Neanderthal Nonsense: Debunking Myths About Our Ancient Cousins

Debunking many “Dumb Caveman” myths, the cognitive prowess of our ancient relatives, the Neanderthals, was much more complex than previously thought.

Jun 10, 2024By Miona Jeremic, BA Archaeology (in progress)

neanderthal myths debunking


The cognitive abilities of Neanderthals, our extinct human relatives, has sparked ongoing scientific debate. Initial studies hinted at their cognitive inferiority compared to modern humans, but recent research challenges this view. This article explores the genetic, archaeological, and comparative approaches used by scientists to investigate Neanderthal cognitive abilities. By examining the latest research, including studies on Neanderthal DNA and archaeological discoveries, a nuanced perspective emerges, suggesting that Neanderthals were potentially cognitively sophisticated, and capable of advanced behaviors like symbolic thinking, complex language, and planning.


Origins of Neanderthals and Initial Discoveries

neanderthal face
A Bust of Neanderthal Man, by John Gurche, Source: Smithsonian Magazine


Neanderthals were a human species that lived in Europe and Asia from about 400,000 to 30,000 years ago. They differed physically from modern humans, having a stocky build, large nose, and prominent brows. They had large brains and were skilled hunters and toolmakers. They used fire and lived in complex social groups. There is also evidence of interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans, with some present-day individuals inheriting Neanderthal DNA.


The discovery of the first Neanderthal skeleton led to a stereotype that still influences our perception today. Paleontologist Marcellin Boule classified them as primitive, and his 1911 recreation depicted Neanderthals as violent, hunched, hairy beings with protruding heads. This image has largely persisted, even though Boule based his reconstruction on fossil remains from the Chapelle-aux-Saints cave, where the skeleton was not only old but also had deformed bones, with spinal curvature and other issues. Today, many scientists are trying to break this stereotype.


Unraveling Cognitive Abilities Through Tool-Making and Hunting

neanderthal tools
Neanderthal Stone Knives, photographs by Igor Djakovic, Source: The Guardian


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

One piece of evidence supporting the idea that Neanderthals had advanced cognitive abilities is that they could create complex tools and may have had hunting strategies. Their primary weapon was a spear with a stone tip. Stone cores that preserve the sequences Neanderthals used for stone knapping provide the most accurate representation of Neanderthal technology. Levallois, the most famous of these methods, has become synonymous with Neanderthal technology.


As one of the more intricate stone-processing techniques to learn, Levallois offers insight into the Neanderthal mind. Patterns of fracture and worn edges suggest that the stone was once attached to the ends of shafts and often broke during use. Even though the use and crafting of these tools speak to their complex cognitive abilities, Neanderthals appear less creative and innovative as they did not create new types of weapons and tools, even when in contact with modern humans with their more advanced tools.


There are multiple theories about Neanderthal hunting strategies, ranging from skilled hunters to scavengers. However, patterns of Neanderthal injuries provide evidence that they killed at close range. Hunting evidence was found at La Cotte, where Neanderthals captured, butchered, and transported mammoths. Neanderthals were dominant terrestrial hunters, focusing on a limited number of large mammals like mammoths. Nevertheless, they were adaptable, shifting attention to any large creatures the region offered. Their strategies relied on a fundamental understanding of the surrounding terrain, the ability to set traps and surprise their prey, and the courage to kill them up close with spears, as likely occurred at La Cotte. However, as skilled as they were, due to their concentration on only a few species, their hunts likely often failed, leaving them without food for days.


Hunting Clues: Neanderthal Injuries Unravel the Story

The Remains of Shanidar I Skeleton, Source: World History Encyclopedia


Evidence of hunting is also visible on Neanderthal skeletons; wounds found on the head and upper body that have often healed resemble those wounds endured by rodeo competitors today. An example comes from the Shanidar Cave skeletons where one individual lacked a right forearm, displaying injuries and arthritis in the right leg, along with injuries on the left side of the face that may have led to blindness. Another skeleton had a rib injury, likely caused by a spear thrown by a modern human. Intriguingly, these individuals didn’t die from these injuries — they first lived for several years, and then later died after a few weeks, probably due to infection from the injury.


