Homo neanderthalensis

Homo neanderthalensis derived its name from the Neander Valley in Germany where it was first discovered. In the scientific classification system species are commonly identified by two names (binomial nomenclature). The first name is the genus and the second is the species (the first word is always capitalized, the second is not) hence; Homo neanderthalensis.  The time period for Homo neanderthalensis is 500,000 years BCE (before the common era) to 28,000 years ago.

Homo neanderthalensis side view

Neanderthals are undoubtedly the most well know of all human ancestors. Neanderthals are the original ‘Cave Man’ primarily because so many of the fossil remains have been unearthed in caves that it just became natural to call them that.

Most people do not know about Homo heidelbergensis and fewer know about Homo erectus and even fewer still have ever heard of Australopithecines.

Everyone has heard of Neanderthals.

The scientific understanding of the Neanderthals has changed dramatically in the past decade.  We now have a much deeper understanding of all the previous discoveries thanks to re-evaluation of the fossil remains using DNA analysis.

But even with this new understanding of our closest relative it might take awhile to undo his negative reputation with some. Calling someone a neanderthal with a small "n" has had negative connotations for over a hundred years. When you look the term Neanderthal up in the dictionary the first meaning is the species, the second will say something like - ignorant person, barbarian, brutish, loutish person - or words to that effect.

For the longest time a Neanderthal was thought to look like this.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  A deeper look at Neanderthals reveals a person, yes a person, just like us.  There are very few differences between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals and the differences are almost entirely superficial. They may have looked a little different in the face but other than that the robust skeletal remains of Neanderthals are well within the human range. 

They were more like this affable fellow here.

Some scientists want to include them in with the Homo sapiens species or at the very least make them a sub species of Homo sapiens. After one has poured over all the research on Neanderthals the truth of the matter is, to paraphrase Pogo;

"We have met the Neanderthal and he is us".

The Fossil Evidence.

The first Neanderthal bone fragments were found in a cave in Belgium in 1829 and then again more bone fragments were found in a Gibraltar quarry in 1848. At the time these where thought to be human bone fragments. Then in 1856 in a limestone quarry in the Neander Valley, Germany 16 bone fragments were found including a skull cap.  These were at first thought to be from a bear.

Since then bone fragments from over 400 Neanderthal individuals have been found world wide, twenty of which are almost complete skeletons. This is way more information we have than on any other hominin that came before Neanderthal.

The discovery of the original skeletal remains in the Neander Valley are now considered to be the beginning point of paleoanthropology. Here are the actual 16 bones of the 1856 discovery from the museum display.

The dull-witted brute story. 

The mischaracterization of Neanderthals as a neanderthal with the small 'n' comes from the nearly complete skeletal remains discovered in 1908 in southwestern France. A French paleontologist, Marcellin Boule, analyzed the fossil bones.  He described the Neanderthal as an ape-like creature that walked hunched over with  a shuffling gait.  He also surmised they were of dull wit and brutish. 

Unfortunately Boule's mistaken analysis was accepted by paleoanthropologists for decades. It became the source for the common man's perception of the 'caveman'.

In reality the hunched over posture of the individual Boule studied was from severe arthritis in the spine that he suffered from. He also had other deforming infirmities such as rickets, which gave him bowing of the legs and a distorted face due to loss of teeth and part of his jaw.

Fortunately subsequent finds and studies have given us the true story. Neanderthals are now rightly understood to be, comparatively speaking, almost as an equal to modern man with few exceptions.

Bone to Bone

Let's take a look at the comparison between the skeletons of Neanderthals and Humans. This first chart takes a look at the complete skeleton of each species. You will notice that the Neanderthal is somewhat shorter and thicker in size but both have the same number of bones that function in the same manner.

neanderthal and human skeleton comparison chart

The next illustration highlights the main differences between the skulls.

neanderthal and human skull comparison

You can see from above that Neanderthals had bigger heads and indeed on average had a bigger brain also. Neanderthal brain size range is 1300 cc to 1600 cc.  Modern man brain size range is 1250 cc to 1400 cc. However, it must noted that the differences in size are no more than the variations we see in modern man. In other words there are millions of people today who have larger and thicker bones than the average human and are well within the parameters of the Neanderthals.

In fact Neanderthals themselves had variations in size depending on where they lived. The ones in Europe tended to be the shorter and thicker ones compared to the ones from a more temperate climate.

The range of Neanderthals;

the range of Neanderthals chart

 The Timeline For Neanderthal

As you might imagine the timeline for how old Neanderthal is has changed based on new finds and DNA analysis. For quite a while the time of 300,000 to 250,00 years ago was used.  Then further study and finds pushed it back to 500,000.  Now DNA is suggesting it could be as far back as 765,000 years ago which is quite a bit further back.

The timeline is always getting pushed back not forward.

And it is no different for the Neanderthals. It is extremely hard to extract and analyze DNA from fossils. So we can not definitively say the exact path to Neanderthal or Homo sapiens. However, there is circumstantial evidence that is pretty strong. Up until this 765K date was derived from DNA, Neanderthals and humans both were thought to have descended from Homo heidelbergensis or Heidelberg Man.  

The problem with the 765K date for Neanderthal is that Heidelberg Man is thought to be only in the 700 to 800K range itself. So now some Anthropologists are thinking that Homo antecessor might be the ancestor of Neanderthal and Homo sapiens.

I have an issue with this thinking and it centers on Homo antecessor which I would call an early Heidelberg man species.  I am not the only one to think along this line. There are paleoanthropologists that are not convinced that Homo antecessor is even a valid species. IMO the evidence for H. antecessor is more likely that of early Heidelberg Man and that would push the date for him back to as far as 1.3 million years.  Well before the 765K divergence of Neanderthals took place and allow plenty of time for H. heidelbergensis to the ancestor of Neanderthals.

