The Neanderthal: From brutal caveman to model in a suit

von Louis Vosse
Erasmus Studentin Ema mit Neanderthaler Rekonstruktion in der Ausstellung

Who were Neanderthals exactly? Were they brutal cavemen dressed in animal skin, who hunted most of the time so they could survive in the harsh conditions of Ice Age Europe? White-skinned, blond people who made cave art? Did they have a language?

These are some common images people have of Neanderthals, and I, as an Archaeology and Anthropology student, wanted to find out how these images were created and how they changed over time. That is why I came to the Stiftung Neanderthal Museum, one of two museums in the world specializing in Neanderthals. The other museum is in Krapina, Croatia, my homeland.

Das Krapina Neanderthal Museum in Kroatien
Neanderthal Museum mascot Tinka at the museum in Krapina.

Stiftung Neanderthal Museum is the place where everything started, located right next to the excavation site where the first Neanderthal fossil was discovered by accident in 1856, during quarrying operations. The specimen now known as Feldhofer 1 was recognized as different from us modern humans by teacher Johann Carl Fuhlrott, and analysed closely by anthropologist Hermann Schaaffhausen. The (hi)story of Neanderthals started right there.

At the site where the Neanderthal was found, there is now an adventure tower where you can discover the Stone Age Neander Valley.
At the site where the Neanderthal was found, there is now an tower where you can discover the Stone Age Neander Valley.

In 1864, Neanderthals were distinguished as a new species named Homo neanderthalensis by William King. Despite that, there are debates about their assignment to a new species even today. Probably the most famous debates started when ´The Old Man from La Chapelle-aux-Saints´, another Neanderthal skeleton, was discovered in 1908. His remains were analysed by Marceline Boule, whose reconstruction shaped public perception of Neanderthals for a long time. The first images and drawings of Neanderthals which were published in newspapers around that time were based on Boule´s skeletal reconstruction, depicting Neanderthals as brutal, animal-like cavemen who could not walk upright and had no culture.

At the beginning of the 20th century, it was important to settle the debate about Neanderthal´s species: were they humans, ape-like men, or animals? Were they our ancestors? Or just an evolutionary dead end? The Catholic Church was very influential at that time, which also had an impact on Neanderthal depiction. 

Over time, more Neanderthal fossils were discovered and science progressed, enabling new perspectives on Neanderthals, their origin, and their contribution to modern human lineage. Neanderthals went from ´brutal cavemen´ to ´someone like us´. In 1939, anthropologist Carleton Coon reconstructed a Neanderthal in a hat and a suit, pointing out that if he lived today, he would be indistinguishable from modern people in a New York subway.

Soon enough, first 3D reconstructions were made and models of Neanderthals created, all based on fossil remains. Today, a specialised group of artists professionally focusses the production of these reconstructions – paleoartists. While their hominin reconstructions are based on the scientific fossil record and new scientific discoveries, these life-like figurines also include a bit of imagination. That is also why different 2D and 3D reconstructions may vary, especially over time. Each new archaeological discovery impacts every reconstruction.

Today, we know more about Neanderthals genetics than we could ever imagine 15 years ago, let alone when Neanderthals were first discovered. Genetic research – also called aDNA studies – is probably the most influential new branch regarding the image of Neanderthals today. In 2006, it revealed that all modern people carry around 1-4% of Neanderthal DNA today! Since we inherited their genes, we must be a lot closer to them than we first thought possible.

In 2022, Svante Pääbo won The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries concerning the genomes of extinct hominins and human evolution.

When looking at this origin story of Neanderthal depiction, we can conclude that there have been a lot of different influences on Neanderthal image throughout history: new discoveries, progress of science, as well as religious and political views.

Nowadays, archaeological reconstructions are no more only based on skeletal remains, but also on genetic data and further new scientific methods. At the same time, the public perception of Neanderthals has not changed much. Even today, the common image of Neanderthals remains that of a white, light-haired, half-naked brute. Thankfully, more and more people start to explore our human origins, and learn how Neanderthals were great hunters, caring relatives, skilful craftsmen, and even had symbolic behaviour. After reading this blog post, our readers have already taken a big step on their journey to learn about our shared human past and the true nature of Neanderthals. Let’s continue exploring our fascinating Ice Age heritage!

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