Neanderthal in the mirror: our changing perceptions of these ancient humans

Rebecca Wragg Sykes argues that the ever evolving ways in which we have depicted Neanderthals in art over the past 150 years reveal just as much about us as them

Zdeněk Burian’s painting from 1952 offers a sympathetic portrayal of Neanderthals practising cannibalism. Self-assurance, even contentment, emanate from “It appears as a calm response to death, rather than murderous carnage,” writes Rebecca Wragg Sykes. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Nobody alive today remembers a time before we knew the Neanderthals. Yet their discovery happened very recently in the wider context of human history – barely five generations back. 1856 is the official Neanderthal “ground zero”, when bones materialised in a cloud of clay clods and black powder from the Feldhofer cave, near Düsseldorf in Germany.

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This was the first recognised find. Nearly three decades earlier, a Neanderthal skull-top had been discovered in a Belgian cave, but its unusual anatomy was less obvious because it was a child. In 1848 yet another skull emerged, this time from near the Forbes military battery on Gibraltar. This nearly became the “type” fossil for the species. But its true significance only became clear just after the Feldhofer find had been given a scientific moniker: Homo neanderthalensis, after the Neander “thal” (valley), where it was discovered.

But the Forbes skull, which belonged to a Neanderthal woman who lived around 90,000 years ago, does have a first to its name, as the subject of the earliest reconstruction of a hominin fossil. On 19 July 1864, just a few days after the skull had arrived in England by ship, biologist Thomas Huxley sketched “Homo Hercules columarum”, or Pillars of Hercules man, a reference to the classical name for the Rock of Gibraltar. Based on the skull, Huxley envisioned ape-like features including a hairy pelt (skin) and a short tail. Strikingly, there are long feet with opposable toes (also an ape-like feature).

“Homo Hercules columarum” will go down in history as the world’s first reconstruction of a Neanderthal. It was, of course, far from the last. From the 1860s onwards, imaginations bloomed and artistic interpretations started multiplying. In the century and a half since Huxley drew the Forbes woman, anatomists, authors and artists have produced hugely diverse depictions of this human species – everything from threatening brutes rendered on canvas to hyper-realistic digital portraits. This diversity is a reflection of both the evolution of artistic tastes and our growing knowledge of how the Neanderthals lived, inspired by archaeological discoveries. But, crucially, it is also a manifestation of the way in which they force us, as fellow humans, to reconsider ourselves.

In search of culture

For all its status as a “first”, “Homo Hercules columarum” wasn’t entirely original. In fact, it bore a resemblance to an illustration published in 1838 by Pierre Boitard in Magasin Universel: “L’homme fossile”. Despite being portrayed as a kind of “missing link” to other apes, “L’homme fossile” sports a carnivore’s pelt and carries a wooden-handled stone axe.

Perhaps the most “civilised” of the early visions of the Neanderthals was that by Ernest Griset in Harper’s Weekly, 1873. The presence of (minimal) clothing in the form of a worked animal skin and a hafted stone axe are reminiscent of “L’homme fossile”, but significantly the body is upright, and there’s no hint of hairy skin. Aside from a woman lying despondently in the cave’s rear, there are two apparently domesticated dogs next to a finely crafted stone-tipped spear.

Griset’s illustration was somewhat speculative – it wasn’t until the 1880s that Neanderthal bones were actually excavated in association with stone artefacts. From that point onwards, it was certain that, as Griset seems to have surmised, Neanderthals did have culture.

The impact of the discovery of Neanderthals beyond the scientific sphere in the second half of the 19th century and onwards should not be underestimated. Along with other reality-shaking discoveries – radio waves, electro-magnetism, the existence of galaxies beyond our own – it had a dramatic impact on culture. Not only was the age of the Earth vastly greater than once conceived, but the feet of other types of human had once walked the land. This all fed into the mélange of excitement and existential anxiety that underlay the nascent genre of science fiction and fantasy literature.

Like the discovery of radio waves and new galaxies, Neanderthals had a dramatic impact on our culture

Within two decades of the Feldhofer finding, novels featuring prehistoric humans began appearing, meeting the appetite of a society struggling to situate itself in cosmological terms. And interestingly, cross-overs can be seen in other ways: some of the same artists illustrating popular science books featuring Neanderthals were also producing art for Jules Verne’s novels Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) and From the Earth to the Moon (1865).

