The first Neanderthal was discovered in Belgium in 1829, by a man named by Philippe-Charles Schmerling. The first bones found were a skull cap, two femur bones, three bones that were part of the right arm, two bones from the left arm, part of the pelvis, ribs, and shoulder blades. Since Neanderthals were first classified as a different species from humans, popular belief was that Neanderthals were inferior to humans, which is why they became extinct.
As new Neanderthal remains have been found in recent years, scientists have been able to form accurate hypothesis about Neanderthals. Amazingly, the new theories that archaeologists have about Neanderthals are nothing like the stereotypical idea of a ‘cave man.’ The most startling discoveries are the ones that show just how much our human ancestors and Neanderthals had in common.
If you believe that Neanderthals were uncivilized brutes, brawn without any brains, you’re in for a real surprise.
1. Neanderthals Were Great Parents
According to the research team from PALEO (Centre for Human Palaeoecology and Evolutionary Origins) and the Department of Archaeology at York, the idea that the lives of Neanderthal children was difficult, short, and dangerous, is no longer accurate. The team was led by Dr Penny Spikins, and the goal was to learn more about the lives of Neanderthal children. What they discovered shocked them, and the scientific community.
Investigation into Neanderthal burial sites revealed that children played a significant role in the Neanderthal society. Archaeologists came to this conclusion after noting that many Neanderthal children burial sites had more elaborate graves, and it appeared as if their burial sites were given more attention than older Neanderthals.
If that wasn’t convincing enough that Neanderthals cared for their young, researchers have concluded that since Neanderthal communities were small, they all would have had a strong bond within their social group. In fact, they may have had a closer relationships within their group than humans. As a result of this tight knit community, evidence suggests that Neanderthals cared for their sick children for months, possibly even years.
So for all the new parents out there, drop that parenting book. If you want to really learn how to care for your child, look to the example set forth by the Neanderthals!
2. All Non Sub-Saharan Africans are Related to Neanderthals
A study conducted by Damian Labuda of theDepartment of Pediatrics at the University of Montreal and the CHU Sainte-Justine Research Center revealed that all non sub-Saharan Africans are related directly to a Neanderthal!
The study took place in 2010, and compared 6000 chromosomes from different parts of the world to the Neanderthal hapolotype, which is essentially a string of DNA sequences that was retrieved. Amazingly, it was discovered that the Neanderthal DNA sequence was present in people across all continents of the world, even the isolated landmass, Australia.
The conclusion made from this study, whether you like it or not, is that at some point in time, Neanderthals and our human ancestors interbred. In fact, many scientists suggests that Neanderthals weren’t actually killed by humans, but our ancestors interbred with them so much, that they just became assimilated into our species!
If you think that sounds ridiculous, you need to remember that Neanderthals are said to have left Africa around 400,000 to 800,000 years ago. After travelling, they settled in the areas in France, Spain, Germany, and Russia. It is estimated that they existed up until about 30,000 years ago. Our human ancestors are believed to have left Africa 80,000 to 50,000 years ago. If these numbers are accurate, our relatives and Neanderthals had around 20,000 years to interbreed with each other!
3. Neanderthals Were Able to Speak Similarly to Humans
For many years, scientists, and the general population, have had the idea engrained into their head that Neanderthals were brutes that were only capable of making grunts and pointing at things to communicate. It wasn’t until 1989, that archaeologists found a hyoid bone in a Neanderthal skeleton that everything changed.
The hyoid bone is the bone that is responsible for supporting the root of the tongue. It is almost essential for speaking in the complex manner that we do today. Although other animals have a hyoid bone in their throat, the one found belonging to a Neanderthal resembles one that modern humans have. This has lead scientists to believe that Neanderthals may have been capable of more than just grunting at each other.
