I cried the first time I saw a Neanderthal. I was 8 years old, sat cross-legged on the wooden floorboards, watching The Land That Time Forgot. Everything around me ceased to exist as I was transported to a world of extinct beasts. This was the film that began my fascination with prehistoric creatures. It also gave me an intense fondness for Neanderthals. Based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the film follows a submarine that has travelled drastically off course, ending up in the lost land of Caprona. After exploring this unknown land some of the crew are attacked by a group of Neanderthals. They manage to capture one called Ahm (Ah-mm). We get to know Ahm, and grow very attached to this enigmatic character: he was simple, intelligent, curious, kind and gentle. He was a wonderful addition to the cast, but there was a simplicity in his portrayal. He couldn’t talk, he slouched uncomfortably when he walked and there was a rather dumb look about him. Sadly Ahm met a rather unfortunate fate whilst helping to save his new friends – he is grabbed by a Pterodactyl and we watch helplessly as he is flown away. The scene still brings tears to my eyes when I watch it today.
Neanderthals have really struggled to shake the view of being rather dim-witted, grunting brutes since they were first described back in 1856. Their name has even become shorthand to describe someone who lacks common sense, or is unable to adapt to change. It almost was worse than that. The wonderful scientist and artist, Ernst Haeckel proposed the name Homo stupidus for Neanderthals (literally translating to ‘stupid man’). Luckily, the species was saved by the rules of nomenclature, as Homo neanderthalensis had been proposed a few years earlier.
Why have the Neanderthals had such a rough time? Were they really slow, dumb creatures?
Although the first Neanderthal to be described was in 1856, it would be another 8 years before it was recognised as a new species. The bones were discovered in a cave in Germany along the Neander Valley (the name ‘Neanderthal’ is a coining of the German for Neander Valley: ‘Neander Thal’). Amusingly, ‘Neander’ is simply a Greek translation of Neumann – the German name of a local pastor who was associated with the valley. And Neumann means ‘New Man’. Pretty apt. The remains were pretty fragmentary, with only the skull cap, some leg and arm bones and a few other bones being found. At the time the scientific consensus was that humans were unique, and with only one, incomplete skeleton, there was no reason to disagree.
The original description of the bones by the German anatomist, Hermann Schaaffhausen, was published 2 years after they were discovered. Schaaffhausen was very detailed in his report. Although he didn’t recognise a new species, he did make note of the huge brow ridges, the thickness of the bones and the huge muscle scars. Schaaffhausen believed the bones belong to a barbaric tribe that lived in Germany before the Europeans arrived.
The rather droopy looking English anatomist, George Busk, translated Schaaffhausen’s German description in 1861. Busk thought that there similarities between the Neanderthal skull and great apes. Others disagreed, including the great Thomas Henry Huxley, who didn’t see an ancestor, but just an old human, and probably one that was deformed. After examining the skeleton, another German anatomist, Friedrich Mayer, concluded that the bones were deformed from rickets, and the bow-legged shape was from horse riding. The large brow ridge was, Mayer suggests, caused from years of frowning in pain because of his deformed bones! Not an ape, nor an ancient human, but an officer in the army who had climbed into the cave to die. Oddly no mention was made of why he had no clothes, sword or rifle.
The specimen led to a range of explanations. Admittedly, there was a lack of comparable fossils, but the idea in the mid-1800s that Homo sapiens was special was just too strong. In 1864, William King, an English geologist, examined the Neanderthal specimen and concluded that it shared more features with apes than Homo sapiens. In his write up he named a new species for the Neanderthal fossil (almost reluctantly, in a footnote): Homo neanderthalensis. This was the first time that another human species was recognised in the scientific literature. This was pretty big news. But, just to make sure Homo sapiens stayed the wise-man, King went on to write: “thoughts and desires that once dwelt within [the skull] never soared beyond those of the brute.” And so the seed was planted for a barbaric, beast of an ape to enter the popular imagination.
Two Neanderthal skulls had actually been found before the type specimen in Germany but were not recognised at the time. One, found in Gibraltar in 1848, had lain neglected until 1863, when it was examined by William Busk. He saw clear evidence that the Neanderthals were a different brutish species. Skulls discovered in 1829 in Belgium were not identified as Neanderthal until much later, but were, ironically used to compare the German and Gibraltar skulls. Subsequently, many more Neanderthal fossils emerged which clearly showed they were a separate species. Debates flew around the relationship of these ‘brutes’; were they a direct ancestor to Homo sapiens, or were they just an evolutionary dead end?
