These 9 New Archaeological Discoveries Will Make You Rethink Neanderthal History

These 9 New Archaeological Discoveries Will Make You Rethink Neanderthal History

Michelle Powell-Smith - April 2, 2018

Take a moment and imagine a Neanderthal. You probably thought of a brutish caveman; he was stocky, heavy-boned, and wearing furs and skins. He grunted, rather than spoke, and lived a short and hard life. For many years, this was our best understanding of the Neanderthal people. They were the losers in the battle of human evolution, and widely unsuccessful. Modern archaeology and modern science have presented us with a very different picture of the Neanderthals.

The Neanderthals or Homo Neanderthalensis lived in Europe and parts of Asia from 400,000 to around 40,000 years ago. They are our closest extinct relative; however, they are not a direct ancestor. Homo Neanderthalensis had a large brain, a short, heavy body, a large, broad nose, and heavy musculature. Neanderthals were skilled hunters, crafted clothing and a variety of different tools, understood and used fire, and decorated their bodies and homes.

Neanderthals are the first early human species recognized as such; the first example of a Neanderthal skeleton was identified and named in 1856. It was named in 1864. Prior discoveries, including a Belgian skull found in 1829, were also identified as Neanderthal. Contextually, it is essential to recognize that Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published in 1859, contributing to the overall understanding of the evolutionary process.

Hominids of all types share a few basic traits, including a large brain case, upright posture, and the use of tools. The genus homo was the first to leave Africa, expanding their range into the Middle East, Asia, and Europe.

These 9 New Archaeological Discoveries Will Make You Rethink Neanderthal History

Homo Neanderthalensis evolved from Homo Erectus, an earlier human species. Differences between the Neanderthals and modern humans or Homo Sapiens include the shape of the skull, chest and pelvis, as well as more robust fingers and toes. If you were to see a Neanderthal on the street today, it is quite possible that you wouldn’t notice anything out of sort; other than perhaps an individual that looked a little bit odd. The skull is heavier, with a larger brain case and heavier browbone. The face is quite flat, and the nose both flat and broad. The chest is funnel shaped, and the pelvis is flared. Both hands and feet are quite broad.

The individual would be quite short by modern standards. Men averaged around 5 foot 5 inches and women around 5 foot one inch tall. The Neanderthals walked upright, made and used tools, and were not so different from the modern humans who eventually entered their territory.

These 9 New Archaeological Discoveries Will Make You Rethink Neanderthal History

Where the Neanderthals Lived

The Neanderthals evolved in Europe, and spread outward from Europe into parts of Asia. They did not spread into Africa, shaping the genes of different groups of people even today. The first identified Neanderthal skull was found in the Neander Valley of Germany. By 130,000 years ago, the Neanderthals had spread across a very wide geographic area, and were the dominant hominid species in the region. They maintained this dominance for some 85,000 years.

Neanderthals lived throughout Western, Central, Eastern, and Mediterranean Europe,as well Southwest, Central, and Northern Asia up to the Altai Mountains in Siberia. No Neanderthal has ever been found outside Western Eurasia. Their boundaries were to the south of Jerusalem (Shuqba), the eastern border of Kazakhstan (Denisova, Russia), and, in the United Kingdom, Wales. The final northern boundary of the Neanderthal peoples is unknown; there’s little survival of remains in the far northern regions of Russia, for instance. The Neanderthals never left Eurasia, and the range of individual family groups is unknown. Their range supports their overall success; groups held and controlled large amounts of land. They were skilled hunters and survivalists, able to adapt and change over time.

While the Neanderthals were well-adapted to the cold temperatures found in Eurasia during the period, times of extreme cold were particularly challenging. When remains of Neanderthals are analyzed, evidence of nutritional stress in the bones directly correlates to periods of extreme cold. When temperatures were colder, food was less accessible. This may have led to additional migrations or to eventual higher rates of death. Evidence of migration can be seen in the most recent sites occupied by Neanderthals. There is no evidence of late period habitation by Neanderthals in Western, Central or Eastern Europe, but late sites do include Gibraltar and far northern sites in Russia.

These 9 New Archaeological Discoveries Will Make You Rethink Neanderthal History
Neanderthal graves are giving researchers new insights into the culture surrounding death and ritual. Wikimedia.

The Time of the Neanderthals

Our understanding of human evolution continues to change, and that includes the role played by extinct human species. One species of early hominid, Homo Erectus, appears to be a shared ancestor for both modern humans and Neanderthals. Between 800,000 and 400,000 years ago, groups of Homo Erectus diverged. One moved out of Africa and into Europe, eventually becoming first Homo Heidelbergensis, and later Homo Neanderthalensis.

