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Homo neanderthalensis

Status: Fossil

Reconstruction of a Neanderthaler
shown in the Neandertal museum
in Mettmann
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Primatea
Family: Hominidae
Genus: Homo
Species: neanderthalensis
Binomial name
Homo neanderthalensis
King, 1864
The factual accuracy of this article is disputed.

Homo neanderthalensis, Neanderthals or Neandertals1 for short, was a species of genus Homo that inhabited Europe and parts of western Asia during the last ice age. They seem to have been well adapted to extreme cold, but appear to have had difficulty adapting to climatic changes near the end of the ice age. The first Neanderthal fossils were found in 1856 near Düsseldorf in the Neanderthal, Germany. Their characteristic style of stone tools is called the Mousterian Culture (middle paleolithic), after another prominent archaeological site.

Neanderthals first appeared about 230,000 years ago and then disappeared about 28,000 years ago. Their brains were roughly 10 percent larger than those of modern humans, and were apparently organized differently. On average, Neanderthals stood about 1.65m tall (just under 5' 6") and were very well-muscled, comparable to modern weight-lifters.


Interaction with Cro-Magnons

Neanderthals apparently co-existed with anatomically modern humans beginning some 100,000 years ago. However, about 45,000 years ago, at about the time that stoneworking techniques similar to those of Cro-Magnon people appeared in Europe, Neanderthals began to be displaced. Despite this, populations of Neanderthals held on for thousands of years in regional pockets such as modern-day Croatia and the Iberian and Crimean peninsulas. Cro-Magnon are considered by most authorities to have been behaviorally modern Homo sapiens; they were certainly anatomically modern.

There is considerable debate about whether Cro-Magnon people accelerated the demise of the Neanderthals. Timing suggests that the developing behavior patterns of Cro-Magnon may have had considerable impact on the process. Jared Diamond has compared the likely interaction between Cro-Magnon people and Neanderthals to the genocides suffered by indigenous peoples in recent human history. However, other authors have pointed out that even a slight selective advantage on the part of modern humans could account for Neanderthals' replacement on a timescale short compared with the resolution of the archaeological record, even in the absence of violent physical conflict or an asymmetry of susceptibility to pathogens. Neanderthals were stout and extraordinarily powerful, with cranial capacities as large or larger than Cro-Magnons. Nevertheless one school of thought holds that they were outcompeted by Cro-Magnons because they lacked complex language and therefore the ability to pass on more than rudimentary knowledge to their descendants.2

In some areas of the Middle East and the Iberian peninsula, Neanderthals did, in fact, co-exist side by side with populations of anatomically modern Homo sapiens for roughly 10,000 years. There is also evidence that it is in these areas where the last of the Neanderthals died out and that during this period the last remnants of this species had begun to adopt — or perhaps independently innovate — some aspects of the Châtelperronian (upper paleolithic) tool case, which is usually exclusively associated with anatomically modern Homo sapiens.

Skeletons apparently sharing Neanderthal and Cro-magnon features have been found in Portugal; it is unclear whether these are in fact hybrids of the two species, or simply extreme individuals of one species. These may suggest the two species did interbreed. However, it has been speculated that these hybrid individuals could have been sterile. It is very difficult to prove as the genetic differences between Neanderthals and Cro-magnons was far more minute than the morphological differences between the two species might seem to indicate. Tests comparing Neanderthal and modern human mitochondrial DNA show too great a dissimilarity for Neanderthals to have contributed to the human mitochondrial genome. Morphological symmetry and asymmetry often belies genetic truth in the case of these ancient Homo populations. In any case it is possible but highly unlikely that the Neanderthals, with their small sedentary populations, could have been absorbed by the much larger populations of modern Homo sapiens. But without living Neanderthals it cannot be absolutely proven that they could interbreed with anatomically modern Homo sapiens to produce viable offspring. These hybrid remains should not be confused with Homo heidelbergensis, the more ancient common ancestor of both the Neanderthal and modern man.

Although Dr. Jared Diamond and others have specifically mentioned Cro-Magnon diseases as a threat to Neanderthals, this aspect of the analogy with the contacts between colonisers and indigenous peoples in recent history can be misleading. The distinction arises because Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals are both believed to have lived in a way we would now call nomadic, whereas in those genocides of the colonial era in which differential disease susceptibility was most significant, it resulted from the contact between colonists with a long history of agriculture and nomadic hunter-gatherer peoples. Diamond argues that asymmetry in susceptibility to pathogens is a consequence of the difference in lifestyle, which makes it irrelevant in the context of the analogy in which he invokes it.