Some particularly spectacular finds in France helped calm the intellectual storm. Sites at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, Le Moustier, La Ferrassie and La Quina all held Neanderthal skeletons, some of which were remarkably complete. The French anthropologist Marcellin Boule noted that specimens of Homo sapiens were found from the same time period, so the two species must have lived side by side and he therefore concluded that Neanderthal was a side-branch. But Neanderthals were still seen as not as intelligent as H. sapiens, and doomed to extinction.
Since the initial finds in the mid-1800s, we now have specimens of over 200 individual Neanderthals from around three dozen sites across Europe. Not only do these fossils tell us about the range of these hominins, but also gives us information about their anatomy, leading to clues about their lifestyles. Genetic evidence points to Neanderthals diverging from our ancestor, Homo heidelbergensis between 250,000- 300,000 years ago. Not a direct ancestor, this sister species evolved separately, quite possibly in Eurasia from H. heidelbergensis. Our species, Homo sapiens on the other hand, evolved from a group of H. heidelbergensis who didn’t leave Africa somewhere around 200,000 years ago.
The last ten years have seen an enormous change in how Homo neanderthalensis is viewed. We now see Neanderthals as a very successful species of hominin that inhabited Eurasia for over 250,000 years. Their range spread across Western Europe and into Eastern Europe and Central Asia, but was limited to the north by the enormous barriers of ice during the last major glaciation. During the Pleistocene the Earth has been through incredible shifts in climate over relatively short periods of time. The ‘Ice Age’ was not one time when the Earth was cold: it was a time when the climate switched fairly rapidly from bitterly cold glacials, to tropical interglacials. It was during the glacial period from 300,000 to around 250, 000 years ago that the Neanderthals evolved. And they flourished. They survived two extremely hot interglacial periods, periods so hot, hippopotamuses were living in Britain! The last major glacial period was a long stint from around 110,000 – 12,000 years ago where Neanderthals became extinct somewhere in the middle of that time. In between these extreme warm and cold phases, there were sudden dips and spikes in temperature. Our recent past was a dangerously unstable place to live.
A striking feature about the Neanderthal skeleton, which was noticed by the German anatomist Hermann Schaaffhausen when he first described it back in 1856, was the thickness of the bones. This was a well-built, stocky species. Large muscle scars indicated they were very strong. They had larger barrel-like chests, which may have been an adaptation to minimise heat loss. Reconstructions of the nose suggest much larger schnozzles than ours, perhaps to warm the cold air they breathed (or perhaps sexual selection?). Their anatomy points to a species that was well adapted to cooler and drier environments.
Far from dumb brutes, Neanderthals had a very complex array of tools, including axe heads, spear tips, and blades for cutting and scraping and used glue to haft weapons. With a similar diet to Homo sapiens, but perhaps slightly more carnivorous, they had similar tools for hunting large animals. Although some researchers have commented that the range of their tools was not as diverse as H. sapiens. Their hunting style was different, so it may be that there was no need for a really diverse tool kit. Why have a Swiss army knife when all you need is a good steak knife? The Neanderthal skeleton gives us clues to their hunting style. Rather than long distance runners, or even javelin throwers, it appears Neanderthals were more keen on up close combat with their prey. Analysis in the arm bones show that their preferred method of hunting was by thrusting spears, rather than throwing them.
One huge difference between modern humans and Neanderthals appears to be art. With the many Neanderthal sites so far discovered there is little evidence of Neanderthal art. Paintings and sculptures are lacking from their sites. It could just be that we haven’t found them yet. Only last year some potential Neanderthal art at Gibraltar was reported. Etched onto the wall of the cave is something that looks akin to a noughts and crosses board. Some have called it an engraving, while others have dismissed it altogether. However you may define art, the scratches in the cave wall were purposefully done.
There is, then, more to Neanderthals than meets the eye. There is evidence of culture too. Homes made of mammoth bones for a fairly large community have been discovered at a site in the Ukraine, indicating not only skill to plan and build an intricate structure, but also they lived in complex societies. There are examples of Neanderthal jewellery; including necklaces of sea shells found at the Cueva de los Aviones and Cueva Antón sites, Spain, and more recently a rather striking necklace made from eagle talons from Croatia. Whether for aesthetics or social ranking, Neanderthals clearly had an appreciation for beauty, and an understanding of making something for a use other than food.