All this suggests that Neanderthals had close interactions with powerful, dangerous animals as well as modern humans. What is even more interesting is that this indicates Neanderthals cared for each other because such injuries could not be survived alone. Therefore, their social organization, empathy, and emotions were probably comparable to modern humans.


Neanderthal Healthcare: Survival and Compassion

yarrow plant spain
Yarrow plant in Spain, by Isidre Blanc, 2011, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Penny Spikins, professor of the archaeology of human origins at the University of York, explores the evolutionary significance of Neanderthal healthcare, suggesting that care played a crucial role in the survival and adaptation of Neanderthals in the harsh environments they inhabited. Healthcare practices aided Neanderthals in overcoming adversity, potentially being a key factor in their ability to coexist with early modern humans for thousands of years. It also suggests that healthcare practices among Neanderthals are an important part of the larger puzzle of human evolution, and understanding Neanderthal healthcare may provide new insights into the lives of these human ancestors.


One example, in addition to those mentioned from Shanidar, is the lower jaw from Bau de l’Aubesier in France, dating back over 180,000 years, showing dental disease and tooth loss in a Neanderthal. Chewing must have been extremely difficult and painful for this individual, yet they lived even after losing teeth, suggesting someone cared for them by preparing soft food.


While not much is known about Neanderthal medicine, evidence indicates successful healing of most injuries. There are traces of medicinal plants at El Sidron Cave in Spain, where compounds with anti-inflammatory properties from yarrow to chamomile-like plants were discovered between the teeth of a Neanderthal.


On the other hand, some scientists align more with the theory that Neanderthals were cold and calculating. Evidence for this includes instances where individuals with leg injuries, hindering their movement, were killed or left to die. In contrast, those with injuries to the head or neck, still capable of rapid movement, were spared. It is believed that they had to be cold and calculating to survive.


Did Neanderthals Bury Their Dead?

Neanderthal Skull of “the old man,” buried at Saint Chapelle, by PLoS, 2004, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Penny Spakins argues in her research that empathy played a crucial role in the evolution of human cognition for Neanderthals; asserting that without it, they would not have been able to survive. She suggests that compassion and empathy were integral components of the social glue that held Neanderthal communities together, forming the basis for developing advanced cognitive abilities such as language, culture, and collaboration. Spakins also proposes that Neanderthals had a deep understanding of their environment and the animals living around them, serving as the foundation for their survival and well-being.


One of the main pieces of evidence Spakins uses, in addition to bones indicating healthcare, is the presence of Neanderthal graves, suggesting that Neanderthals had some form of social and emotional relationship with their deceased. As an example, she points to Las Palomas in southern Spain, where a small child and an adult woman, possibly their mother, were buried together and covered with stones. Spakins argues that there is a higher likelihood that children would be buried with specific grave materials, such as flint flakes on the grave of a newborn in the Ferasi cave, France, or a red deer maxilla at the burial site of a seven-month-old child in Amud, Israel. She also mentions goat horns surrounding the grave of a child in Teshik-Tashu, Uzbekistan, and the burial of a two-year-old Neanderthal with a triangular flint at the chest and a stone slab above the head, from the Dederiyeh cave in Syria.


neanderthal father daughter
Neanderthal Father and Daughter, by Tom Björklund, Source: Smithsonian Magazine


When it comes to Neanderthal burial practices, there are many unanswered questions. Scientists still aren’t certain whether Neanderthals intentionally buried their dead or simply left them in a place where their bodies were later naturally buried. Shapel, Krapina, and Ferasi are all places that have examples of “graves,” as Penny Spakins has mentioned, along with skeletons found beside the graves. Many scientists aren’t even sure if Neanderthal bodies were buried at all, as they were often shallowly placed underground, and parts of the skeletons are frequently missing, although it is possible that this happened because later animals found them and removed some skeletal parts from the ground. Some skeletons have been found in a state where they were merely laid down and positioned. In any case, it seems that even if Neanderthals had burial practices, they were infrequent and minimal.


Reassessing Neanderthal Empathy: Examining Aggression and Non-Empathetic Traits

saint cesaire reconstructed skull
Reconstruction of the Saint-Cesaire skull, Source: Don’s Maps


In addition to these empathy-related pieces of evidence, there are also indications of interpersonal conflict and aggression among Neanderthals. For instance, the upper right part of the skull of a 36,000-year-old Neanderthal from Saint-Cesaire in France shows head trauma. The skull fracture had healed, and the injury seemed non-lethal. Computer tomography of the wound reveals that it was likely inflicted by a sharp object, a classic sign that the Neanderthal had been struck with a weapon on the skull.


Furthermore, there are numerous examples suggesting that Neanderthals exhibited cannibalistic tendencies. For instance, Neanderthal bodies were consumed in “mortuary sites” in L’Hortus, France, possibly long after their death. It is assumed they were eaten before being left in a small crevice. There are multiple theories about why Neanderthals engaged in this behavior. It could have been for sustenance, but it is also possible that it involved some form of ritual, or even revenge.


An instance where food is presumed to have been the motive was found in Moula-Guercy, France, where two adult Neanderthals, two teenagers, and two children between six and seven years old were dismembered and used for food 100,000 years ago. Facial muscles were cut, and skulls were cracked to extract the brain, with bones then discarded along with the remains of animal carcasses. The skeletons of a group of Neanderthals seemingly killed in a rockslide in El Sidron Cave, Spain, fifty thousand years later, were also scattered and broken in a manner resembling the preparation of animals for consumption. Nevertheless, it remains uncertain whether this was a common practice among Neanderthals, or a few isolated incidents that occurred during times of severe food shortages.


Neanderthal Memory: Working Memory and Spatial Cognition

Shanidar Cave, Iraq, by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg), 2014, Source: Wikimedia Commons


When we discuss Neanderthal tool-making and hunting abilities, we should also turn our attention to their working memory. Scientists have hypothesized that the complexity of Neanderthal stone tools indicates advanced working memory. Additionally, they argue that the use of personal ornaments such as beads is another sign of highly developed working memory capacities. They have suggested that Neanderthals had a cognitive advantage over early modern humans in certain memory-related skills, such as spatial memory, which are crucial for hunting and navigation in their environment. For information about good hunting spots, the types of animals present, hiding places, cliffs, and ravines, as well as raw material reserves, they mainly relied on long-term memory. They knew how to memorize and track specific routes and they employed short-term planning, at least during hunting expeditions.


For example, at the Shanidar Cave site, evidence of flower and plant processing has been found, suggesting that Neanderthals could remember the locations of different plants, their seasonal availability, and the best way to process them. This kind of knowledge would require a complex working memory system. Similarly, the use of ornaments and other decorative items found in Krapina suggests that Neanderthals engaged in symbolic and ritual behavior requiring advanced cognitive abilities, including working memory.


Art and Symbolic Thinking

gorham cave entrance
Gorham’s Cave, by John Cummings, 2011, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Some interesting findings come from Hohle Fels in Germany, the La Roche-Cotard site in France, and Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar. The art found in these caves includes engravings and pigments, indicating a certain level of skill and planning. Scientists also note that some Neanderthal art is similar to that of early modern humans, suggesting that Neanderthal cognitive abilities were comparable to those of early modern humans.


There is evidence that colorful shells and teeth were used as ornaments, perhaps as necklaces or sewn into clothing. At Cueva de los Leones in southern Spain, pierced shells colored with vibrant red ochre were found. Additionally, colorful feathers were used, possibly to further adorn the body. Therefore, Neanderthals may have used color to enhance their surroundings and bodies.


la roche mask
La Roche-Cotard Mask, Source: UNESCO


One of the more well-known “artworks” by Neanderthals is the Roche-Cotard mask. Only a few centimeters long and created over 33,000 years ago, it depicts a carved face, perhaps that of a child. This mask shows us that Neanderthals had some form of creativity and the ability to remember faces. The purpose of the mask is unknown, perhaps it served as a toy.


Neanderthal Brains

neanderthal brain and homo sapiens brain
Neanderthal and Early Homo sapiens brain. Source: Keio Research Highlights


Anthropologist Robin Dunbar introduced the social brain hypothesis. In his work, it is proposed that the size of the neocortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher cognitive functions, is linked to the size of social groups in primates. Dunbar suggests that as primates evolved, the size of their social groups increased. As a result, their brains also had to evolve to cope with the cognitive demands of maintaining these larger social networks. He argues that the same process applies to early humans and that the size of the human neocortex is linked to the size of prehistoric human social groups. As the Neanderthal neocortex is of a similar size to that of modern humans, it is suggested that Neanderthals were more similar to modern humans.


The question arises: How did Neanderthals transmit their knowledge, from hunting and tools to everyday life situations? Did they have language? The ability to imagine what others see and know is called the “Theory of Mind,” and it is assumed that Neanderthals had these abilities to a greater extent.


An interesting discovery comes from Oldeholtpade in the late Paleolithic in the Netherlands, where it was observed that Neanderthals produced finely crafted blades before teaching learners, most likely children, how to use cores. Learners would practice shaping flakes from cores. Numerous Neanderthal sites have also revealed the presence of these beginners. Most cores from Maastricht-Belvedere, Site K, are damaged by careless mistakes, and some even show repeated and senseless hammering on the edges of flint. It is believed that they were created by young Neanderthal children who might have been upset and expressed their frustration by hitting stones. Thus, we have a glimpse into how Neanderthals transmitted knowledge and how they learned to make tools even as children.


So What About Their Speech?

neanderthal hyoid bone.jpg
Models relying on CT scans reveal the probable location of the Neanderthal hyoid bone (depicted in blue), Source: Sapiens


Regarding speech, none of the necessary anatomy — vocal cords, throat, tongue, lips, and so on — has been preserved. However, paleoanthropologists have made significant efforts to describe changes in bone structures supporting these speech organs, such as the hyoid bone. Nothing we know about Neanderthal anatomy would seriously constrain their speech abilities but given the differences between Neanderthal faces and ours, it is suspected that Neanderthal voices might have sounded somewhat different, and the range of consonants and vowels they could generate might have been different.


We are aware that Broca’s area, located in the lower left frontal lobe, is used by the modern brain to control speech and is larger compared to other primates. However, noting that the Broca’s area was likely larger in Neanderthals doesn’t necessarily mean they had the ability of speech.


Neanderthals possessed the FOXP2 gene, which we also have and which is implicated in the ability of speech. Nevertheless, it is still inconclusive whether Neanderthals had speech and language, but it is believed they probably had a range of sounds they used in some pattern.


Concluding Insights

neanderthal and child
Neanderthal and child, photo by Wolfgang Sauber, 2013, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Scientific studies and research in the last few decades have surprised us with new insights into the cognitive abilities of Neanderthals. Once considered primitive and rough beings, it is now known that they were competent, with a more complex social organization, possibly even language, and the ability to use and develop tools. Their capabilities are evident through their use of ornaments, potential grave sites, and their genetic material.


Although there are still questions that scientists are working to resolve, it is clear that Neanderthals were capable and intelligent, able to adapt to their environment, and perhaps possessed a degree of empathy. In any case, Neanderthals have shown us that our ancestors were much more capable than previously thought, and that the heritage, culture, and evolution of the human species was much more intricate than previously assumed.

Author Image

By Miona JeremicBA Archaeology (in progress)Miona is a student in her final year of undergraduate studies of Archaeology at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade, and a student at Belgrade Open School. She has experience with archaeological excavation work, and museum work, as she was an intern curator at the Belgrade City Museum. She enjoys research and writing, so she was a student at Petnica Research Center.