These populations show the first signs of evolving into Neanderthals between 600,000 and 350,000 years ago, significantly before modern humans evolved in Africa. The evolution of modern humans dates to around 200,000 years ago. The fossil record is far from complete, and there is a lack of specimens dated to 300,000 to 243,000 years ago. Fossils dating after 243,000 years ago from Eurasia are typically identified as Neanderthal. The majority of specimens date to less than 130,000 years ago. In total, it is unlikely that the Neanderthal population ever exceeded 70,000 individuals.

Traditionally, Neanderthals are believed to have died out around 40,000 years ago; however, new research and dating suggests that small populations may have survived more than 10,000 years longer than originally thought. Anatomically modern humans appeared in Europe, beginning in the Mediterranean regions, between 45,000 and 40,000 years ago. The two groups, therefore, overlapped for at least several thousand years.

There is likely a relationship between the arrival of modern humans and the extinction of the Neanderthals; however, the specifics of that relationship are not known. It is possible that modern humans brought new illnesses and disease with them, weakening Neanderthal populations. Modern humans had more technologically advanced weapons than Neanderthals, including throwing spears, and could have simply driven Neanderthals from their former territory. Changing climate may have also contributed to the extinction.

These 9 New Archaeological Discoveries Will Make You Rethink Neanderthal History

How the Neanderthals Lived

The Neanderthals lived in Eurasia during an ice age; conditions were harsh. Glaciers covered some areas of land, and winters were both long and harsh. Temperatures were quite cold, and summers were short. Their physical appearance is likely the direct result of the climate; the heavier, shorter bodies and broad nostrils were practical adaptations to cold climates.

They lived in small, extended family groups, much like early modern humans. These groups were close-knit, collaborating to meet the essential survival needs of the group. It is likely that they had some, but relatively minimal contact, with other groups. Finds of multiple Neanderthal individuals suggest that groups typically included multiple extended family members, including both old and young. Groups likely usually numbered around 10 to 15, with some groups having higher numbers, perhaps up to 30 individuals in total. Analysis of the genes of Neanderthals have shown that men typically remained within the family group, while women married out into other groups.

Neanderthals lived in caves. Caves, of course, are ideal shelters for groups of humans. They are relatively warm in cold weather and cool in hot weather, provide protection from cold, wind, sun and rain, and require no additional time or resources for construction. Along with providing shelter, caves are relatively easy to defend from predators. A single guard could adequately monitor most cave openings.

They were hunter-gatherers, following herds of food, and hunted a wide range of animals, including the megafauna roaming Eurasia at the time, like mammoths and rhinos. Neanderthals living near the sea consumed shellfish and other seafood. They almost certainly collected plant foods when available; however, cold temperatures and short summers would have limited access to those foods much of the time. When plant foods were available, they included them in their diets. Overall, Neanderthals consumed a diet higher in meat than modern humans, even those who lived at roughly the same time.

Neanderthals were tool makers and users, creating a variety of multi-purpose tools, most crafted from stone. They also used bone, in the same way as stone, for tool production. Examples of tools included scrapers, hand axes, and notches.

These 9 New Archaeological Discoveries Will Make You Rethink Neanderthal History

Burial of the Dead

There are a number of characteristics commonly associated with intelligence, or even with humanity. One of these is mourning the dead and engaging with the body in a series of rituals related to the disposal of the corpse. Today, many cultures bury or cremate their dead, often gathering for a funeral or memorial; other practices have been common throughout history. Evidence from various archaeological sites has shown that the Neanderthal people, at least some of the time, intentionally buried their dead and may have engaged in gatherings to mourn the dead.

The earliest burials may have been simple modifications of natural depressions or pits. These could be used, and covered. For archaeologists, it is relatively easy to determine natural patterns of death or decay versus intentional burial. When a body is left to decay, it will show evidence of weathering and predation. A body that is buried in the soil will not experience predation or weathering, leaving the bones in significantly better condition. This is a relatively simple way to distinguish whether bodies were left to decay in the open air, or buried in some way.

Evidence of Neanderthal burials includes both male and female adults, as well as children. The bodies show the clear influence of a supportive family or social group, in terms of caring for the sick and elderly. The inclusion of children in this practice may provide information about the value of those children to the group; even though they could not yet effectively contribute to well-being of the group, their long-term value was recognized.

Why did the Neanderthals bury their dead? Their reasons may have been purely practical. Decaying bodies would have been unpleasant to live near, and would have attracted predators and scavengers to their living space. Evidence of grave goods and limited evidence for funerary rituals makes a purely practical explanation rather unlikely. Instead, it may suggest that the Neanderthals were fully able to think through the process of burying their dead and engage in the practice for reasons that were personal and spiritual, rather than merely practical.

These 9 New Archaeological Discoveries Will Make You Rethink Neanderthal History
Displayed wax figures of Neanderthals. Wikimedia.