By the first decades of the 20th century, artistic interpretations of Neanderthals were splitting into different visions. Marcel Boule, an eminent anatomist, studied one of the first “in-situ” Neanderthal skeletons, from La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France. His 1911 publication not only provided the first full anatomical guide to their skeletons, but also included the Edwardian version of 3D graphics: stereo photographs allowed readers to transcend the flat pages and meet the gaze of those vast, empty eye-sockets.

The artist Franz Kupka produced an immensely influential reconstruction of this Neanderthal, known as the “Old Man”, in 1909. It envisioned a gorilla-like, stooped creature with bared teeth and a hefted branch or bone. Though Kupka apparently collaborated with Boule, his Neanderthal’s feet are overly ape-like; this is more akin to a missing link than a near relation.

Just two years later, the “Old Man” also appeared in the Illustrated London News. Commissioned by another expert, Arthur Keith, this image showcased a different perspective. Keith’s vision of Neanderthals was not as dead-end failures, but as our ancestors, and the result was an almost domestic Neanderthal with a sizeable but tidy beard, sitting carefully making tools by a blazing fire, complete with jewellery.

Around the same time, reflecting the contemporary influence of white supremacy, including eugenics, distinctly racialised images of Neanderthals began to emerge. This is most explicit in a colour illustration from the book Leben und Heimat des Urmenschen, written by Ludwig Wilser, a German populariser of race science and ardent Aryanist. Published the year after Kupka’s reconstruction, this Neanderthal is similarly bent over, but also has a primitive divergent toe. Beneath its fur, the skin colour is brown, while head hair and beard are both tightly curled. This is intended to be read as a black person. What’s more, there are no cultural items – the Neanderthal is simply carrying a branch and boulder.

Another of the most bestial depictions of the Neanderthals appeared just two years later in a book by Henry Knipe. Here a small family group, once again hairy and dark-skinned, huddle against a clifflooking both petrified and aggressive. The female holds an infant and stick, the male a rock.

A lack of “spark”

By the end of the 1920s, Neanderthals had made the transition from books to exhibition halls, as the subject of a large-scale diorama (scene) in Chicago’s Field Museum. Made by the sculptor Frederick Blaschke, the bodies of a number of Neanderthals are gorgeously realistic, even beautiful. Blaschke took some care, too, to represent the archaeological evidence, with one woman working animal hides using a stone tool. Yet what’s most arresting about these embodied Neanderthals is their lack of “spark”. The postures are mostly passive, even dejected; their expressions downcast or vacant. They do not resemble beings at home in the world, and look as if they’re waiting for their own extinction.

And it’s this very theme that came to the fore after the Second World War when extermination of those classed as subhuman had been industrialised. William Golding’s novel The Inheritors (1955) presents us as aggressors, spreading through the world. His gentle Neanderthal protagonist, Lok, describes the incomers as: “…like a famished wolf in the hollow of a tree… They are like the river and the fall… nothing stands against them.”

Relatively peaceable Neanderthals also began appearing in mid-20th-century art. Czech artist Zdeněk Burian not only had them hunting small game, but also managed to make a cannibalism scene  appear as a calm response to death, rather than murderous carnage. In Burian’s painting, the Neanderthals are still noticeably dark-skinned. It’s possible this was being drawn from anthropology itself, since theories that it had taken non-white human races longer to become “sapiens” persisted through the 1960s and beyond.

Theories that it took non-white human races longer to become “sapiens” persisted into the 1960s

It was actually one notable proponent of this idea, Carleton Coon, who was responsible for what became something of a “meme” in Neanderthal reconstructions: dressing them in modern clothing. His sketch, in a 1939 book, of a male sporting business attire and a hat, was echoed in 1957 by anatomists William Straus and AJE Cave who stated that if a Neanderthal was “reincarnated and placed in a New York subway – provided that he were bathed, shaved and dressed in modern clothing – it is doubtful whether he would attract any more attention than some of its other denizens”. In the 1990s, a sculpture for the Neanderthal Museum, Germany was presented in a suit, complete with newspaper in his pocket.

As the 20th century wore on, however, archaeology itself began to mature, with better excavation and recording, and increased use of scientific methods for dating and analysis. This filtered out from academia, and began altering how the public perceived Neanderthals more widely.

