Neanderthal Skull vs Human Skull: What are the Differences?

© pattang/

Written by Emmanuel Kingsley

Published: June 5, 2022

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Examining the skulls of apes and our extinct predecessors allows us to look for traits that show our family tree’s evolutionary links. All of these skulls are replicas of real fossils. About 27 million years ago, the ancestors of today’s modern apes (gorillas, orangutans,gibbons, chimps, and humans) first appeared in the fossil record. However, did you know that our nearest extinct human relative is the Neanderthal?

Neanderthals created and used various sophisticated tools, regulated fire, lived in shelters, crafted and wore clothes, were adept hunters of huge animals who also ate plant food, and occasionally created symbolic or aesthetic objects. There is evidence that Neanderthals buried their deceased deliberately and sometimes even marked their tombs with offerings like flowers, and this sophisticated and symbolic behavior had never been seen in other monkeys or earlier human species. Are there any differences between the two? We’ll look at the traits that distinguish the Neanderthal and human skull in the sections below.

Comparing a Neanderthal Skull and a Human Skull

The human skull differs from the Neanderthal skull in size and shape.
Neanderthal SkullHuman Skull
ShapeLow, elongated skullMore globular skull
SizeNeanderthal skulls had endocranial volumes between 71.5 to 106 cubic inches Human skulls range from 66.5 to 108 cubic inches
IntelligenceLess intelligent branch of the human family tree, but smart nonethelessAlmost similar to Neanderthal thousands of years ago
Facial FeaturesDominated by a very big, wide nose Have larger olfactory areas
Relationship with Other SpeciesNeanderthals evolved in Europe and AsiaModern humans were evolving in Africa

The 5 Key Differences Between a Neanderthal Skull and a Human Skull

The main differences between a Neanderthal skull and a human skull include their shape, size inside the head, intelligence, facial features, and relationship with other species. Although they were humans like us, Neanderthals belonged to a separate species known as Homo neanderthalensis.

This species’ remains have been discovered all over Europe and the Middle East. A fossil skull from China known as “Maba” may indicate the Neanderthal’s easternmost occurrence. With shorter legs and larger bodies, Neanderthals are thought to have been stockier than modern humans. There are more distinct differences between the two, so let’s discover what they are!

Neanderthal Skull vs. Human Skull: Shape

Neanderthal skull was low and elongated from front to back like a football.

©Vitezslav Halamka/

Consider a human skull as a soccer ball and a Neanderthal skull as a football.

Researchers have been struck by the odd shape of a Neanderthal skull since they first saw it in the 1860s: low, elongated from front to back like a football. It was the first fossil hominin species to be named in 1864. After discovering these fossils in the Feldhofer Cave in the Neander Valley in Germany, geologist William King proposed the name Homo neanderthalensis (tal—a contemporary variant of thal—means “valley” in German).

Our spherical (globular) skulls, like a soccer ball, are a distinguishing trait of modern humans. Globularity (the circular shape of the skull) is hypothesized to reflect evolutionary variations in the relative proportions of human brain components. However, because brain tissue does not fossilize, identifying an underlying biological mechanism can be difficult.

Neanderthal Skull vs. Human Skull: Size

Based on measurements obtained in the 1980s, the average adult brain size for modern humans is 82 cubic inches.


Anthropologists have historically filled skulls with beads or seeds and emptied the contents into a graduated cylinder (a precise measuring cup) to assess fossil brain volume. They’ve also measured the volume displaced by submerging skull molds in water. Although CT (computed tomography) scanning tools now provide more accurate (and less messy) measurements, much of the data in textbooks and other references were gathered the old-fashioned way.

Based on these values, fossil Neanderthals and modern humans from the same period had almost similar brain sizes. Endocranial volumes ranged from 71.5 to 106 cubic inches in twenty-three Neanderthal skulls dated from 40,000 to 130,000 years ago. The average size of sixty Stone Age Homo sapiens was 66.5 cubic inches. Based on measurements from 122 global populations obtained in the 1980s, the average adult brain size for modern humans is 82 cubic inches.

Neanderthal Skull vs. Human Skull: Intelligence

The Neanderthals were incredibly bright and resourceful, despite their reputation as primitive “cavemen.” These weren’t your typical “ape-men,” so it is unjust to them that the term “Neanderthal” is somehow used as an insult.

The archaeological record shows that most Neanderthal hunting, foraging, and tool-making behavior was very similar to anatomically modern humans around 50,000 years ago. Recent evidence from Neanderthal art also reveals that they were capable of symbolic and abstract reasoning, traditionally attributed only to homo sapiens. This evidence suggests that Neanderthals could do many of the same mental tasks as anatomically modern humans, even though the conventional knowledge holds that modern humans won the evolutionary race.

Neanderthal Skull vs. Human Skull: Facial Features

Neanderthals’ features were likewise distinct. A large, wide nose dominated the center area of the face, which protruded forward. Some scientists believe this trait evolved due to living in colder, drier regions. The nose’s vast interior volume would have moistened and warmed the air they breathed. Their front teeth were big, but they lacked a prominent chin, unlike modern humans. Neanderthals possessed larger orbits, signifying larger visual cortices and greater vision, which could have been adapted for higher latitudes with less light.

What did Homo sapiens do with all that extra mental capacity? According to some researchers, modern humans have larger cerebellums, making us better at processing information. Others have argued that humanity prioritized smell: a 2011 study published in Nature Communications analyzed the interior base of skulls and found that modern human brains have comparatively large olfactory areas. According to the authors, having a better sense of smell would have helped people instinctively identify safe meals or detect social information.

Neanderthal Skull vs. Human Skull: Relationship with Other Species

While the Neanderthals are closely related to us, they are not our direct ancestors. According to evidence from the geological record and genetic data, they are a unique species that originated as a side branch in our family tree. The modern humans-our species Homo sapiens evolved in Africa, while Neanderthals evolved in Europe and Asia.

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