The dramatic change in our perception of the Neanderthals as a species since the discovery of their remains in the Neander Valley in 1856 is reflected in the following timeline of images.
Over the last 100 years, reconstructions of their appearance have slowly become ‘humanised’ with each new revelation about their culture and physiology, culminating in the stunning discovery in 2010 that up to 4% of the genome all modern humans of European and Asian origin carry Neanderthal DNA, as a result of interbreeding between the two species.
Naturalist Johann Carl Fuhlrott was the first to recognise that the 1856 Neanderthal remains belonged to an ancient race of humans. It was a controversial interpretation for many, as it contradicted religious beliefs about human origins; the short, stocky limb bones and the skull’s oversized brow suggested an ape-like ancestor that did not fit in with the biblical idea of God’s creation.
The discovery in 1908 of a nearly complete Neanderthal skeleton at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France, shaped popular perceptions of the Neanderthals for the next few decades. Unfortunately, because the specimen was severely arthritic, it gave the impression that all Neanderthals had bent knees and walked like chimpanzees. This fuelled the preoccupation of the time with finding a ‘missing link’ between modern humans and apes. With a lack of human fossil remains to go on, Neanderthals seemed to fit the bill.
The reconstructions of ‘the primitive human races’ below by the prehistorian Aimé Rutot and the sculptor Louis Mascré around the same time reflect this notion. Rutot said: “According to my ideas, which are a result of my studies, I think that Neanderthal Man is the holdover from a race of Humanity’s Precursors, a subjugated race, long since enslaved by other, really human, beings of a higher evolutionary line, whom we know under the name ‘Paleolithic’. These final descendants of an ancient race, that still resembles animals and has been reduced to slavery, lived with their master in shared caves. The master gave the orders, the slave obeyed.”
images – artsetsocietes.org
The scientific name for the Neanderthal species – Homo neanderthalensis – was first suggested by geologist William King in 1864. However, an alternative proposal put forward by Ernst Haeckel in 1866 – Homo stupidus – is more revealing about common attitudes to the Neanderthals which persisted well into the 20th century. The public’s imagination about Neanderthals became more captured in popular literature in the 1920s. In his book, The Outline of History, H.G. Wells suggested that an ancient cultural memory of the Neanderthals may have survived as the ogres and trolls of folklore. He assumed that the first modern humans did not interbreed with Neanderthals, as they would have been repelled by the Neanderthal’s ‘extreme hairiness’, ‘ugliness’, and ‘repulsive strangeness’. Wells further wrote that, “Its thick skull imprisoned its brain, and to the end it was low-browed and brutish.”
The reconstructions by sculptor Frederick Blaschke, exhibited in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago in the 1920s and 30s, mirror this sentiment. A 1929 guide on Neanderthal Man by the curators of the museum describes how Blaschke modelled the figures on casts of Neanderthal skeletal remains and with the advice of European anatomists. The guide boasts: “As to anatomical details therefore, it is believed that a remarkably accurate reconstruction of several different individuals such as would form a Neanderthal family has been made.” The level of hairiness of the Neanderthals was unknown so, “as the primitive men ofAustraliahave several Neanderthaloid characters, including heavy brow ridges, it was decided to follow their hirsute type.” Oddly though, the males have short-cropped hairstyles.
The discovery of 9 Neanderthal skeletons in northern Iraq in the 1950s confirmed changing perceptions. One was buried with flowers, showing that Neanderthals buried their dead with symbolism and ceremony. Further research on the original specimens concluded that Neanderthals walked upright in the same way as modern humans. However, the great illustrator Zdeněk Burian, in the 1960 book Prehistoric Man, still portrayed them as hairy, ape-like throwbacks, in this scene of a Neanderthal encampment.
By the 1980s, Neanderthals had developed in popular culture. In 1980 Jean M. Auel published The Clan of the Cave Bear, the brilliant first book in the Earth’s Children series. The plot centres on the fictional relationship between Ayla, a five-year-old modern human orphan, and the Clan of the Cave Bear, a band of homeless Neanderthals who reluctantly take her in. Exploring the theme of communication, Auel assumes that the Neanderthals lack the full vocal development of modern humans and has the clan using a mixture of gestures and body language to supplement their small vocabulary. Their ability to describe past events and communicate ideas is therefore limited, as is their ability to innovate – talents which come naturally to Ayla. Artist Jay Matternes takes up the theme of communication in his 1982 portrayal of a Neanderthal cave settlement in the Pyrenees. They are still simian-looking, but less hairy, and are sociable and communicative.
image – jay-matternes.com
Even into the 1990s, Neanderthals are still depicted as primitive and functional, as this exhibition in the American Museum of Natural History in New York shows. Its scene of a small group of Neanderthals, camped beneath a rock shelter, is set 50,000 years ago in what is now western France. The museum website concedes that “Neanderthals were probably less brutish and more like modern humans than commonly portrayed,” and that they were, “sophisticated toolmakers and even prepared animal hides, which they used as clothing.”