Deep plant lore

By the 1980s Jean Auel’s hugely popular Earth’s Children novels were portraying Neanderthals not as inherently violent, but as compassionate and knowledgeable with a hybrid gestural-vocal language, and deep plant lore. The epic story begins when Iza, a Neanderthal woman, rescues Ayla, a young Homo sapiens girl who is near death. In doing so, she forces us to see ourselves through different eyes: “Peculiar looking little thing, she thought. Rather ugly in a way. Her face is so flat with that high bulging forehead, and little stub of a nose, and what a strange bony knob beneath her mouth… And so thin, I can feel her bones… Iza put her arm around the girl protectively.”

Meanwhile, in the genre of “palaeoart”, illustrators such as Mauricio Antón began homing in on the individuality of Neanderthals, as well as underlining the social worlds in which they lived.

Since 2000 the gap between us and Neanderthals has shrunk further. The latest research suggests that they were top hunters with diverse diets, technologically sophisticated and innovative, dealt with the dead in varying ways and appear to have had an aesthetic interest in materials like pigment. It’s fascinating, then, that as they have come closer to us behaviourally, one of the most dramatic changes in reconstructions from the past 20 years is the direction of gaze. Rather than us observing Neanderthals, they now stare back at us. Even more, they increasingly appear confident, even happy. Dutch palaeoartists Adrie and Alfons Kennis were responsible for the first smiling sculpture, based on the original Feldhofer find. A later Kennis brothers work, from 2016, extends this emotional theme, representing the adult woman from Forbes Quarry, Gibraltar. Her eyes crinkle as she smiles contentedly (even proudly), embraced around the hips by a young boy. Partly hiding, his face communicates curiosity beneath nervousness.

What’s most touching about this pair (named Nana and Flint) is that, while their earthly remains lay less than a kilometre apart, in reality they could never have met. She lived and died around 90,000 years ago, and he – only five years old when he died – some 40 millennia later.

Intriguingly, the Kennis brothers are also responsible for reconstructions that reveal something the world had never before seen: an attractive Neanderthal.

Beers and perfumes

Just as it once appeared inconceivable that an artist would construct a handsome Neanderthal (such as the one shown at the start of this article), so the idea that one would inhabit the world of celebrity culture seemed equally far fetched. Yet all that changed in 2018–19, when visitors to Paris’s Musée de l’Homme were greeted by Kinga, created by the French sculptor Elisabeth Daynès. Kinga is a Neanderthal, but, sporting a playful expression, perfectly coiffured hair and an outfit designed by the renowned couturier “agnès b”, she is also uncannily modern. In front of her is a wall of media headlines about Neanderthals, as well as 21st-century brands referencing Neanderthals, such as beers and perfumes. She is basking in paparazzi flashes, lapping up the attention we’ve lavished on her kind for so long. She even holds an edition of the women’s magazine Causette, with herself on the cover as “Millennial Woman”.

Kinga is basking in paparazzi flashes and the attention we’ve lavished on her kind for so long

These themes of connectedness continue to shine out from the most recent literature and art representing Neanderthals. Claire Cameron’s novel The Last Neanderthal (2017) includes luminous chapters imagining the life of “Girl” some 40,000 years ago, describing how she lives with what readers eventually realise is a foundling Homo sapiens boy. “Runt’s limbs were oddly slim. His chest was as narrow as a leg.… He had chattered. Rather than call the boy a crowthroat, she tried to listen. She was amused by the sounds. Fast and scaly, the words slithered past his ears and into the wind.”

In the sphere of digital media, the celebrated palaeoartist Tom Björklund has produced a series of realistic and profoundly affecting images, imbued with personality, even soul. His works are central features of a new exhibition scheduled to run later this year at the Moesgaard Museum, Denmark, which will feature portraits reminiscent of oil paintings together with scenes rooted in the latest archaeological discoveries.

It’s in this context of artists increasingly merging complex archaeological evidence with nuanced cultural views that my book Kindred was published last year. As well as featuring historical representations, I included two of Björklund’s portrait-type works, one of which is quite revolutionary. He depicts a male Neanderthal carrying a young child on his shoulders, both looking off to the side. Through the wider milieu of palaeoart, it’s extraordinarily unusual to see males interacting with children, never mind affectionately touching them.

Artistic representations of Neanderthals have been on an extraordinary journey over the past century and a half. Whatever the future has in store for us with new discoveries, we can be sure our drive to know Neanderthals will find new artistic expression. They exist as dry bones in glass cabinets, in digital 3D reconstructions, and in the very bodies of billions of people, but are also created anew in our imaginations.

Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ bestselling book, Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, was published by Bloomsbury Sigma in 2020. She discussed the Neanderthals on a recent episode of the HistoryExtra podcast

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This article was first published in the April 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine