Our lost cousins, the Neanderthals
New research suggests they were far more similar to us than we thought. So why did our nearest relations really disappear?
In the nearly 160 years since humans first stumbled on evidence of Neanderthals in Europe, we have struggled to know what to think about these now deceased cousins of ours. “The more we learn about this beast-man the stranger he becomes to us,” the science-fiction writer HG Wells wrote in a 1921 story titled “The Grisly Folk,” which depicted Neanderthals as hideous primitive cannibals. “As well might we try to dream and feel as a gorilla dreams and feels.” For Wells, the real-life story had a happy ending: Some time after humans migrated into their territory from the south, the Neanderthals, who had flourished in Eurasia for at least 200,000 years, vanished from the earth.
With their large brains and human-like skeletons, Neanderthals have always been recognized as special. Though they are not our direct ancestors—their branch of the family tree has been cut off permanently—they are more similar to Homo sapiens than any other extinct mammals of their era. But something killed them off, and since we discovered their remains, the question of exactly why they died and we lived has enthralled us. “It’s highly controversial. There are all kinds of theories,” said Pat Shipman, a retired adjunct professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University. “And there’s not a lot of resolution.”
Now, in just the last few years, a new body of research is emerging that says Neanderthals were far more similar to us than we realized. They interbred with humans. They produced art and tools. They may have been smarter than previously thought. And the reasons they died out may actually have been more about bad luck than innate inferiority. “It’s not just cavemen saying ‘Ugh,’” Shipman said. “We’re getting a whole different picture.”
The news about how Neanderthals lived and died has emerged as part of a veritable research boom. At the end of 2013, an international team of scientists published a complete sequence of a Neanderthal woman’s genome, and confirmed that billions of modern humans carry remnants of Neanderthal DNA. Last month, a paper in the journal Nature reported on the discovery of a fossilized skull that suggests Neanderthals and humans were living side-by-side in Israel between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago. And next month Belknap Press will publish a book by Shipman theorizing that one key factor in Neanderthals’ demise was the human domestication of dogs.
“It’s a great time to be researching Neanderthals because we’re learning so quickly,” said Steven Churchill, a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University. “But it’s a horrible time to write a book,” he added with a laugh. New information is arriving at such a fast pace that it’s difficult for even scholars to keep up.
Meanwhile, each new Neanderthal paper is reported in the mainstream press and consumed by an enthusiastic public. The more we learn, the more we face the fascinating and disturbing implications of an emerging truth: Only 40,000 years ago, a race of beings not so different than ourselves was somehow wiped from the earth.
The first recognized Neanderthal specimen was discovered in a German cave by a group of local quarrymen in 1856. From the start, they were understood to be inferior to their human peers: One of the first proposed scientific names for the species was Homo stupidus. Some early depictions of ape-like creatures were based on honest mistakes: A respected 19th-century French paleontologist drew sweeping conclusions about Neanderthal body structure based on a specimen that turned out to be arthritic, for example.
“We used to have a very derogatory view of the abilities of Neanderthals,” Shipman said. “But the more we look at what’s going on, the more sophistication there is and the more subtlety there is.” With new scientific tools, the fields of archeology and paleoanthropology have advanced far beyond simply examining artifacts. Scholars can now study Neanderthals’ metabolic energy expenditures and investigate their diets by analyzing bone chemistry. Many long-discovered archeological sites are now undergoing re-dating using more precise methods than those available in the 20th century; that, too, is leading to new insights and information on how and when humans and Neanderthals might have interacted.
In 2013, a major breakthrough occurred that forced a new reckoning with our relationship to Neanderthals: Using a 50,000-year-old toe bone from a Neanderthal woman, a team based in Germany produced a high-quality complete genome. The genetic information represents a rich new resource that scientists have barely begun to tap into. One significant finding so far: Many modern-day Europeans’ and Asians’ DNA contains up to 4 percent Neanderthal genetic material. In other words, yes, we mated. (Under one definition of “species,” this means humans and Neanderthals are the same species, since they were able to create viable offspring. Other research published last year, however, suggests some human-Neanderthal offspring had fertility problems.)
“What we’ve been showing slowly is, we’ve been making the Neanderthals more and more like us, human in a sense,” said Clive Finlayson, director of the Heritage Division at the Gibraltar Museum, and a longtime Neanderthal researcher. “Of course they were different; people in different parts of the world have differences in culture and so on. But they’re human. And we’ve brought the Neanderthal closer to us.” Finlayson has published evidence that Neanderthals were catching birds of prey and marine mammals, among the trickier hunting tasks once thought to be exclusive to humans. Last fall, he was part of a team that uncovered what could be Neanderthal rock art, suggesting they were capable of advanced symbolic thinking. Churchill calls that “the last big dividing line people saw between modern humans and Neanderthals.”
