If you visit an even moderately old museum display on human evolution, or open anything but the latest textbooks on the subject, you’ll encounter cave-dwelling, mammoth-hunting Neanderthals who are beetle-browed, stooped, and distinctly unintelligent-looking. But over the past few years the Neanderthals of our imaginations have evolved marvelously, so that recent images closely resemble us (the Neanderthal woman in the Museum of the Confluences, Nice, with her direct gaze, is a prime example). This transformation has been driven partly by new discoveries in archaeology, some of which are truly astonishing, but also by changing societal attitudes about how we depict others.
Kindred by the archaeologist Rebecca Wragg Sykes is a dense work, packed with information and interpretations that strongly challenge earlier conceptions of Neanderthals. Surprisingly, on the first page Wragg Sykes informs us that she will not introduce us to the scholars who have worked in the field over the past ninety years, because “there simply wasn’t the space to mention the names and affiliations of researchers for every site or piece of information.” To my astonishment, the book is also entirely unreferenced.
Thankfully, Wragg Sykes does name some nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century researchers, and her accounts of these pioneers make for entertaining reading. Sixteen years after the first fossils of Neanderthals were discovered by quarry workers in the Neander Valley near Düsseldorf in 1856, the bones were sent to the famous anatomist Rudolf Virchow. Virchow was one of those academics who make the current generation seem Lilliputian. Not only was he a medical pioneer, publishing two thousand research papers and earning himself the epithet “the father of pathology,” but he was also a revolutionary who manned the barricades in Berlin in 1848, a lifelong campaigner for social reform and sanitation, and a progressive parliamentarian so hated by Otto von Bismarck that the Prussian military leader challenged him to a duel. Legend has it that Virchow chose sausages as the weapon, one of which was loaded with parasites: Bismarck declined.
After detailed examination, Virchow proclaimed the bones to be the remains of a lost Russian Cossack who had somehow wandered to Düsseldorf and secreted himself in a cave, where he died. Disease, Virchow said, explained the skeleton’s many peculiarities: the Cossack’s bowed limbs resulted from decades in the saddle, and he must have suffered from arthritis, rickets, and a broken leg. The prominent bony brows, Virchow opined, were the result of excessive frowning from his chronic pain. It was only when a similar skull was reported, this time from a cave on Gibraltar, that Virchow’s theory of the diseased, wandering Cossack began to lose credibility.
The great pathologist’s tortured explanation might be partly accounted for by his opposition to Darwin’s theory of evolution. But just as importantly, Virchow sought explanations that drew on his field of expertise. Each generation has remade the Neanderthals in its own image, and that someone as accomplished as Virchow could fall into such error should serve as a warning to us all.
It was the geologist William King who, in 1864, proposed the scientific name Homo neanderthalensis for the remains. But shortly thereafter he recanted, proclaiming that the creature he had named should not be placed in the exalted genus Homo, because it was “incapable of moral and theistic conceptions.” Ernst Haeckel, the great German biologist and coiner of terms including “stem cell” and “First World War,” proposed an alternative: Homo stupidus. But taxonomy honors priority, so despite King’s misgivings his earlier name has prevailed.
Over the years, as more evidence was unearthed, the Neanderthals became the Great Other: like us, but not us. By the early twentieth century, as colonialism spread around the globe, scholars began to portray Neanderthals as an extinct lower rung on the evolutionary ladder leading to that apex of human achievement, the European gentleman.
As the significance of Neanderthals to human evolution grew more apparent, myriad questions arose. Could they speak? Did they wear clothes? Did they love and care for one another? And why did they vanish? Wragg Sykes provides the latest answers to most of these questions and many others. She begins by noting the enormous geographic range of the Neanderthals, as well as the astounding diversity of habitats they drew nourishment from. After arising about 450,000 years ago, the Neanderthals established themselves from Spain to Siberia. They endured extreme Ice Age conditions but also thrived during brief subtropical intervals, when hippos roamed England and great straight-tusked elephants lurked in Southern Europe’s luxuriant forests.
