Who Were the Neanderthals & Why Are They Important to Modern Humans?

Neanderthals are far more important to us today than most of us realize. Here’s why.

Apr 21, 2023By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma

who were the neanderthals why are they important


Since their discovery in 1856, the Neanderthals have been stereotyped as brutish characters, devoid of the complexities that make modern humans so dynamic and successful. Over the past few decades, research has completely upturned this notion.


Contrary to popular belief, they were a complex and intelligent species that made use of intricate tools and were capable of a wide range of activities that required mental powers of deduction and reasoning that until recently were thought only to reside in our own species.


To the average person, the Neanderthals that lived and died so long ago are not important enough to warrant any meaningful thought. But their relevance today is far more salient than people would expect.


The Evolution of Neanderthals

neanderthal man and child
A neanderthal man and his daughter, from Tom Björklund, via the New York Times


It is commonly thought that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens have a common ancestor in Homo heidelbergensis, which is thought to have lived between 300,000 and 700,000 years ago. It is unclear exactly when H. neanderthalensis evolved from H. heidelbergensis. The oldest potential Neanderthal specimen dates to around 430,000 years ago, but there is a massive gap in the fossil record. Virtually all the fossils we have date from 130,000 years ago onwards.

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Estimates on when H. sapiens evolved are generally between 300,000 and 200,000 years ago.


The Neanderthal population lived throughout Europe, Western Asia, and the near East.


What Was Their Society Like?

neanderthal home life
Exhibit in Croatia, which depicts the life of a Neanderthal family, from Nikola Solic/Reuters, via Aeon


Neanderthals lived in small groups, and their population remained relatively low. As with all people of the time, they lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and were nomadic, following the herds of woolly mammoths, among others, which served as their source of food. Caves formed their bases of operations, although open-air camps were sometimes built. They ate a wide range of animals as well as plants. Those who lived near the coasts or rivers also ate fish and shellfish. It is estimated that the average Neanderthal required almost twice as many daily calories as modern Homo sapiens.


Evidence suggests small groups of Neanderthals interacted with each other over vast areas. Women usually left the group when they married and went to live with their husbands. By doing so, bands of Neanderthals fostered a sense of goodwill with their neighbors in addition to ensuring genetic diversity.


Peace, however, wasn’t always the case. Several specimens have been found which show distinct signs of violence. With this said, however, it is possible that the violence was the result of conflict with our own species. There were approximately 30,000 years during which Neanderthals and H. sapiens lived in the same geographic area.


Technological Innovation

neanderthals levallois gibraltar
A simplified diagram showing the Levallois method of flintknapping. Many different tools can be made this way; via the Gibraltar National Museum


Many technologies unique to Neanderthals have been uncovered that prove that they were immensely intelligent and had an extremely high level of problem-solving capability. They extracted birch bark tar for use as the world’s first known adhesive used by humans.


Neanderthals also invented the Levallois technique of flintknapping. This technique is far more complex than others and produces a better product than simply chipping flakes off a rock until the desired shape is achieved. The process involved flintknapping in specific directions around the edges of a stone. This was done with precision as it would affect the final shape of the lithic flake. With one final, precise strike, the lithic flake would be separated from the lithic core, and because of the knapping done all around the sides, the final product would be sharp on all its edges.


Neanderthals vs. Homo Sapiens: Differences & Similarities

neanderthal modern human skeletons
Image showing the skeletal differences between H. neanderthalensis and H. sapiens, via Encyclopaedia Britannica


Physically, the Neanderthals were shorter and stockier than Homo sapiens. Although the tallest Neanderthal specimen ever found is estimated to be 178 centimeters (5’ 10’’), on average, males were 160 to 170 centimeters (5’ 2’’ to 5’ 6’’), while females were 150 to 160 centimeters (4’ 9’’ to 5’ 2’’).


At the time of the demise of the Neanderthals around 40,000 years ago, the average male Homo sapiens (Early Modern Humans/Cro-Magnon) was 183 centimeters (6’ 0”).


Neanderthals had, on average, slightly bigger skulls than us and bigger brain cavities. This doesn’t necessarily mean they were more intelligent, but it does point to them being highly intelligent nonetheless. Their facial structure differed from ours in that they had bigger noses set higher on their faces. They also had recessed chins and heavy brow ridging.


Physically, they were more robust than us. Neanderthals were often able to shrug off injuries that would have easily put H. sapiens out of action for weeks. This robustness was due to their stockiness and muscle mass. Of particular note is their forearm muscles, which were far more developed than in our species.


prehistory neanderthal hunt
Hunting mammoths was a dangerous activity that required considerable skill, intelligence, and cooperation; via the Telegraph


A difference of note is that Neanderthals matured faster. A Neanderthal child of eight years old would be equivalent to a Homo sapiens child in their early teens. It was previously thought that they had a much shorter lifespan than H. Sapiens in terms of biological capability, but modern research suggests they were capable of reaching the same age as H. sapiens. Nevertheless, it was extremely uncommon for Neanderthals to live past the age of 40. Their lifestyle was one of extreme hardship, and their hunting methods were far more dangerous.


Homo sapiens evolved for persistence hunting and could chase their prey over long distances, essentially tiring the animal out to the point of exhaustion. This method is still practiced by Khoisan (Bushmen) in the Kalahari today. H.sapiens also tried to keep their distance from their prey, opting to use spears as projectiles. While Neanderthals also made use of throwing spears, a more common tactic seems to be that of confrontational hunting with shorter, more rugged spears designed for close quarters. It is also suggested that Neanderthal physiology prevented them from being able to run long distances relative to H. sapiens.


shanidar neanderthal skeleton
The remains of Shanidar 1 at the Iraq Museum, via World History Encyclopedia


Despite all the differences, there were also many similarities. Neanderthals, like us, carried the FOXP2 gene, which is responsible for creating the ability for speech. An important factor in the physical ability to speak is the hyoid bone in the throat. Neanderthal hyoid bones were almost exactly like ours. The disposition of their heads, however, meant their voices were more highly pitched than ours. As for the complexity of the language they spoke, it is the subject of pure conjecture, and perhaps we’ll never know.


Of all the similarities, one of the most important was the innate ability for compassion, which, until recently, was thought only to exist in our modern species. In fact, evidence for human compassion goes back over a million years. A 1.7 million-year-old skull (from an early form of Homo erectus) shows that the owner lost their teeth years before they eventually died. They would not have been able to survive without someone chewing their food for them.


Of note regarding Neanderthal compassion, a salient example is that of a specimen known as Shanidar 1. Known as “Nandy” by his excavators, Shanidar 1 is one of seven individuals excavated from the Shanidar Cave in Northern Iraq. During his life, this individual suffered a major blow to the head which crushed an eye socket, leaving him partially or completely blind in one eye. His hearing was severely damaged. He also had broken both his legs and walked with a limp, and his arm showed signs of a possible amputation, likely the end result of a congenital disease that left him with a withered right arm.


Shanidar 1 was unable to provide for his family. But he was looked after, and he lived well past the healing of his injuries. This shows that the Neanderthals, despite their constant battle for survival, showed altruism and compassion (and possibly the earliest known major medical procedure).


neanderthals bruniquel cave
The ring structure in Bruniquel Cave, via sci.news


A major question that needs to be asked when considering the differences and similarities between Neanderthals and us is the factor of abstract thought. For over a century, it was thought that Neanderthals produced no art at all, unlike Homo sapiens, who frequently decorated cave walls with all manner of things.


Evidence also suggests they found a use for bird feathers and various pigments, which may have been used for personal decoration. So far, cave art attributed to Neanderthals seems to focus more on the abstract side.


There is also a strong claim that Neanderthals created jewelry from eagle talons and carved symbolic objects out of ivory. Ten Neanderthal sites have been discovered so far that contained eagle talons.


An undeniable symbol of Neanderthal creativity dates to 176,500 years ago in the dark recesses of Bruniquel Cave in France, where no sunlight reaches. Neanderthals broke off stalagmites and stalactites and arranged them symbolically in circles. The reasons for this are unknown, but it seems the structure of speleofacts may have played a ritualistic role involving fire.


Why are Neanderthals Relevant Today?

prehistory neanderthal woman
Neanderthal woman, from PS Plailly/E Daynes/Science Photo Library, via National History Museum, London


There are many reasons to consider Neanderthals important. They were a separate species of human, and by studying and comparing them to ourselves, we can understand ourselves better. To this, research into their society is important, as are the ways they communicated, their ability to create, and their ability to problem-solve. Understanding how their minds worked shows us what is possible on a different evolutionary path. Understanding their biology is also incredibly helpful to us for the same reasons.


But perhaps the most important reason they are important to us today is for reasons of genetics. We interbred with them, and studies show that people from outside of sub-Saharan Africa have 1% – 4% Neanderthal DNA. This means we can determine what traits we inherited from them.


Those who suffer from Crohn’s disease can blame their condition on Neanderthal DNA. Research is still in the early days, but it is theorized that Neanderthal DNA also affects skin tone, hair color, ability to tan, pain thresholds, immune system responses, height, sleeping patterns, and many other traits. Neanderthal DNA may also help us in our research for a cure for COVID-19.


One strand of Neanderthal DNA puts people at increased risk of COVID-19 severity. The gene is most common in Southeast Asia, and by being able to identify people with it, we can see who is most at risk.


But Neanderthal genes aren’t all bad. Swedish Geneticist Svante Pääbo led a study in the United Kingdom and discovered that women with a certain Neanderthal gene variant were much less likely to suffer a miscarriage or bleed while pregnant.


Why Did Neanderthals Go Extinct?

prehistory neanderthal child
A Neanderthal child, “Flint,” at the Gibraltar Museum. This child is a reconstruction of the “Gibraltar 2” specimen; via Gorhams Cave


Nobody knows for sure what drove the Neanderthals to extinction. Many theories try to answer his question. One theory proposes the idea that Neanderthals were subjected to genocide at the hands of Homo sapiens, but his theory no longer has the support it used to have.


One theory even suggests that since they lived in such small groups, there was a lack of genetic diversity, and inbreeding resulted in the extinction of the species.


The most prevalent theory is that a number of factors led to the extinction of the Neanderthals. These could have included climate change, competition, and assimilation in Homo sapiens populations.


neanderthal old man
Reconstruction of a Neanderthal man, from Erich Ferdinand/Flickr, via Discover Magazine


Research over the past two decades has shed a bright light on who the Neanderthals really were, and has overturned over a century of erroneous assumptions about this misunderstood species of human.


Not only were they smarter than we originally thought, but they showed compassion and an understanding of life that we thought only we possessed.


The stunning revelation of interbreeding also left the scientific world with a whole set of endless questions about the effects of DNA. The Neanderthals could be more relevant today than they have been since their demise 40,000 years ago. Nearly all of us have a little bit of Neanderthal in us.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.