By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University
The Neanderthals, relatives of the human race, who began to emerge sometime between 300,000 and 100,000 years ago, were early humans as well. The best recent estimate for their appearance as a distinctive species in Europe is around 130,000 years ago. What were their lives like? What were some of their cultural practices? And, how did they go extinct?
The Neanderthals take their name from the fact that fossil remains were accidentally discovered in the Neander Valley, near Düsseldorf in Germany, in 1856. Incidentally, Neander in Greek means ‘new man’, which is ironic, to say the least. So what do we know about Neanderthals?
Learn more about the Paleolithic period.
Common Perception of Neanderthals
The common perception is that they were primitive beings, more like animals than humans. Well, the fact is that a) we use the word Neanderthal almost synonymously with ‘stupid’, and b) our view of prehistoric societies tends to be extremely dismissive and patronizing.
Actually, the Neanderthals weren’t in the least bit stupid or backward. Some paleoanthropologists have even argued that those of us who live outside Africa have between one to four percent Neanderthal DNA in us. This would mean there was interbreeding between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.
It’s a highly contentious area of debate. There are serious doubts both as to the accuracy of DNA that is tens of thousands of years old and as to whether the two species could have produced offspring together.
Learn more about daily life in the ancient world.
Life of a Neanderthal
Neanderthals had a very sturdy musculature. They were barrel-chested with short legs and had protruding foreheads. They stood about five feet four inches (1.63 meters) tall. They also had a very decent-sized brain; perhaps even a bit larger than our own brain. Having a big brain doesn’t translate into being super intelligent.
This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, Wondrium.
They were particularly well-adapted to the cold, both because of their stocky stature and because they had large noses and large teeth, which enabled them to warm the air they inhaled and so protect the brain.
Try to picture yourself as a Neanderthal, living in conditions of perpetual and extreme deprivation. You’re stalked by death in multiple forms every single day of your life, fearful not only of animals but also of every human being outside your own limited circle. You’re entirely exposed to the elements. You lack most creature comforts. You understand virtually nothing about the natural world.
Your life is dominated by the environment and by the climate. You experience prolonged, perhaps agonizing pain at times, which you can do nothing, absolutely nothing to relieve. You live life very close to the bone in more ways than one. And you live without the consolation or inspiration of religion.
You and your fellow Neanderthals face virtually constantly the possibility of extinction, not that you would know that of course. But it’s a matter of survival at all costs. Like your predecessors, you knap flint and other types of stone into razor-sharp tools. You do this to dismember and devour the carcasses of beasts, and occasionally, of other Neanderthals.
Impressive evidence that Neanderthals practiced cannibalism came to light recently in a cave called El Sidrón in northern Spain. Cut marks were found on the bones of 12 individuals, indicating that the muscle had been stripped away by means of stone blades.
You fish and hunt small game with pointed weapons. You live in a cave or some sort of rock shelter. You exchange resources with other Neanderthals, some of whom live a long way off—up to about 200 miles away in some cases.
You are the first species in the line to become humans who bury your dead. Paleoanthropologists have found a Neanderthal grave dated 65,000 years ago with branches and flowers.
Burial is a uniquely human undertaking, so to speak. We can’t assume that this was connected with the belief in an afterlife, as no associated finds have come to light. However, it does indicate that you honored their dead—you weren’t just burying them for purposes of ‘carcass disposal’ to prevent corpses from attracting the attention of scavengers, and thereby exposing the social group to danger.
You know how to control fire or at least you learn over time how to control fire. You use it for a variety of purposes—to keep warm, to scare away predators, to sharpen your tools, and to cook.
Scientists at the Smithsonian Museum discovered particles of starch from barley and water lilies on Neanderthal teeth that showed clear signs of having been cooked. Someone somewhere discovered that food is easier to chew, and tastier if it’s held over a fire. Cooking represents a huge advance in human culture. Preparing and sharing food is a way to consolidate a sense of community.
You live in a group consisting of perhaps as many as 150 other Neanderthals. You take care of your fellow Neanderthals, the weak ones. There’s a 40,000 years old Neanderthal skeleton in the Smithsonian, with evidence of a crushing blow to the skull. Even so, the Neanderthal was cared for by his family and friends for many years.
We know that for a fact because his right arm became withered. So he had his uses. Perhaps he helped raise children. Or perhaps he was a great cook or a spell-binding storyteller—an embryonic Neanderthal professor for the Great Courses.
Learn more about the Neanderthals.
Why Did the Neanderthals Go Extinct?
So what happened to the Neanderthals? Well, around 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, they began to be replaced by Homo sapiens. In other words, they began to be replaced by us, modern humans. ‘Replaced’ may be a euphemism, although that’s the term employed by Paul Mellars, a leading paleontologist, who says, ‘one could easily imagine a scenario … of eventual replacement without any notion of mass genocide, or even direct conflict between the two populations’.
The fact remains, however, that the way in which the Neanderthals became extinct is one of the great whodunits of history. Maybe they failed to adapt to changing conditions. Or maybe they just lost out to our direct ancestors in the fierce competition for limited resources.
The latest research suggests that encounters between the two species took place around 40,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent. Incidentally, Homo floresiensis were still going strong thousands of years after the Neanderthals had been swallowed up by Homo sapiens. They were still romping around on their Indonesian island a mere 13,000 years ago.
In fact, at one time, about 40,000 years ago, there seem to have been at least four hominian cousins of ours who ranged across Europe and Asia, along with our direct ancestors—Homo erectus, the Neanderthals, Homo floresiensis, and what has been unromantically called Species X, identified from a single finger bone, a pinky, discovered in a Siberian cave as recently as 2008. Future research may well reveal that there were more species of extinct human relatives sharing the planet with us at this time.
Common Questions about the Neanderthals
Some paleoanthropologists believe that non-Africans have between one to four percent Neanderthal DNA in them. If this were to be true, it would mean that there was interbreeding between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. However, this is a highly contentious area of debate, because there are serious doubts about the accuracy of DNA that is tens of thousands of years old, and whether the two species could have produced offspring together.
Neanderthals had a very sturdy musculature. They were barrel-chested with short legs and had protruding foreheads. They stood about five feet four inches (1.63 meters) tall. They also had a very decent-sized brain; perhaps even a bit larger than our own brain, which doesn’t translate into being super intelligent.
The Neanderthals were replaced by Homo sapiens about 35,000 to 40,000 years ago. The two species encountered each other in the Fertile Crescent. We do not know why or how they went extinct. It’s possible that they failed to adapt to changing conditions, or maybe they just lost out to our direct ancestors in the fierce competition for limited resources.
The Neanderthals first emerged around 300,000 years ago. The best estimate of their appearance in Europe, that we currently have, is 130,000 years ago. Around 35,000 to 40,000 years ago they went extinct. So, the Neanderthals lived for between 100,000 and 250,000 years.