From the shores of the Mediterranean to the high Alps and on to the Russian steppe, evidence of Neanderthals is found in almost all environments except for wetlands. This absence is very strange, for wetlands are rich in resources and are important habitats for Homo sapiens. Wragg Sykes doesn’t speculate on the significance of this, and without references, the interested reader has no way of pursuing the matter further.
“Stand face to face with a Neanderthal, and they’d be recognisable as a kind of human, but decidedly unconventional,” Wragg Sykes tells us. Neanderthals differed from us in being shorter, far more powerful, broader of chest and waist, more muscular of thigh, and more bowed of leg. With no chin and little forehead, their mouths and large noses would have appeared pulled forward, while their extremely large eyes, shaded by bony brows, must have been haunting.
I yearn to know what color those eyes were, what color their skin was, and how hairy they were. Short of finding a frozen Neanderthaler (which seems highly unlikely), and despite the fact that the entire Neanderthal genome is now decoded, we will never definitively know such things. Earlier genetic studies suggested that Neanderthals likely had blue eyes, white skin, and red hair. But as our understanding of the relationship between genome and organism has become more complex, certainty about skin and eye color has evaporated (though genetic evidence for red hair in some populations remains strong).
Neanderthal brains were subtly different in shape from our own. Some of the differences may relate to their acute vision in low-light environments, but others remain enigmatic. It was believed that the brains of Neanderthals were larger on average than those of modern humans, but now we know that this disparity was an illusion, since most of the Neanderthal skeletons that have been found are male, and males, being larger than females, have larger brains. Incidentally, a preponderance of males in the fossil record has been observed among other mammal species, but nobody is sure why; some put this down to the “Darwin effect”—according to which young males are more apt to undertake risky behavior such as crossing flooded rivers, which makes it more likely that their bones will be fossilized in floodplain sediments—while others think that the thicker bones of males are better suited to fossilization. Remarkably, a few skeletons of newborn or very young Neanderthals are also known. Perhaps dead infants were hidden away by their mothers in places that protected their skeletons from destruction.
One of the novelties of Kindred is Wragg Sykes’s discussion of the science of fuliginochronology. Established in 2018, this scientific method involves the study of the minuscule stratigraphic layers of soot that accumulate on cave walls. It provides the only means we have of counting the number of Neanderthal visits to caves, as one layer of soot is created each time a fire is kindled. At Mandrin Cave in southeast France, this method has revealed that the twenty-inch layer of sediment accumulated over the course of eighty visits. An exceptionally detailed study of hearths at El Salt in eastern Spain suggests that Neanderthals used the site for just a few generations before abandoning it for centuries, and then returning later. And the small size of hearths suggests that the visiting groups were tiny—in some instances perhaps just a single individual.
Compared with modern human populations, Neanderthal skeletons reveal horrific levels of trauma, with most bearing the marks of at least one illness or injury, but some suggest that Neanderthals cared for the sick or wounded. The skeleton of an old man (known as Shanidar 1) excavated from Shanidar Cave, in what is now Iraqi Kurdistan, had a shriveled arm, the lower part of which had been successfully amputated. He had also survived a terrible blow that crushed the upper-left side of his face, as well as other serious concussions. Most likely blind in one eye, partially deaf, and with advanced arthritis, he nonetheless survived and traveled with the group for decades.
There is plenty of evidence that Neanderthals hunted large mammals, and many groups appear to have been specialized big-game hunters, so injuries from tackling woolly mammoth or rhinos with stabbing spears could perhaps account for the wounds of individuals like Shanidar 1. Injuries could also result from Neanderthal-on-Neanderthal violence. In fact, the level of trauma on Neanderthal bones is little different from that seen on the skeletons of early Homo sapiens, much of which is widely thought to have been inflicted by other humans.
