Episode 4: Neanderthals

Today we have seen that much of what exists in the popular concept of Neanderthals – as dim, stooped, hairy and primitive – is largely down to a combination of Victorian period biases in how people viewed one another (and themselves) as well as an error made in the first reconstructions of Neanderthal skeletons. While we know that this popular image of Neanderthals is wrong, it can also be hard to move away from something that we as human societies have had with us for so long.

Illustration of a Neanderthal done in 1909 by Czech artist Frantizek Kupka and based upon the reconstructions of Neanderthals (specifically of the burial from La Chapelle aux-Saints) by Marcel Boule.

Instead of the hairy and primitive animal shown in the above and other pictures, we have seen that Neanderthals looked a lot like us. They were smart and capable, just like we are. They made good use of the landscapes around where they lived, and chose their home bases with care. They invented new technologies for making composite tools, and for keeping themselves warm. Neanderthals even seem to have made decorations for themselves or their clothing, and to have used pigments to add colour to themselves and their possessions. They may even have used these pigments to make paintings on the walls of caves.

A modern reconstruction of Neanderthals
Some of the European cave paintings now dated to the time of Neanderthals. The article on the dating of these paintings can be found here.

Neanderthals even buried their dead. This was not a practice which was restricted to a few Neanderthals living in only one region, but is something which we see repeatedly across the Near East and Europe. This is something which we have seen repeatedly at Shanidar cave, where many Neanderthal burials have been found. At least one of which burials may have had flowers and other plants buried with them as grave goods.

Shanidar cave in the Zagros mountains. It was inside this cave that many Neanderthal graves have been found, including a new burial recently found now that excavations have resumed. The article about this new skeleton can be found here.

Neanderthals may also have made music, as is suggested by the discovery of a small flute-like instrument from the site of Divje Babe in Slovenia. While small and currntly broken, this ‘flute’ makes beautiful music.

Episode Bibliography:

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Gibson, K.R. 2007 Putting it all Together: a constructionist approach to the evolution of human mental capacities. In P. Mellars, K. Boyle, O. Bar-Yosef and C Stringer (eds.), Rethinking the Human Revolution: New Behavioural and Biological Perspectives on the Origins and Dispersal of Modern Humans. Cambridge: McDonald Institute Monographs: 67-78.

Hardy, B.L., Moncel, M.-H., Daujeard, C., Fernandes, P., Béarez, P., Desclaux, E., Chacon Navarro, M.C., Puaud, S. and Gallotti, R. 2013. Impossible Neanderthals? Making string, throwing projectiles and catching small game during Marine Isotope Stage 4 (Abri du Maras, France). Quaternary Science Reviews 82: 23-40.

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Hoffmann, D.L., Standish, C.D., Pike, A.W.G., Garcia-Diez, M., Pettit, P.B., Angelucci, D.E., Villaverge, V., Zapata, J., Milton, J.A., Alcolea-Gonzalez, J., Cantalejo-Duarte, P., Collado, H., de Balbin, R., Lorblanchet, M., Ramos-Munoz, G., Weniger, G.-Ch. and Zilhao, J. 2018. Dates for Neanderthal art and symbolic behaviour are reliable. Nature Ecology and Evolution 2: 1044-1045.

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Walker, M.J.C., Berkelhammer, M., Björck,S., Cwynar, L.C., Fisher, D.A., Long, A.J., Lowe, J.J., Newnham, R.M., Rasmussen, S.O. and Weiss, H. 2012. Formal subdivision of the Holocene Series/Epoch: a discussion paper by a working group of INTIMATE (integration of ice-core, marine and terrestrial records) and the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy (International Commission on Stratigraphy). Journal of Quaternary Science 27(7): 649-659.

Zilhão, J. 2012. Personal ornaments and symbolism among the Neanderthals. Developments in Quaternary Science 16: 35-49.

4 thoughts on “Episode 4: Neanderthals

  1. Hello Jane,

    Thank you so much for your podcast. I really enjoy your style and the easy to understand narrative. I recently became interested in the question of how we became who we are today. So far, I’ve read only Steven Mithen’s After the Ice, which I found to be excellent an introduction to the subject, but would be keen to learn more on the period up to 50,000 years before the present. Also, I really appreciate you giving us a glimpse of how real archaeologists work !!

    Best regards,
    Pip Sricharoen
    Bangkok, Thailand


  2. Hi Jane. I just listened to the Neanderthal podcast. I see you have posted one image of the artwork thought you have being done by the Neanderthals. Are there any more images available to be seen? Thanks. I’m really enjoying the podcast


  3. Thank you so much. Very informative and up to date for both anthropology/archaeology students and public. Congratulations 👏


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