Neanderthals: too close for comfort?

It wasn’t that long ago that Neanderthals were depicted as hairy, dumb, slouching, animal brutes. But a raft of striking new discoveries and startling new depictions are proving that our Stone Age cousins may have been just as human as we are.

Since the first thick-browed skull was discovered in Germany’s Neander valley in 1856, homo sapiens have liked to imagine our Neanderthal cousins as little more than monsters. This image was cemented in the early 20th century with the discovery and reconstruction of a 60,000 year-old Neanderthal skeleton in La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France. Nicknamed “The Old Man”, the reconstruction by scientist Pierre Marcellin Boule, and a subsequent painting by František Kupka in French magazine L’Illustration, gave us a Neanderthal of children’s nightmares: hairy and stooped, with a thick neck, jutting head and an apelike opposable big toe. In this depiction, Neanderthal man was stupid, dangerous, and – with his obvious inferiority – justifiably dead.

But as happens so often in science, everything we thought we knew is wrong. Starting with the Old Man. That opposable toe wasn’t genetic, but manufactured by Boule, who believed that Neanderthals were something like an ape, and no relation to homo sapiens. And as early as the 1950s it was realized that the Old Man’s slouched posture was not a characteristic of Neanderthals in general but the product of that specific Neanderthal’s genetic bone deformity. While differences in bone structure remain – Neanderthals had bigger skulls, and shorter, stockier limbs than us relative to their size – Neanderthals most likely exhibited as much body-shape variety as homo sapiens.

And perhaps as much sapiens, too. There is evidence that Neanderthals knew how to make tools, start fires and use them, weave and make clothes. They cooperated to hunt megafauna, such as the giant mammoths, as well as ibex, horse and bison. Neanderthals processed their food, smoking, roasting, and boiling it, and ground up seed grains into something like flatbread. They cared for their sick and buried their dead. They liked to dress up, too: they perforated cave bear teeth, which are believed to have been worn as jewellery. And they may have been responsible for higher-level symbolic thought as well: a series of cave paintings in Spain have now been dated to more than 65,000 years ago, meaning they must have been created by Neanderthals, as homo sapiens would not be present in Europe for another 20,000 years. Far from being savage monsters, Neanderthals were cooking, hunting, decorating and living just like us.

In fact, they were so similar to homo sapiens, that over a few thousand years of cohabitation, a considerable amount of interbreeding occurred. State of the art gene sequencing has shown that modern homo sapiens, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, owe about 1-4% of our genome to Neanderthals. It’s not known what early humans and Neanderthals thought of each other, and whether these primitive couplings were from love or violence, but it clearly points to a sense of similar identity. When one common definition of “species” insists that two different species cannot create fertile offspring (e.g. a sterile mule produced by the union of a horse and donkey), scientists are now being forced to reconsider whether homo sapiens and homo neanderthalensis are really separate species after all.

Which may be why a startling new depiction of Neanderthals has taken the world by storm. Adrie and Alfons Kennis, artists who happen to be twin brothers, are giving homo neanderthalensis a complete makeover. Whether working from a pair of skeletons found in a cave in Gibraltar and nicknamed Nana and Flint, or on similar remains for commissions by museums in Wales, Italy, Canada and the Netherlands, the Kennis brothers have brought Neanderthals to life for a new generation. With bright smiles, twinkling eyes, and lean nude bodies, the Kennises’ reconstructions go beyond anatomy to reveal affection, relations, intelligence and humanity.

Despite having gone extinct 40,000 years ago, our once-dim Stone Age cousins are getting brighter, clearer, and closer every day.