common ancestor around 600 Ka (thousand years ago): vastly more recent than the oldest known stone tools, over 3 million years ago.

2

Neanderthals were not hyper-carnivores

Early theories that Neanderthals weren’t great hunters, or were stuck in a ‘Big Game Rut’, have been steadily overturned. Existing through 300,000 years of climate cycles and across western Eurasia, they adapted to a wide variety of environments and took the best of what was around them. This included hunting steppe-tundra megafauna like mammoth and woolly rhino, tracking medium-sized game like deer through woods, plus smaller species like birds, rabbits, tortoises or rockpooling for fish and crustaceans. But plants were also on the menu, from tubers like waterlily roots to seeds and fruits, some of which needed cooking.

3

Neanderthals could innovate

Images of Neanderthals as technologically unsophisticated abound, and it’s been claimed their culture barely changed through hundreds of millennia. Yet they mastered many methods for taking apart stone, with varied cultures found in different regions, and there’s also evidence of innovation through time. Blades were once thought to define H. sapiens, but Neanderthals were perfectly capable of making them too. They produced adhesives for multi-part tools, including birch tar – the first synthetic substance – and a recipe mixing pine resin and beeswax. Neanderthals also had carpentry skills, shown by finely carved spears and digging sticks, and even made shell tools.

4

Neanderthals could talk

‘Ugg’ boots might still be fashionable, but the grunting caveman clichés are now outdated. Anatomical evidence suggests Neanderthals had vocal capabilities not so different to our own. Their voice boxes could make largely similar sounds, and strikingly, their inner ears were tuned into the same frequencies as ours: human speech.

However, genetics suggest subtle differences. While sharing the language-linked FOXP2 gene, a protein difference means theirs didn’t function identically. What might they have talked about? Perhaps animal and plant lore, knowledge of stone and seasons, or sharing memories. Woven together, these may have become the first hearthside tales.

5

Neanderthals were not brutish

Long presented as primitive and savage, in fact the assumption that Neanderthals were by nature aggressive is not reflected in the archaeology. Hunting of big game, especially herds, must have been collaborative, and the spoils were systematically butchered and transported elsewhere to waiting mouths. Other clues come from their living sites: hearths were the centres of ‘home’, and in some places we can see groups were sharing resources between different fires. Rather than violent chimpanzees, this better matches our other closest primate relatives, bonobos. Their lives revolve around female friendships, and groups are far more open to meeting strangers.

6

Neanderthals had aesthetics

Did Neanderthal life stretch beyond bare concerns of survival, into stories, songs or art? There’s growing evidence of an aesthetic sense. This includes carefully incised lines on bones with no practical explanation, and collecting unusual materials: a fossil shell in Italy was smeared with red ochre 45 Ka, as was a geode in Romania around the same age. In Spain, pigment mixes are known: yellow and red minerals with sparkly ‘fools’ gold’. Plus, linked to their broad interest in birds’ feathers and claws, traces of another pigment recipe were recently found on an eagle talon from a Croatian site dating over 100 Ka.

7

Neanderthals are not extinct

Perhaps the greatest revolution in understanding of Neanderthals is that they did not entirely vanish. Older models envisioning H. sapiens replacing Neanderthals around 40,000 years ago were overturned in 2010 by genetic evidence showing interbreeding. A decade on, things are more complicated. H. sapiens were in Eurasia well before then – Australia by 65 Ka, China at least 80 Ka, and the Near East at 180 Ka – and new DNA samples reveal multiple phases of interbreeding going back before 200 Ka. Most living people have a Neanderthal genetic legacy, and in that sense they’re less extinct than some of the earliest H. sapiens populations.

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Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes is a Palaeolithic archaeologist, the author of Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, and co-founder of Trowelblazers