The Ascent of Man is not a straight line.

But there is a path that goes from a beginning to where we are now. To date there have been 21 hominin species discovered. The following is what I believe, based on all the research I have done, is the timeline for Neanderthal.

  • Australopithecines 4 to 2 million BCE
  • Homo erectus 1.9 million to 70,000 BCE
  • Homo heidelbergensis 1.3 million to 200,000 BCE
  • Homo neanderthalensis 765,000 to 28,000 BCE

 I have to say that the 1.3 million for H. heidelbergensis and the 765K for Neanderthal is not generally accepted yet so for my hand painted ceramic plates I have used the more accepted dates of 800K for Heidelberg Man and 500K for Neanderthals. 

I have much more to say with greater depth about the hominin evolutionary timeline in my paper on Homo sapiens and Human Evolution.

Let's Open the Can of DNA

picture of DNA

It has been extremely hard to sequence DNA from fossil remains but scientists have figured it out recently and both mitochondrial (mtDNA) and nuclear DNA from Neanderthals have been extracted and sequenced.

After death water, oxygen and microbes break down DNA.  Typically within a hundred thousand years all DNA is destroyed.  After that DNA found is small, fragmentary and damaged.  Contamination by handling is another factor that makes it hard to sequence ancient DNA. Nevertheless major efforts have resulted in sequencing of Neanderthal DNA.

Here are some of the things we've learned from Neanderthal DNA.

  • Approximately 1-3% of modern man DNA is shared with Neanderthal, except for sub-Saharan  Africans.
  • They had red hair and pale skin.
  • Both Neanderthals and humans have the FOXP2 gene which is involved in speech and language.
  • Neanderthals had similar or same blood types as humans.
  • They most likely had an overall small population size.
  • Neanderthals and humans can taste bitter substances.
  • Last common ancestor of Neanderthal and humans is anywhere from 550,000 to 690,000 years ago.

 Sex and the Single Neanderthal

Neanderthals and humans interbred.  Racy stuff I know. These shenanigans could have started 100,000 years ago but certainly by 60,000 years ago the party was on. The DNA evidence is quite clear on this, there is 1 to 3% of Neanderthal DNA in all humans except for sub-Saharan Africans.  Indigenous Sub-Saharan Africans have no Neanderthal DNA because their ancestors did not migrate through Eurasia.

neanderthal and human have sex

For the longest time a big mystery surrounded the Neanderthal.  What happened to them?  They were a very successful species and occupied their range for hundreds of thousands of years.  Before the study of DNA it was assumed by most that when modern man spread into the Neanderthal range they fought and killed them off.  

But since the DNA studies it has been discovered that we have Neanderthal DNA in us and it is now widely considered we simply interbred with them.  There might be some other mitigating circumstances but interbreeding seems very likely to be the cause of the Neanderthal vanishing. 

Total population size of Neanderthal could have only been 70,000 with only 7,000 breeders.

Apparently even with a wide territorial range there were just not that many Neanderthals.   With a population of only 70,000 across their range and with an estimate of only 7,000 in peak breeding years it doesn't take much to imagine a total population collapse.  

Modern man's spread into Neanderthal's territory was certainly the final cause of their demise. It could have been as simple as a human flu bug that was fatal to Neanderthal. However, it was more likely competition for resources and interbreeding than some all out war that caused the population to collapse below what is needed to carry on the species.

This next photo is of a reconstruction of a young Neanderthal female. With this interpretation you can imagine why a lot of scientists believe Neanderthals should be a sub-species of Homo sapiens.

Behavior and Lifestyle

Neanderthals had language plain and simple. We know with complete confidence that anatomically Neanderthals are the same as modern man with regards to the structures that allow for a fully developed ability to not only to produce the subtle sounds but to hear them which is central to complex speech.  They also have the same genetic profile which allows speech.  

The Neanderthal brain size is the same or even larger than modern man and there are no essential differences between the two.  (A point in fact is that modern man's brain size is getting smaller not larger.  Today our brain size is smaller than even 30,000 years ago.)

Actually to discuss the behavior and lifestyle of Neanderthals is to discuss the behavior and lifestyle of ancient Homo sapiens.  As far as can be determined they both had similar behaviors. 

  • They made tools to make other more complex tools.
  • Could make and control fire.
  • Used complex language
  • Buried their dead.
  • Took care of the sick and old.
  • Practiced religious ceremonies.
  • Made and used musical instruments. 
  • Decorated themselves.
  • Made and wore clothing.
  • Constructed shelters.

About that Flute

neanderthal flute

A bone flute was found in Slovenia with other Neanderthal remains and could be as old as 80,000 years.  The 4 holes in the flute, two complete and two partial, matches the 4 notes of the Do, Re, Me scale.

This is a picture of the actual artifact.

Some Closing Thoughts

Neanderthals lived for hundreds of thousands of years across a wide territorial range. They lived thru many ice ages and other natural upheavals. They were a smart, inventive and caring people. The more we find about them the more they resemble us. 

To me the most likely explanation of their population collapse is assimilation into the Homo sapiens clan that entered their territories.  

Regardless of why the Neanderthal disappeared it seems clear they were not the brutish caveman they were once thought to be. The relatively new field of study provided by DNA analysis coupled with new finds and re-examination of older remains has expanded our knowledge of hominins to a much greater degree than ever before.

Neanderthal skull front view

Homo neanderthalensis:

  1. Kingdom - Amimalia
  2. Phylum - Chordata
  3. Class - Mammalia
  4. Order - Primates
  5. Family - Hominidae
  6. Genus - Homo
  7. Species - neanderthalensis