Our Image of Neanderthals Is All Wrong: The First Skeleton Was Arthritic
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.
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.
In the 1800s, scientific fields like paleontology and anthropology were in their infancy. Early paleontologists, despite their good intentions, were not as knowledgeable and experienced as their modern counterparts. Mistakes were made. Unfortunately for the Neanderthals, these mistakes helped to fuel the myths that have plagued them for decades.
In 1909, an early paleontologist named Marcellin Boule reassembled the first skeleton that was found of a Neanderthal. The result was a man who was stooped over in a permanent slouch. Boule erroneously believed that this stance meant that Neanderthals were the missing link between primates who walked on all fours and modern humans who walk upright. Soon, every illustration and depiction of Neanderthals showed them hunched over. What Boule didn't know, however, was that his one and only specimen happened, by pure chance, to be suffering from debilitating arthritis, which accounted for his bent form.
The Fall of the Neanderthals
Since that first Neanderthal skeleton was discovered in the Neander Valley, archaeologists and paleontologists have unearthed numerous other fossilized remains of this extinct cousin of humans. They've determined that Neanderthals were not, in fact, the missing link between apes and modern humans but simply members of a different branch of man's family tree. Research showed that Neanderthals were once spread across Europe and into Asia, but their numbers declined until there were only a few remaining in Gibraltar. The Neanderthals eventually lost the battle of the fittest, and about 25,000 years ago, they went extinct. Or did they?
DNA From the Past
After the discovery of DNA, groups of scientists set about mapping the genome of modern humans to unravel the mysteries of humanity from deep within our genes. Yet another group embarked upon the ambitious project to map the genome of Neanderthals, taking bits of DNA from the bones of these ancient people. What they learned from this project was surprising: Perhaps the Neanderthals didn't all perish thousands of years ago. In the DNA of European Caucasians and some Asians, Neanderthal genes popped up. Scientists already knew that Neanderthals and early humans coexisted in Europe more than 37,000 years ago, but what the DNA sequencing showed was that these two species did more than coexist. They interbred.
Decoding the Neanderthals
The findings from studies on Neanderthals from the last several decades were backed up by the DNA sequencing, and a new image of Neanderthals emerged. Far from the knuckle-dragging, dim-witted brutes that they were portrayed to be, Neanderthals walked upright with ease and grace. That lone arthritic Neanderthal that skewed our image of the whole species was overtaken by healthier fossilized specimens that gave us a more accurate look at our ancient cousins. Neanderthals were more human than ape. In fact, it was learned that while man split ways with primates more than 5 million years ago, the human and Neanderthal branch only diverged about 400,000 years ago.
A Compassionate, Clever Ancestor
Neanderthals lived in communities and exhibited compassion and empathy. Evidence shows that they used natural and herbal medicines, cared for their elderly, and treated wounds. Paleontologists have even found Neanderthal burial sites, proving that they had funeral rituals and mourned death. They ate a balanced diet and even cooked their vegetables alongside their meat. They were skilled hunters and excelled in weapon-making. They developed a way to make strong spears by combining stone-cut arrowheads with long, hardened wood shafts. They even held the spearheads in place with a glue they invented using plant resins. Neanderthals were brave hunters. With their solidly built spears, they took down enormous woolly rhinos and powerful bison.
The Creative Side of Neanderthals
Neanderthals were artistic, too. Cave art found across Europe is credited to the Neanderthals, who adorned the walls of caves with depictions of plant and animal life. Neanderthal artists mixed plants and minerals to make paint that has stood the test of time. Just last year, drawings and paintings that date back more than 40,000 years were found in El Castillo Cave on the Pas River in Spain. In other caves, archaeologists discovered bowls of colored pigments, leading to theories that the Neanderthal engaged in body art as well as cave art.
The Return of the Neanderthal?
Cracking the Neanderthal genome may just be the tip of the iceberg. With this DNA code, at least one scientist, a Harvard University geneticist named George Church, has suggested creating a Neanderthal clone using a human surrogate mother. He argues that Neanderthals are not truly extinct since so many modern humans carry some Neanderthal DNA in their genetic makeup. He also posits that bringing back Neanderthals could have untold benefits to humans. We know, for example, that some Neanderthal genes produced heightened immune systems. Dr. Church also contends that the brain of the Neanderthal would be wired differently than that of modern humans and may therefore be better equipped to solve some of the problems that have plagued mankind.
Newfound Respect for Neanderthals
The more we study our ancient cousins, the more evidence we've found to dispel the myth that Neanderthals were sluggish brutes that died out because they were not smart or quick enough. Instead, the picture that has emerged shows that Neanderthals were inventive problem solvers, artistic, and intelligent. They were an ancestor to be proud of, not avoided and rarely mentioned like some of your cousins.