The Neanderthal in the Mirror

Our evolutionary cousin is no longer a blundering caveman. Recent research has painted a picture of a human ancestor with culture, art, and advanced cognitive skills.

By Lydia Pyne | August 1, 2016

VIKING, AUGUST 2016On August 3, 1908, the first near-complete Neanderthal skeleton was discovered in a cave near the village of La Chapelle-aux-Saints in south central France, during a survey of the region’s Paleolithic archaeological sites.

For decades prior, prehistorians had collected bits and pieces of curious but not-quite-human fossils from museums and excavations alike—the odd skull here, a scrap of tooth there. In 1863, the mélange of bones was finally given its own species designation, Homo neanderthalensis. Forty-five years later, the La Chapelle discovery was the first Neanderthal specimen found in an original archaeological context and the first to be expertly excavated and carefully studied. Because the body was arranged in a flexed, fetal position and carefully placed in the floor of the cave, excavators argued that fossil—nicknamed the Old Man—had been purposefully buried by his Neanderthal contemporaries.

More than any other single individual, the Old Man of La Chapelle has shaped the way that science and popular culture have thought about Neanderthals. But why? What is it about this Neanderthal’s story that is so special? In short, the Old Man was the right fossil found at the right time. He was—and still is—offered as a key bit of evidence in debates about evolution and human origins. He quickly became a scientific touchstone, an archetype for how science and popular culture create celebrity fossils. I explore the stories of similarly spectacular paleoanthropological finds in my new book Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils.

Once they had excavated the fossil, the discoverers sent the Old Man remains to Marcellin Boule, an eminent expert in human evolution at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, for careful study. Boule spent two years examining the fossil, and his initial analysis of the La Chapelle Neanderthal would shape the perception of our evolutionary cousins for a hundred years—preconceptions that contemporary archaeologists and paleoanthropologists are doing their utmost to counter.

Boule concluded that Neanderthals were sad specimens of nature. He argued that the species was stooped in its posture and stunted in its culture. Boule’s conclusions quickly turned into the pop-culture caricature that we tend to associated with the Neanderthal species. The image of a hunched, cave-dwelling lout barely capable of brandishing a club quickly caught the public’s imagination in the early 20th century thanks, in no small part, to the portrayal of Neanderthals in museums and in the press. (How could a creature so primitive as a Neanderthal, the logic went, have something as complex as a culture that involved burying the dead?) It was no wonder, Boule’s work implied, that the species went extinct, especially compared with the superior Homo sapiens.

The conclusions Boule drew from his analysis of the La Chapelle skeleton couldn’t have been more wrong.

Today, we’re rather used to the idea that Neanderthals had a vibrant culture, but science and society’s acceptance of each new piece of the Neanderthal story is an uphill battle, thanks to the Old Man’s early days in the public’s eye. We now have archaeological evidence that Neanderthals built structures; that they had sophisticated hunting strategies, fire-starting technologies, and art; and, of course, that they buried their dead. Analyses of Neanderthal DNA show us more and more similarities between ourselves and Neanderthals, with every indication that modern humans and Neanderthals interbred in their evolutionary history. Every “human” behavior we can claim to separate ourselves from our Pleistocene relatives, we eventually find in Neanderthals, blurring the line between human and not.

Decades of researchers have studied the Old Man since Boule’s original analysis. Every new iteration of the Neanderthal’s story humanizes him, turning the fossil from a dim troglodyte into a dignified paleo patriarch. The more we study the Old Man, the more the differences between our species melt away. 

Lydia Pyne is a writer and research fellow in the Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Read an excerpt from Seven Skeletons.

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Avatar of: wctopp


Posts: 110

August 22, 2016

Supposedly non-Africans have a few percent Neanderthal DNA due to this interbreeding.  I'm beginning to wonder if, perhaps, "we" have a much higher percentage inheritance from "them".   Is it possible that both they and we died out (save true Africans) and what has survived is the cross?  I don't see an a priori reason they'd die and we wouldn't if the world at the time had the right weather and resources to support a massive expansion of our population (which it did).  Maybe a virus hit them and we were just enough different that we threw it off.

Avatar of: Dora Smith

Dora Smith

Posts: 8

August 22, 2016

Wow, the title sure grabbed my attention!  But the review doesn't present a single detail about Neanderthal culture, or any other reasons to think I look at a Neanderthal when I see myself in the mirror.    Just a lot on how century old scientists and scientific notions were both very sad.   That isn't a reason why I want to read the book.

Avatar of: JohnnyMorales


Posts: 31

Replied to a comment from Dora Smith made on August 22, 2016

August 22, 2016

If you had read the entire article instead of skimming a few paragraphs at the top you would have found what you wanted. Instead by condemning the article for a nonexistent flaw you just make yourself look rather silly. She lists all the aspects of culture they had near the bottom WITHIN a paragraph which means skimming will mean you will surely miss it.

Avatar of: marc verhaegen

marc verhaegen

Posts: 17

August 29, 2016

Neandertals were as human & intelligent (if humans are intelligent) as we are, but there are distinct biological differences, e.g. they had flat, low & long brain-skulls, thick & dense skeletons generally (although less pachyosteosclerotic as in H.erectus), large orbitas somewhat more directed laterally, large & broad hands & feet, a broad pelvis with flaring iliac bones & long femoral necks (for thigh abduction), huge knee joints & patellas, broad thorax & huge lungs (as in shallow-diving mammals), projecting mid-face & big noses (projecting nostrils) surrounded by large para-nasal air sinuses, etc. All these suggest neandertals frequently dived in shallow water, probably for collecting shallow aquatic plants (e.g. waterlily roots, found in erectus & neandertal dental plaque), fish (e.g. salmon), crayfish & esp. shellfish, they also butchered stranded sea-mammals (e.g. at Gibraltar) & waterside carcasses of different sorts of herbivores etc. Neandertals fossils are invariably found in river valleys (e.g. oxbow-lakes, typically + beavers & reeds) or else at sea-coasts (e.g. northern Medit.Sea, from Gibraltar to Turkey). They seem to have followed the river seasonally to the sea (see my 2013 paper in Hum.Evol. 28:237-266 "The aquatic ape evolves: common misconceptions and unproven assumptions about the so-called Aquatic Ape Hypothesis") and were probably a lot more confined to the waterside (wetlands & sea-coasts) than H.sapiens (still) is.


Avatar of: Thomas2307


Posts: 1

Replied to a comment from wctopp made on August 22, 2016

February 28, 2018

I heavily agree with your theory that the Neanderthals may have been hit with the Virus and the humans being strong enough to shake it off, I believe it may be because the Neanderthals Lithogens are probably much weaker than the Homo sapiens, This would explain why humans today have a much stronger immune system than they did 100,000 years ago because as time goes on the Neanderthal bred gets bred out of the Homo-sapiens. 

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