Giant strides in our understanding of the Neanderthals came in 1997, when scientists were first able to amplify their mitochondrial DNA using a specimen from the original 1856 site in the Neander Valley. In 2000, the Channel 4 documentary Neanderthal described how they were not covered in thick hair, but wore clothing made of animals skins and were far more sophisticated than popularly believed. The film-makers employed palaeontologists and behavioural experts, as well as latex prosthetic masks and computer technology to recreate the life of a clan of Neanderthals. Professor Chris Stringer was an adviser on the programme and explained that the legend of the hairy caveman was one of many myths that arose from the 1856 discovery, “We didn’t then have the very early fossil record we now possess from Africa, so people tried to place the Neanderthal in the position of ‘the missing link’. We now believe they were simply a different species which evolved quite separately from our ancestors.” The programme depicts the clan members killing a baby because they are desperate for food, and kidnapping a woman from another clan in order to breed. Their linguistic skills are also shown to be equivalent in complexity to a modern human toddler’s baby talk.
In 2004, a BBC Horizon documentary on Neanderthals claimed to do “something that no one has done before“, to assemble “the first ever complete Neanderthal skeleton, from parts gathered from all over the world, to reveal the most anatomically accurate representation of modern humanity’s closest relative.” One of their aims was to answer the burning question, “was Neanderthal a thinking, feeling human being like us, or a primitive beast?” Their assembled team of leading experts produced “a very different beast to the brute of legend“, which was “in many ways our equal and in some ways our superior.”
Their recreation brought the Neanderthal to life, “with startling anatomical accuracy.” The skeleton stood no more than 5 feet 4 inches tall, but had an immensely powerful build. The Neanderthal’s rib cage flared out, unlike the modern human’s, meaning that the Neanderthal did not have a waist. Their short compact body and voluminous chest was an adaptation to a cold environment. It supported a thick layer of muscle, giving both strength and insulation. The Neanderthal skull showed that its brain was much bigger than the average modern human’s – around 20% bigger. It showed the same kind of cerebral symmetry, and the shape of its frontal lobe was no different. The overall anatomical similarity suggested that the Neanderthal’s cognitive abilities were the same as the modern human’s. A model of the Neanderthal’s vocal tract showed it to be similar to a modern human female’s and capable of speech.
The actor that the documentary ‘reconstructed’ with prosthetics to re-enact a male Neanderthal still looks distinctly different to modern humans, but appears thoughtful and intelligent. The same thoughtful countenance appears on the representation of a female Neanderthal used in a TV commercial which aired around the same time. The actress’ prosthetics and make-up were created by SODA, a Danish make-up fx studio, which features the image of the Neanderthal woman in their ‘creatures’ section.
The 2006 male Neanderthal reconstruction in the Mettmann Neanderthal Museum in Germany also claims to have been “realistically recreated by means of the most up-to-date pathology procedures.” It too is based on the 1856 discovery in the Neander Valley, although a reconstruction of what could be his twin sister is based on a female Neanderthal skull found in Gibraltar. The male Neanderthal, christened ‘Mr N’, is a ‘front man’ for the Museum and his image is most widely used in today’s popular media to illustrate any story connected to Neanderthals. He is clearly a jovial character, with a face to match – the customary large browridge, big nose and weak chin. He also has a curiously shaved hairstyle (a proto-mullet?) and beard.
The epitome of modern Neanderthal ‘evolution’ finally comes in 2008 with Elisabeth Daynès‘ quite beautiful recreations. Only subtly distinguishable from modern humans, they clearly reflect a species which, like us, diverged from a common stock and evolved along parallel lines, before their disappearance around 24,000 years ago. They are portrayed as “an intelligent, cultured part of the human family.” With images like these, the news from the Max Planck Institute in 2010 that the two species did interbreed and share DNA is quite believable and acceptable to a modern human society whose belief in its uniqueness as a species is now uncertain.
images – E. Daynès/Reconstruction Atelier Daynès, Paris, featured in The New Yorker
Who’s to say which artistic rendering above is the most accurate portrayal of the ‘average’ Neanderthal? Research suggests that Neanderthals can be divided into at least 3 ‘racial’ groups (western European, Mediterranean/Middle Eastern and western Asian). Also, less than 400 examples of Homo neanderthalensis have ever been found since the 1856 discovery; and none yet include a complete skeleton. You could probably find the same range of phenotypes amongst modern humans in any average town today. The evolution of Neanderthal imagery over the past 100 years actually says more about our own evolution, both in terms of our scientific discovery and in the way we now evaluate ‘primitive’ cultures.