If you thought the discovery of the hyoid bone was amazing, wait until you hear about what Psycholinguistics researchers Dan Dedi and Stephen C. Levinson argue in their paper, Frontiers in Language Science. Their hypothesis is that language developed through the Darwinian process as our ancestors evolved biologically, and culturally. Furthermore, Dan Dedi and Stephen C. Levinson hypothesize that modern language and speech can be traced back to Neanderthals, roughly 500,000 years ago. Previous scientists have estimated that modern language evolved around 50,000 – 100,000 years ago, through modern humans, not Neanderthals.
4. Neanderthals’ Inability to Hunt Rabbits May Have Led to Their Demise
Wait, what? Yes, Neanderthals were able to hunt mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses, so shouldn’t they have been able to catch a silly rabbit? Well, not necessarily. Hunting rabbits involves a completely different skill set than hunting mammoths. In fact, it also requires different tools that the Neanderthals didn’t develop before their extinction.
John Fa, a biologist at the United Kingdom’s Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust has noted that humans hunted rabbits extensively, while Neanderthals did not. He and his team analyzed bone remains within a 50,000 year period and came to this conclusion after discovering rabbit remains only started to appear at early human sites around 30,000 years ago – the same time that Neanderthals started to disappear. Although, hunting rabbits is only a small portion of what went wrong.
Over the thousands of years that early humans moved into Europe, the climate began to change, and humans began to hunt large animals along with Neanderthals. This could have led large animal populations to dwindle down, while the rabbit population thrived. Although Neanderthals were capable of making string, which leads researchers to think they could make snares and other hunting traps, they may have been unable to adapt to hunting small game. Furthermore, the tools Neanderthals had for hunting, spears and clubs, were perfect for hunting large animals, but not fantastic for hunting small animals.
Humans, on the other hand, had a distinct advantage culturally over the Neanderthals. While the men in early human society were out hunting large animals, children and women could stay at the camp and forage, or, sometimes, hunt small game such as rabbits. In addition, it is believed that the early domestication of the dog helped humans hunt rabbits. While early humans had help from pets to catch their food, Neanderthals were left to fend on their own.
5. Neanderthals were NOT intellectually inferior to humans
Paola Villa and Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, state that the evidence to support “cognitive inferiority is simply not there.” Recent evidence suggests that Neanderthals were able to communicate in large groups, plan ahead, and use the terrain around them to hunt animals properly. This conclusion was made after a Neanderthal site in the Channel Islands revealed the fossilized remains of 18 mammoths, and 5 woolly rhinoceroses at the base of a very large ravine. Essentially, it is believed that Neanderthals chased these large animals and lured them off the edge of the ravine, where they plunged to their death.
In addition to the Neanderthals ability to hunt effectively, they may have been able to express themselves through artwork. Ochre, which is a natural Earth pigment, has been found at numerous Neanderthal excavation sites. These findings suggest that Neanderthals painted themselves with ochre. In addition to ochre, ornaments have also been collected at Neanderthal sites. If you combine these two pieces of evidence, it appears that Neanderthals expressed themselves through cultural rituals, and symbolic communication.
Are you convinced that Neanderthals and our ancestors were incredibly similar? Not yet?
It used to be believed that Neanderthals weren’t capable of creating works of art. Evidence has now debunked that theory. Cave paintings found along the Northern Sea Coast of Spain, in an cave called El Castillo (pictured above), are now being attributed to Neanderthals. This cave painting has been dated to be at the very least, 40,800 years old. Similar cave paintings have been found in other parts of Spain, most notably, Malaga. Paul Bahn, an expert in cave art, who is also a member of the Archaeological Institute of America stated that almost all scholars now fully accept the idea of Neanderthals creating art.
Joao Zilhao, professor and Neanderthal expert at the University of Barcelona, has stated that after the discovery of Neanderthal cave art, there may be little to no intellectual difference between Neanderthals and humans. In fact, his words were”It adds to the evidence…that Neanderthals were a European racial variant of Homo Sapiens, not a distinct species.”