Clearly, some times and places were tougher on Neanderthals than others: when the Ice Age cycles reached their coldest, and even the hardy cave hyenas retreated from much of Europe, Neanderthals remained, and some became cannibals. Proof of Neanderthal cannibalism is now undeniable: skulls were skinned and tongues removed, leg bones chewed, and other bones broken up for marrow. It seems that, on occasion, entire families were killed and their bodies processed in ways little different from other prey. Wragg Sykes, citing the abundance of food available “at least seasonally,” argues that Neanderthal cannibalism was not related to starvation but instead had a spiritual dimension. Tellingly, however, signs of Neanderthal cannibalism are restricted to Europe, and even in historic times Europeans have resorted to cannibalism when other food is scarce.
The Neanderthal stone tool-making tradition is called Mousterian, after a rock shelter in the French Périgord. Wragg Sykes is an expert on stone tools, and she devotes several long chapters to the methods used by Neanderthals for knapping, or shaping, stone and bone. I must admit that my head spun and my attention wandered as I read the details of Discoid, Levallois, and Quina knapping techniques, along with the intricacies of where and when they were deployed. But it is clear that, within the limitations of their culture, the Neanderthals were master craftsmen. A touchingly intimate insight into Neanderthal table manners has been revealed through a study of their incisors, whose front surfaces are often covered in fine parallel lines engraved by the stone knives with which Neandertals severed mouthfuls of meat, gripped by their teeth and hands, from a larger mass.
Wooden artifacts made by Neanderthals are rarely preserved, but those we have are surprisingly sophisticated. Replicas of some lances used to kill horses 300,000 years ago in what is now Germany performed as well as modern Olympic-standard javelins. The glues used by Neanderthals to fix stone to wood resulted from an advanced, multistage manufacturing process involving the distillation of pitch from birch-tar. And there is no doubt that Neanderthals wore animal skins and lay on them, for there is abundant evidence of careful skinning of creatures like bears and wildcats.
Our knowledge of Neanderthal hunting weapons stands in stark contrast to the paucity of data concerning other aspects of their culture. The debate about whether Neanderthals buried their dead is longstanding. Some of the best alleged evidence for Neanderthal burials comes from poorly documented digs undertaken over a century ago, while older claims—that, for example, the presence of pollen around a Neanderthal skeleton indicates that the body was buried with flowers—have been disproved. Did Neanderthals dig pits in which to bury their dead? Did they cover the body with earth? Did they leave grave-goods such as animal jaws near corpses? The archaeological evidence is highly equivocal, which may suggest that if Neanderthals did have mortuary rituals, they were rudimentary or rarely performed.
Traces of Neanderthal art are likewise furtive. One possible handprint in ochre and a few roughly parallel lines engraved on bone or stone are all we have by way of their cave art. It’s been suggested that Neanderthals used feathers as ornaments, but the proof is again scarce, as it is for other ornamentation. Eight eagle claws found in a cave in Croatia bear butchering marks as well as an unusual polish caused by rubbing against both soft and hard surfaces, indicating that they may have been worn. But the claws were found scattered throughout a thick sedimentary layer, and there’s no sign they were strung together to form an ornament. A tiny, fossilized mollusc and two gastropods coated in ochre may also have been worn. As there is no convincing reason to believe that Neanderthals could make twine, if these objects were indeed threaded for wear, it must have been with bark or sinew. The rarity and indeterminate nature of such finds stands in contrast with their abundance in archaeological sites left by Homo sapiens.
In 1990, near the town of Bruniquel in southwestern France, cavers broke through a mass of rubble to enter a broad chamber that had lain undisturbed for many millennia. On the broad, flat floor they found two rings of broken-off stalagmites, the larger being twenty feet across. Each ring is composed of up to four layers of carefully matched and buttressed pieces, and fires had been lit atop them. In 2013 dating revealed that the rings had been constructed about 174,000 years ago. There are no signs that the chamber was ever inhabited, so the structures must have served a special purpose. But what? All we know is that Neanderthals labored to make these enigmatic features.
Genetic studies indicate that the entire Neanderthal population at any one time was small, as one would expect of an apex predator (for example, millions of grass plants feed thousands of zebra, which feed just one pride of lions), and strong suggestions of inbreeding point to the isolation of some groups. Populations with a small overall size and limited mobility are at risk of losing elements of their culture. It’s striking that some of the best evidence for sophistication in Neanderthal construction and adornment dates to between 300,000 and 100,000 years ago, and may have been lost to later generations. Yet surprisingly complex technologies related to hunting and meat processing endured, perhaps because they were fundamental to survival.