The Burial of the Dead

The Neanderthals did not only bury their dead; they also cared for the young, the sick, the elderly and ailing. This is a trait humans associate with being human; we care for those that require care. In many circumstances, an individual would not survive injury or illness without care. Skeletal evidence found at Neanderthal sites shows that they, like modern humans, cared for the elderly and ill. Some Neanderthals lived long lives, survived broken bones or other serious injuries, or dealt with dental issues that would have limited their ability to chew and eat. In addition, they clearly valued their children, and were caring parents.

Neanderthal infants and children were quite robust, and grew somewhat faster than modern humans. They reached full physical maturity by 15 years old. During childhood, they learned from their elders. Higher primates, like apes, have childhood games, and it is likely that Neanderthal children played peek-a-boo, chase, and other games familiar to modern infants, toddlers and young children. Flint knapping sites show evidence of children learning how to knap flint. Children certainly would have had to learn how to hunt and gather, how to craft and use tools, and how to survive in their challenging environment. While skeletal findings show that many Neanderthal children died quite young, evidence from burials and the bodies suggests that they were valued members of their family groups.

Family groups did not only care for their children, but also for their sick. The skeletons of Neanderthals show that injured Neanderthals were brought back to the family group and habitat. These individuals were cared for in the home, sometimes for years, following a serious injury. While archaeology cannot provide evidence for the use of any sort of plant-based medicine, the Neanderthals certainly carried food to the injured, may have shredded or chewed it for them, brought water to the individual, and kept a hurt person warm and safe. This is a significant investment of resources, for an individual who could not provide direct benefit to the group.

These 9 New Archaeological Discoveries Will Make You Rethink Neanderthal History
Cave paintings. Wikimedia.

Neanderthals as Creators

Increasingly, archaeologists recognize that the Neanderthals created art and decoration; the creative process shows evidence of symbolic thought. When you realize that the Neanderthals created art of different types, they seem ever closer to modern humans.

Evidence of art and decoration takes several forms. Archaeologists have discovered various types of pigments, particularly ochre, at Neanderthal sites. It is possible that ochre was used for other purposes; however, the most common use of ochre was to produce paint. This paint could be used on surfaces of different types, including on the skin. Archaeology has identified both black and red pigments. While the existence of pigments at Neanderthal sites shows that the Neanderthals knew and understood their use, it does not prove that they used them for decoration. They may have used these pigments for other purposes; however, the most common use of ochres is painting or decoration of some form.

In addition to pigments, there is also evidence that the Neanderthals produced ornamentation of different sorts, including decorated and drilled shells that were likely worn on the body, as jewelry of sorts. There is no other explanation for the use of shells other than adornment; they serve no functional purpose, other than being pretty. The decoration on the shells acts as a sort of glitter, catching the light and sparkling.

Along with shells and pigments, archaeologists have found small artifacts that indicate an aesthetic sense, or desire to decorate the objects around them. Researchers have identified a bird bone from a site in Crimea, for instance, embellished with a series of engraved and etched lines for decoration.

One of the most important discoveries in Neanderthal archaeology is a recent one; announced in February 2018. Caves in Spain that were used by Neanderthals are decorated with simple cave paintings, including outlines of hands and lines. There are outlines of animals present, but these have not been confirmed to be of the same date as the handprints and other simple drawings. Carbon dating has shown these to be at least 66,000 years old. Modern humans did not appear in Spain until around 40,000 to 45,000 years ago.

These 9 New Archaeological Discoveries Will Make You Rethink Neanderthal History

Neanderthal Ritual and Ceremony

Ritual and ceremony do not survive; the Neanderthals left no written records, and very little other visual evidence of their existence. They built no temples that exist, even in the most minimal way, nor did they leave behind legends and myths. Nonetheless, modern archaeology has found evidence of ritual and ceremony in the lives of the Neanderthals of Europe and the Middle East. In 1956, several Neanderthal skeletons were discovered in Shanidar, a location in Northern Iraq. A key discovery was made alongside these skeletons. The bodies were found with pollen, indicating that flowers had been picked and placed alongside the dead.

In Uzbekistan, a child’s grave was found, surrounded by animal horns and evidence of a number of small fires. Other burials show evidence of animal skulls. In at least one case, some bear bones were found in the grave, and others, showing signs that the animal had been eaten, in a nearby space. This could suggest the possibility of a funeral meal. Other Neanderthal graves have tools place on the body. It is essential to also remember that many items simply cannot survive 40,000 to 60,000 years or more of decay. Feathers, wood, baskets, and plant matter is likely to decay without leaving any evidence.

Both flowers and horns can broadly be thought of as grave goods; grave goods are anything buried with the dead. In many cases, the presence of grave goods implies a belief in a sort of afterlife. The survivors provide the dead with items to help their journey or existence in the afterlife. There is no specific way to know the religious beliefs of the Neanderthal people, but they do show signs of some form of ritual and belief.