One thing that has always niggled me in The Land That Time Forgot was that Ahm grunted. He almost managed to put words together, but they were more grunts than speech. In Jean Auel’s magnificent saga Earth’s Children, the Neanderthals (whom are rather offensively called ‘Flatheads’) can only make limited sounds, and communicated through a very sophisticated form of sign language. Auel’s books were based on palaeoanthropolgy articles and research. It has until fairly recently been thought that speech was uniquely human. It has been speculated that Neanderthals may have been able to speak when a hyoid was found in 1989. However, a study in 2013 by scientists at the University of New England, re-examined the 60,000 year old hyoid, and what they found was very exciting. The hyoid is a small, but very important, piece of bone in our throats, which allows us to make the sounds that we know as speech. Using 3D x-ray technology, the team imaged the hyoid in incredible detail without damaging the specimen. They found it was identical, inside and out, to hyoids in you or I, suggesting that Neanderthals could actually talk.
Recently, there has been some extremely interesting work on Neanderthals. Some of their ancient DNA has survived and what it has shown has changed the way we look at Neanderthals, and our very own species. After moving out of Africa, Homo sapiens shared the same geographic regions as H. neanderthalensis for almost 6000 years. That’s a pretty long time – it can take less than a decade for humans today to wipe out a species. Obtaining good data from ancient Neanderthal DNA isn’t that new; as early as 1997, mitochondrial DNA from a fossil was sequenced by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. But this small genetic sequence showed no similarities with any modern human DNA that would suggest any kind of inter-species loving. In the last few years, however, nuclear DNA has been successfully sequenced. Nuclear DNA is the DNA within our very cells and holds all the information on making us: mitochondrial DNA, in contrast, holds only a small fraction of DNA, telling us only about mitochondria. The resulting Neanderthal genome shows that there was gene flow between modern humans and Neanderthals (i.e. there was some loving). In fact, there was enough mating that some of us today are walking around with around 2.1% Neanderthal DNA inside us. What does this mean? Well, you aren’t suddenly going to grow massive brow ridges, or have bowed legs. But it does show that Neanderthals and modern humans were mating in the past, and some of their genes mixed and are still around today.
Finding out why the Neanderthals vanished is the Holy Grail of palaeoanthropology. This was a successful species. Well adapted to life in extreme European and Asian environments for over 200,000 years. They even lived side-by-side with modern human for 6000 years. Then suddenly, about 28,000 years ago they vanished. There have been a number of suggestions ranging from disease to modern humans out competing and outsmarting them. In truth it was possibly a number of factors that contributed to their extinction. Around 55,000 years ago the ever changing climate of the Pleistocene went crazier than usual: suddenly there were short decades of warmth followed quickly by short decades of freezing conditions. With these drastic changes in temperatures came drastic changes in the environment – plants followed the cold north, and with them so did the dwindling numbers of herbivores. Neanderthals had faced fluctuating climates in the past, only then they were on their own. This time, the regions were being shared with modern humans. The range of Neanderthals had suddenly become more restricted than ever before.
It is unlikely to have been one factor that caused the extinction of our extremely close cousins. Climate, rapidly changing environments, and sharing the land with a species with similar feeding habits most likely had some impact on their demise. What we do know is that Neanderthals were a lot more like us than we realise. I like to know that evidence from sites is being looked at more objectively, and we are learning so much more about this incredible species. Sadly, the only thing that makes us special is that we are here and the Neanderthals are not.
Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)
Postscript: Early images of Neanderthals often had them slouched, covered with fur and some were even holding a club. This was to highlight that Neanderthals were brutes, much separated from us. Adding fur accentuated the the savageness of the beast. As a slight aside, hominins (the bipedal apes) lost their thick matted fur around 1.6 million years ago. Interesting research by Nina Jablonski and colleagues at Pennsyvania State University, looked at the sweat glands in mammals to try to work out when our ancestors lost fur. Mammals with furry, long matted hair produce a rather thick oily sweat through sebaceous and apocrine glands. Humans, however, produce more watery sweat from eccrine glands. Along with cooling the outside of the skin and keeping body temperatures down, this watery sweat provides a short term barrier from the heat of the sun while it evaporates. Increased activity by walking upright would have increased the eccrine glands and lost the thick hair (Homo sapiens today can have up to 5 million eccrine glands in their skin!). Obviously sweat glands don’t fossilise, but by looking at the body proportions of early hominins, it appears that Homo ergaster, around 1.6 million years ago, were well adapted for long distance walking and running. These ancestors may well have been the first truly naked apes.
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