Our Image of Neanderthals Is All Wrong: The First Skeleton Was Arthritic

By | August 14, 2019

test article image
Neanderthals...smart, creative, and upright. Source: (science.howstuffworks.com)

When you say the word "Neanderthal" to most people, the image that pops into their heads is that of a stooped, stocky, primitive humanoid creature that lacked the intelligence and physical prowess for his species to survive what Charles Darwin called the "survival of the fittest." The slow, clumsy, stupid Neanderthal, so it was thought for decades, lost out to the superior Homo sapiens for the top spot in the animal kingdom. Now, however, we are learning that those mythic depictions of Neanderthals were all wrong. The real Neanderthals were smart, upright, creative, and well-suited for their environment. Let's look at how the Neanderthals acquired their erroneous reputation for being lumbering meatheads and how that image is changing

test article image
Neanderthals were named for the Neander Valley in Germany. Source: (en.wikipedia.org)

Discovering the Neanderthals

In 1856, mine workers in the Neander Valley in Germany discovered fossilized bones. The miners assumed the bones came from a cave bear, but they took their find to a local scholar and historian just to make sure. The historian declared that they were human remains, but that they were from a person who was suffering from an extreme case of rickets which caused the bones to be misshapen. Enter Charles Darwin, who released his groundbreaking and controversial book, On the Origin of Species, just three years after the bones were found in the Neander Valley. With the world abuzz about Darwin's theories of natural selection, survival of the fittest, and evolution, the find was brought back out to be examined by other experts. One of these experts, an anatomist named William King, stated that the bones were from an extinct ancestor of modern humans and coined the name Neanderthal, or Homo neanderthalensis.