Both the Neanderthals' place in the human family tree and their relation to modern Europeans has been hotly debated ever since their discovery. They have been classified as a separate species (Homo neanderthalensis) and as a subspecies of Homo sapiens (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis) at different times. The consensus has been, based on ongoing DNA research, that they were a separate branch of the genus Homo, and that modern humans are not descended from them (fitting with the single-origin hypothesis). Some recent genetic research has pointed toward the possibility that the gene responsible for red-hair and freckles in modern Europeans had Neanderthal origins (at least partially indicating support for a multiregion origin). In addition to the genetic research, the shapes of the Neanderthal and modern human skulls are significantly different, in ways that make it unlikely that Homo sapiens is descended from Neanderthals.

Dr Myra Shackley has speculated that a surviving population of Neanderthals may be the Almas: a wild man reported in the Caucasus and other regions. This view is generally regarded as speculative and highly unlikely.


Neanderthal (Middle Paleolithic ) archeological sites show both a smaller and a less flexible toolkit than in the Upper Paleolithic sites, occupied by modern humans, that replaced them. There is little evidence that Neanderthals used antlers, shell, or other bone materials to make tools. Their burials are less elaborate than those of anatomically modern humans, though much has been made of the Neanderthals' burial of their dead. In some cases, Neanderthal burials include grave goods such as bison and aurochs bones, tools, and the pigment ochre. Also, while they had weapons, they did not have spears or other projectile weapons; these were first used by Homo sapiens.3

Neanderthals performed a sophisticated set of tasks normally associated with humans alone. For example, they constructed complex shelters, controlled fire, and skinned animals. Particularly intriguing is a hollowed-out bear femur with four holes in the diatonic scale deliberately bored into it. This flute was found near a Mousterian Era fireplace used by Neanderthals, but its significance is still a matter of dispute.

Neanderthals in Literature and Popular Culture

Popular literature has tended to greatly exaggerate the ape-like gait and related characteristics of the Neanderthals. It has been determined that some of the earliest specimens found in fact suffered from severe arthritis. The Neanderthals were fully bipedal and had a slightly larger average brain capacity than that of a typical modern human (though the brain structure was organised somewhat differently).

In popular idiom the word Neanderthal is sometimes used as an insult, to suggest that a person combines a deficiency of intelligence and an attachment to brute force. Counterbalancing this are sympathetic literary portrayals of Neanderthals as in the novel The Inheritors by William Golding and Jean M. Auel's Earth's Children series or the more serious treatment by palaeontologist Björn Kurtén. Science fiction has depicted Neanderthals brought into the present via time travel, most notably The Ugly Little Boy by Isaac Asimov.

Michael Crichton's 1976 novel Eaters of the Dead places a small Neanderthal population in Europe as the source of the battles recorded in Beowulf.

In the Riverworld series, Philip José Farmer introduces an interesting Neanderthal character, named "Kazz".

Robert Sawyer's Neanderthal Parallax trilogy imagines contact with an alternate world where Neanderthals, not Homo sapiens, became the dominant species. The first book in this series, Hominids, won the Hugo Award in 2003.

Although it is commonly thought that Neanderthals are base compared to modern humans, it is possible that Europe as a cultural identity would not have been the same without the existence of Neanderthals. Neanderthals occupied the same location as the cultural and physical spectrum of what would later be considered European.


  1. The name Neanderthal is now spelled two ways. The spelling of the German word Thal, meaning "valley", was changed to Tal in the early 20th century, but the former spelling is used in English and in scientific names, while the modern spelling is used in German. In any case, the correct pronunciation is with a "t", not a "th".
  2. The theory that Neanderthals lacked complex language was widespread until 1983, when a Neanderthal hyoid bone was found at the Kebara Cave in Israel. The bone that was found is virtually identical to that of modern humans. The hyoid is a small bone that holds the root of the tongue in place, and its presence seems to imply some ability to speak. Many people believe that even without the hyoid bone evidence, it is obvious that a tool case as advanced as the Mousterian Era, attributed to Neanderthals, could not have been developed without cognitive skills encompassing some form of spoken language.
  3. Though it is true that Neanderthals did not typically use spears as projectiles, they certainly did have spears in the sense of a long wooden shaft with an arrow head firmly attached to it. There is good evidence that they not only made spears, but also routinely constructed a variety of stone implements. Many of these tools were incredibly sharp. Some had a cutting edge sharper than a surgeon's scalpel. The Neanderthal tool case was known as the Mousterian Era (middle paleolithic) tool case. It consisted of sophisticated stone-flakes, task-specific hand axes, and the incipience of a crude bone industry.

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Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45