“The problem is that most people who believe that Neanderthals were inferior, it’s because they compare them to modern humans who came after them,” Paola Villa, a curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, said. “But if you compare Neanderthals with...humans who were living at the same time...there is no such huge gap.” Last spring, she coauthored a paper that concluded there is no evidence for cognitive inferiority among Neanderthals.
The evolving portrait of a more human-like Neanderthal seems to rule out the simplistic explanation that humans “won” because we were vastly superior. When victors write the history of the vanquished, they tend toward justifications of their own dominance. So as the new notion that Neanderthals might have been as capable as Homo sapiens sinks in, it’s affecting the longstanding question of why Neanderthals went extinct in the first place. Early theories included the notion that humans violently exterminated their competitors, although there is little physical evidence for that. Finlayson has proposed that climate change drove the Neanderthals to their doom. Other theories include volcanic eruption and disease.
Shipman’s forthcoming book offers a provocative new theory. In “The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction,” she builds on recent paleontology findings that suggest the domestication of dogs occurred at least 36,000 years ago, rather than the 10,000 years ago previously believed. That timeline places domestication in shouting distance of Neanderthal extinction. With that in mind, Shipman asks what advantages quasi-domesticated “wolf-dogs” might have given humans in hunting, and speculates that this could be the missing explanation for how we out-competed Neanderthals. Framing humans as “invasive predators” in longtime Neanderthal territories, she describes how harnessing canines’ speed, their ability to track by scent, and propensity to surround and harass prey would put humans at a huge competitive advantage. “That would be the kiss of death,” she said. “A wolf-dog and a human in that ecosystem with those weapons and those prey species would have been just about unstoppable.”
No matter the precise cause of extinction, Churchill points out that Neanderthals lived at relatively low population density, which made them vulnerable to a variety of problems. (The title of his 2014 book on Neanderthal biology, archeology, and ecology, “Thin on the Ground,” refers to this phenomenon.) He also suggests that “thin” population structure led to some of the assumption that Neanderthals had lower cognitive abilities than humans, whereas actually humans just had more advantageous social arrangements. Higher population density leads to greater innovation, and the ability to plan, to specialize, and to express abstract thought. “It’s now looking like Neanderthals had the full capacity to do that; they just weren’t doing it very much,” he said. “It has more to do with demography than brains.”
Almost as soon as the first Neanderthal skeleton was recognized in that cave near Düsseldorf, its image began to infiltrate Western culture. At the start, Neanderthals were portrayed as savage strangers, often contrasted with the tall, powerful early human skeletons discovered in Europe in the same era, to whom writers preferred to liken themselves. The spirit of Wells’s “The Grisly Folk” was influential: He depicted Neanderthals as ogre-like beasts who had to be exterminated in order for humans to rightfully inherit the world.
After World War II, the perspective shifted; humans were looking quite brutish to themselves. Both anthropologists and fiction writers began to revise the idea of Neanderthals as the savages to humans’ nobles. “They tried to see Neanderthals then as being the opposite of human beings in a good way,” said Nicholas Ruddick, author of the 2009 book “The Fire in the Stone: Prehistoric Fiction from Charles Darwin to Jean M. Auel.” “Neanderthals became the un-fallen innocents that were swept away genocidally by our ancestors. Instead of them being ogres and monsters, we were the ogres and monsters to them.”
Every era seems to find the Neanderthal it needs. In the 1960s, when pollen was discovered atop a Neanderthal gravesite in Iraq, the counterculture celebrated them as early flower children. In 1980, Jean Auel’s best-selling novel “Clan of the Cave Bear” put a feminist gloss on Neanderthal culture, suggesting that their extinction was propelled by their prehistoric patriarchy, while the blond human heroine defies them by hunting and making tools. These days, Neanderthals are the subject of theological debates about their spiritual status. At the same time, despite our evolving scientific understanding, they continue to be the butt of jokes. If someone calls you a “Neanderthal,” it’s unmistakably an insult.
“This is the way we think as human beings,” said Ruddick, an English professor at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan. “It’s impossible to get an objective view of the very remote past, because we filter it through our own prejudices.”
Churchill says that may never change completely. “We need some conception of a savage so we have a yardstick, so we can go, ‘Look how cultured we are,’” he said. “Neanderthals occupy an important place in human mental space which is irrespective of the reality of actual Neanderthals.”
Still, the more human-like Neanderthals begin to appear, the more uncomfortable the questions they raise. It’s reassuring to believe that the best men won. But if we’re really no smarter than Neanderthals? That’s more complicated. “Here is a line of humans—not apes, intelligent humans—and they went extinct,” Finlayson said. “That’s something we should reflect on: that intelligent humans can go extinct.”
Ruth Graham, a writer in New Hampshire, is a regular contributor to Ideas.