Evidence of fires and animal slaughter around graves further support the idea that the Neanderthals engaged in rituals; at least around death and mourning. If they practiced funerary rituals, they may have engaged in other forms of ritual activity.

These 9 New Archaeological Discoveries Will Make You Rethink Neanderthal History

Modern Humans and Neanderthal Interbreeding

Improved understanding of genetics has provided a great deal of information about the human body, and about human history. One of the most surprising discoveries in the understanding of the human genome is one source of some of that genetic material. A small percentage of modern humans show evidence of one particular type of ancient genetic material; Neanderthal genes. Non-African modern humans have between one and four percent Neanderthal DNA; early modern humans had significantly more Neanderthal DNA, around six to nine percent. It is important to remember that Neanderthals did not evolve in, and never lived in Africa; those individuals with only African origins cannot, therefore, have Neanderthal DNA.

There are two types of DNA in the body; nuclear DNA and mtDNA. MtDNA is found in the mitochrondria, but not the nucleus of the cell. Neanderthal DNA only appears in the nuclear DNA of modern humans, but not in the mtDNA. The reasons for this are not well-understood.

In addition to not understanding how the genetics passed from Neanderthal to human, science and archaeology have provided little information about the specifics of interbreeding. Neanderthals, while quite similar to humans, had some definite differences, including a lack of language. Biology and genetics has provided a few answers.

Individuals born as the result of breeding between a modern human and a Neanderthal were clearly healthy enough to survive to adulthood and breed themselves. If they had not, their genes would not have survived into the modern world. They were not sterile as a result of cross-breeding, nor did they consistently die young. In addition, they must have been relatively accepted by their group; survival would not have been likely without the help of others.

Some of the genes associated with the Neanderthal genome in modern humans have to do with structure and regulation; however, the expression of genes, or phenotypes, do also shed some interesting light. A study of the Neanderthal genome suggests, for instance, that the Neanderthals were, at least in part, fair skinned and red haired.

Modern humans did not only breed with Neanderthals, but also with other early human species, including the Denisovans. These species, now extinct, survive in small ways in our own DNA.

These 9 New Archaeological Discoveries Will Make You Rethink Neanderthal History
An example of where neanderthals may have lived. Wikimedia.

The Last Neanderthals

The last Neanderthals were pushed into the borders of their former territory. Conditions in Europe had changed dramatically. The Neanderthals evolved in a frigid environment, during an Ice Age. As the environment and climate warmed, the skills that had so well-served them for thousands of years became less useful. In addition, there was a new predator on the scene in Europe; homo sapiens. Modern humans or homo sapiens had several advantages over the Neanderthals. Homo sapiens had language and more complex tools. They were well-adapted for traversing long distances, with long limbs and bodies that could walk for hours. Less well-adapted to the cold with leaner and slimmer builds, modern humans required less food than Neanderthals.

Several locations have been suggested as the home of the final groups of Neanderthals; these include Gibraltar and Byzovaya, located in a sub-Arctic region of Russia. At the site in Byzovaya, significant numbers of stone tools and butchered mammoth bones, dating to around 33,000 years ago, suggest a population of Neanderthals lasting significantly longer than those in central Europe. The tools found at the site are similar to those found at other Neanderthal sites, and distinct from those associated with modern humans; however, Neanderthal remains have not been found at the site.

Gibraltar is home to one of the most important sites for Neanderthal archaeology in the world. One site, called Gorham’s Cave, is 32,000 years old. Excavations at Gorham’s Cave began in 1989, following the discovery of two Neanderthal skulls and continue today; however, many other caves in Gibraltar show evidence of Neanderthal habitation and life. The cave contains not only Neanderthal remains, but also evidence of habitation, including charcoal, and patterns of incised lines on the cave walls. While more complex examples of Neanderthal creativity and art have been found since Gorham’s Cave, these incised lines, forming a sort of hashtag pattern, were among the first indications of complex thought among the Neanderthal people.

The remote nature of these sites suggests that climate and new populations of modern humans may have forced the last groups of Neanderthals out of central Europe; however, the two sites are quite different. At the site of Byzovaya, conditions would have been cold, snowy, and harsh. Food supplies would have likely been limited. On the other hand, Gibraltar had a much warmer climate and access to more varied foods.

It is important to note that radiocarbon dating is considered to be much less accurate for more recent dating, particularly dates after 40,000 years ago, so the dates associated with the last of the Neanderthals may be somewhat less accurate than earlier dates.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Neanderthal Artists Make Oldest-known Cave Paintings.”

“Neanderthal Burials Confirmed as Ancient Ritual.” Ker Than, National Geographic. December 16, 2013.

“What Does It Mean to Be Human?” Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. January 3, 2017.

“Neanderthals Made a Last Stand at Subarctic Outpost.” John Roach, National Geographic. May 15, 2011.