What Neanderthals Really Looked Like or "Hey Good Looking"

a reconstructed female Neanderthal skull with modern makeup

What exactly did Neanderthals look like?  Pretty much like us.

Does the photo above look like a cousin of yours?  Could be.

Forensic facial reconstruction is the science of recreating the face of an individual from skeletal remains. 

Using techniques from the fields of anatomy, anthropology and artistry, forensic Anthropologists have reconstructed skeletal remains of several hominin species.  In the photo above the reconstruction was made using a female Neanderthal skull.  A striking twist on the result is to portray the individual as she would be perceived today with modern hairstyle and makeup.

Let me just say this right now, curse you Marcellin Boule.  Why would I curse that French paleontologist?  Because back in the day (1908) he blew it big time and made Neanderthals a neanderthal. 

Look it up in your dictionary, neanderthal with a small ‘n’ means dull witted, brutish, loutish behavior and other negative characteristics. 

Boule’s analysis of a nearly complete Neanderthal skeleton described it as an ape-like creature of dull wit.  He said they did walk upright but hunched over and had a shuffling gait. 

Here is Boule’s neanderthal...

Neanderthal wrongly depicted as brutish

This low opinion of Neanderthals took hold and lasted for decades even among scientists and still persists today among a large percentage of the population. His analysis defined the original ‘caveman’.  It took a long time to change but eventually with the discovery of more Neanderthal remains and their analysis we have the picture we have today of our close cousins Homo neanderthalensis.

By the way, why the heck did Marcellin say those awful things about our cousin anyway?  Well a re-examination of the original 1908 remains revealed Boule missed a few things.  First off, the hunched over posture of the individual was a result of severe arthritis, something that would make you hunch over too.  Secondly the bowing of the individual’s leg was from the deforming malady rickets. And that brutish face was due to loss of teeth and part of his jaw.

In many ways the Boule analysis proves the opposite of his diagnosis.  The individual would have had a hard surviving without the help and support of many others around him.  Care and sympathy for the infirm being more human qualities than ape-like. 

In a lot of the pictures you see Neanderthals are in the context of their own timeline but when you take them and put them in our modern timeline, hello…

reconstructed Neanderthal in modern clothes

Here’s the thing, facial reconstruction used to identify a particular individual is challenging.  Way more challenging than trying to reconstruct an anonymous face.  What I mean by that is if you are getting your CSI on and trying to identify a particular crime victim from a skull it’s a pretty daunting task.  However, if you are a forensic Anthropologist and trying to reconstruct what a representative of Neanderthals looked like you aren’t trying to nail down a specific person but rather trying to get a representation of what an individual from that species could have looked like.   

We know for a scientific fact how the muscles and tendons attach to the skull and based on human skull anatomy we can theorize how the muscles and soft tissue would be for a Neanderthal skull.  Plus, since science has mapped Neanderthal DNA we now know how close to us they actually are, pretty darn close, almost exact.  So close that many Anthropologists would consider Neanderthals a sub-species of Homo sapiens and not a separate species. 

In the strictest terms we are classified as Homo sapiens sapiens and to many, Neanderthals would be classified as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, a sub-species.

Why bring this up?  Because it reinforces the fact that Neanderthal facial reconstruction is not some wildly speculative exercise  even though we don’t’ have any pictures of live Neanderthals but rather it is very well validated based on all the current body of knowledge from the science of forensic facial reconstruction. 

So, for this next reconstruction of a Neanderthal female it depicts her as she would look in her own  timeline…

female Neanderthal skull reconstructed

We also can see another version of a Neanderthal female but how she might look in our timeline…

female neanderthal in modern makeup

Take a look at this young Neanderthal male…

young Neanderthal male face

And this child...

facial reconstruction of Neanderthal child

What’s up with the light color skin, the red hair and freckles?  Yeah, they figured that out from the DNA too.


A couple of more reconstructions for us to ponder.

Take this modern-day Neanderthal …

Neanderthal man in modern clothes

and compare him to… you knew this was coming…

You might not think that is fair but consider this next Neanderthal reconstruction first from his own timeline…

what a neanderthal really looks like

And then give him a shave and put him in modern clothes…

To paraphrase Pogo, “We have met the Neandertal and He is Us.”


Write a comment


If Neandertal DNA is 99.8% identical to modern human then when we look at a persons DNA and say they have 1-4% Neandertal, how do know the rest of it’ isn’t Neandertal as well since the rest of their DNA is identical??


So if we are basically the same when will we collectively understand that it’s not about race it’s about class the rich are getting richer and are using race to keep us divided


I thought Neanderthals had straight hair and light body hair.

Armando Pou

This is an extremely fascinating topic. I have often wondered in the past if Neanderthals were in fact just a group of modern Homo sapiens that migrated out of Africa much earlier (100,000+ years) were trapped by climatic events and adapted to their new surroundings (light skin, red hair, prominent noses). Due to the harsh environment their populations were small and perhaps severely inbred. 30,000 years ago the climate changes again and wave after wave of migrations occur out of Africa effectively “bred out” all but those genetic traits that allowed for an evolutionary advantage.

Gabrielle Hodson

Hello LeRoi, if Aboriginals people have any Neanderthal DNA it comes from their European ancestors not their Aboriginal ones.

Dr. William Joseph Burns

Nero. Snap out of it. Check out the latest bombshell
and, as far as noses are concerned
kuddos to LeRoi for your keen observation


Boule’s reconstruction actually remains one of the most accurate neanderthal reconstructions. Neanderthals looked quite different than modern humans. And yes we can find people like Ron Perlman who look slightly like a Neanderthal, that’s because many people have partial Neanderthal DNA from interbreeding. We know that Neanderthals had very different anatomy than modern humans. Neanderthal’s arm structure actually kept them from throwing spears properly, unlike our modern human ancestors who mastered throwing spear technology. Scientists have recently done close examination of Neanderthal nasal cavities and concluded on nasal morphology alone that they were a different species than modern humans. Neanderthals had massive noses, much bigger than any modern human, which is one of many things missed by this article’s so called reconstructions.

denise walker

Wow!!! Mind boggling!!!

LeRoi Smith

It wouldn’t surprise me if one day scientists come to the conclusion that Neanderthals weren’t a separate species at all, but were just a different race. Hello, Aborigines… http://cdn.history.com/sites/2/2016/09/GettyImages-10123466-E.jpeg

Lynn Ridenour

Great article. The timeline comparisons were superb.

John van de Steeg

Keep them coming Bob that was a really good

Kevin Lakins

Very interesting article. I like the facial reconstruction and the update of general impressions we have on Neanderthal. Very cool

Write a comment

Comments are moderated