By around 40,000 years ago, the Neanderthals were gone, and the sedimentary layers documenting the last ten thousand years of their existence are a riddle. Very few sites preserve undisturbed sediments from this period, but a few that do point to rapid changes in the manufacture of stone tools. Depending on where they occurred, these changing cultures are known as Châtelperronian, Uluzzian, or Néronian. The best documented Néronian site, in southeastern France, dates to 50,000–52,000 years ago, which is thousands of years before any sapiens arrived in the area, so the cause of these changes remains mysterious.
Homo sapiens evolved in Africa around 300,000 years ago, and between 177,000 and 194,000 years ago they colonized what is now Israel, putting them into contact with Neanderthals for the first time. The genetic record suggests that limited interbreeding with Neanderthals occurred until the latter became extinct. We do not know whether male Homo sapiens had sex with female Neanderthals, or vice versa. Studies of the Neanderthal genome reveal that the Neanderthal penis lacked the spines present on the chimp phallus (which act to irritate the vagina and deter the female from pursuing subsequent matings), so sex between a female sapiens and a male Neanderthal may not have been inherently uncomfortable, though we have no way of knowing whether it was consensual or if it even occurred. But as Wragg Sykes says, the incontrovertible fact is that hybrid children were born and raised to survive. They must have been “fed, cleaned, kept warm; loved.”
The survival of hybrids suggests that Neanderthals and H. sapiens should be viewed as “allospecies”—that is, broadly similar species whose ranges abut rather than broadly overlap. But around 40,000 years ago, something disrupted this. A jawbone found in Peştera cu Oase, a cave near the Danubian Iron Gates in Romania (which lies on a great migration route from Asia and Africa to Europe), provides an insight into what might have occurred. The jaw, which is 37,000 to 42,000 years old, is from a hybrid, one of whose great-grandparents (or perhaps great-great-great-grandparents) was a Neanderthal, while its other ancestors were sapiens whose genetic makeup falls within the diversity of living Africans. An analysis of fifty skeletons from Europe dating to between 37,000 and 14,000 years ago shows that they all were hybrids. It’s as if, suddenly, the hybrids took over Europe.
Perhaps the most intractable misconception about the Neanderthals is that they were displaced by sapiens. Instead, it is now clear that they were replaced by a most remarkable population of stable hybrids. These new beings were soon painting in Chauvet Cave, creating some of the most brilliant art the world has ever known. And as suggested by pawprints from the same cave, they had begun an association with wolves—the earliest evidence of canine domestication. Europe’s megafauna had lived alongside Neanderthals for millennia, but after the hybrids, the megafauna waned. It is almost as hard to picture this hybrid population as it is to picture the Neanderthals themselves, for they were as different from their parent species as the wisent (Europe’s largest mammal, and also a stable hybrid) is from its ancestors—the aurochs and plains bison.
I have long hoped for a great, comprehensive book on the Neanderthals. Sadly, Kindred is not that work. Its lack of references alone makes it almost useless to scholars, and it includes much detailed technical matter of little interest to a nonexpert. Wragg Sykes has her own cultural biases, regularly citing uncertainty to downplay well-established aspects of Neanderthal life, such as violence and cannibalism, while pushing fragmentary evidence too far when arguing for refinement in material culture and mortuary ritual.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that we’ll forever see Neanderthals as reflections of ourselves and our values. But the increasingly nuanced archaeological and genetic picture is granting us previously unimaginable insights into Neanderthal life. Great engineers and precision workers in stone, they lived like the Swiss watchmakers of old in tiny, isolated communities. It must be admitted that manifestations of their art and other aspects of their culture are limited at best. Yet I’m haunted by the vision, provided in part by fuliginochronology, of that solitary Neanderthal, sitting by a fire in a Spanish cave, looking out over a lost world. Where did he or she come from, and where were they going?
May 13, 2021