When you think about Neanderthals, you’re probably likely to think of modern people with primitive mindsets. Even if you know the real root of the word, it isn’t the most common connotation.
Neanderthals, now extinct, were the closest known relatives to humans. The Homo sapien and Homo neanderthalensis lineages are thought to have split between 500,000 and 650,000 years ago, with the oldest evidence of a Neanderthal’s existence being close to that age.
Even though you probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them, learning about Neanderthals will likely intrigue you. Based on fossils, artifacts, and other uncovered evidence, scientists have gleaned many fascinating facts about these early people. Read on to learn 10 incredible Neanderthal facts!
1. Neanderthals might have been just as smart as humans.
A commonly held belief is that Neanderthals went extinct because humans had the intellectual advantage. However, researchers think that this belief exists because people tend to compare Neanderthals to modern humans instead of the earliest Homo sapiens.
In fact, there is now evidence that shows that Neanderthals worked very well in groups. They were highly competent when it came to planning and hunting.
Scientists have uncovered perfectly assembled tools created by the Neanderthals. Alongside them are less complex versions of the same tools. These are thought to have been made by their children during the learning process.
Neanderthals made effective spears out of wooden shafts and stone points. They would throw these spears at animals such as woolly rhinoceroses and bison.
2. In fact, Neanderthals had bigger brains than humans!
The brain of the Neanderthal, on average, was bigger than that of a modern human. One of the many differences in the anatomy of the skulls of these species is that Neanderthals had larger braincases; the average was 98 cubic inches for males and 79 cubic inches for females. For modern humans, it’s 78 cubic inches for males and 69 cubic inches for females.
However, this doesn’t mean Neanderthals were smarter. They had a different set of strengths than our human ancestors.
Neanderthals had larger occipital lobes, which mostly played a role in their vision. They would hunt at night, making vision in dark conditions important.
In addition, a larger part of their brains was dedicated to control and maintenance of their bodies. Because of this, their cognitive areas were smaller than those of modern humans, meaning our ancestors had the advantage when it came to decision-making and learning.
3. Neanderthals could walk upright.
The depiction of the typical Neanderthal in popular culture shows them as having hunched backs and moving with the gait of an ape. This is based on reconstructions created in the early 20th century.
What scientists have only recently figured out is that these reconstructions were based on a skeleton that belonged to a Neanderthal with arthritis who was over 80 years of age! Further analysis of Neanderthal skeletons has shown that Neanderthals actually walked upright and had straight spines, similar to humans.
4. Neanderthals could speak in high-pitched, loud voices.
Neanderthals, like humans, had a bone referred to as the hyoid. Apes, the closest living relatives to humans, do not. This bone is located near the thyroid within the neck and supports the tongue. The hyoid allows modern humans to speak; apparently, it did the same for Neanderthals.
Modern depictions of Neanderthals have them grunting in low tones. However, studies of their anatomy have led scientists to believe this is inaccurate; they actually had voices that were louder and more high-pitched than those of humans.
5. Neanderthals evolved to share traits with woolly mammoths.
As many know, the woolly mammoth was an ancestor of the modern elephant. These animals weighed up to 12,000 pounds and were covered in fur, as the name suggests. A 2019 study showed that both woolly mammoths and Neanderthals shared more than one molecular sign of adaptation to cold weather.
Even though you may not think these species are similar, they both evolved from African ancestors. They also both had to adapt to the cold environments characteristic of Ice Age Eurasia. Both species went into extinction at about the same time.
This is a great example of convergent evolution; both species went through similar adaptations as a result of dealing with similar conditions.
6. Neanderthals would mate with humans.
A lot of people even today have Neanderthal DNA – this is because Neanderthals would mate with humans. In fact, approximately 20% of the Neanderthal genome still persists within human DNA now. Genome sequencing studies have suggested that Neanderthals reproduced with early humans during the Ice Age.
However, modern humans do not have any Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA. This DNA can only be passed down by mothers, suggesting that only the mating of a female human and male Neanderthal could produce viable offspring with the ability to reproduce.
7. Many modern human traits came from Neanderthals.
There are many benefits that have been brought to humans by the DNA of Neanderthals. This DNA contributed to boosted immune functioning, for example. There are also some Neanderthal genes that are thought to have contributed to the composition of the brain, muscle contraction, and body fat distribution.
There are also some negative traits that were brought about by Neanderthal DNA, including diabetes, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, allergies to pollen and animal fur, excessive blood clotting, and major depressive disorder.
8. Many Neanderthals were inbred.
Neanderthals lived in smaller populations than modern humans. Individuals who shared genetic material would often mate with one another.
Ultimately, this would play a role in their demise as a population. The inbreeding would lead to more birth defects and maladaptive traits in offspring.
9. Neanderthals showed signs of compassion for their own.
Many people think of Neanderthals as primitive savages. However, they would care for the elderly and disabled. One such Neanderthal, called Nandy by excavators, had multiple disabilities and injuries and lived to be between 30 and 45 despite not being able to take care of himself.
This is a notably old age for a Neanderthal, meaning that his peers took wonderful care of him despite his inability to contribute to their society.
Additionally, studies of ancient Western Europe grave sites show that Neanderthals often buried their dead. They also left grave markers, such as flowers, with the dead individuals. They took special care when it came to burying children; they put bones, engravings, and artifacts with the body. The Neanderthals are the only early human species who practiced this type of ritual.
10. Neanderthals practiced gender equality.
The ancestors of humans had a fairly defined division of labor. Generally, the men would hunt and the women would forage.
This was not the case for Neanderthals. Both the women and men would go hunting. It’s possible that this is because they lived in smaller groups, making division of labor less feasible.
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