Neanderthal Footprints of the Past
writer: Jessica Morris
The expansion of Homo Erectus took prehistoric hominids outward from the African continent. It took time before our early Homo sapiens ancestors, however, to spread across the globe. As seen in newly discovered prehistoric footprints near Gibraltar, another species was thriving in a much colder region.
Homo neanderthalensis, also known as Neanderthals, were a prolific species of ancient hominid that scientists estimate existed from about 430,000 to 40,000 years ago. Their range of habitation was varied across Eurasia, after migrating out of Africa thousands of years before Homo sapiens.
Besides the ancient Asian Denisovans, Neanderthals are the closest relatives to early humans. Prehistoric Homo sapiens and Neanderthals are said to have shared a common ancestor, splitting at between 650,000 and 500,00 years ago.
Neanderthals are known for their strong, muscular, short bodies. They weighed in between 150 to 180 pounds and stood at about 5 feet tall in height. This stocky frame was advantageous for colder, drier environments. Their physique is also thought to have been of benefit for close-range hunting, as revealed by the healing patterns on Neanderthal skeletal remains.
The cranial shape of Homo neanderthalensis reveals a long, low skull with a prominent brow ridge, protruding, wide nose, and small chin. It is thought that this would assist in moistening and warming the frigid air they breathed. Despite the divergence in skull shape, Neanderthal brain size would have been larger than average modern humans.
The large front teeth of this early hominid show scratch marks that indicate their teeth functioned as “a third hand” while preparing food and tools. The hardened tarter on the teeth shows that the idea of Neanderthals as strictly carnivorous is false. Their diet also included plants, fungi, and aquatic life.
Neanderthals in Popular Culture
Evidence of Homo neanderthalensis can be found in cave sites throughout the Eurasian range. These “primitive” dwelling sites of Neanderthals, the short, stocky stature of their skeletal remains, and the fact that this hominid species is extinct, gave rise to the oafish, subhuman caveman depiction of this early hominid. From short stories like H.G. Wells’ 1921 “The Grisly Folk” to modern movies like “Encino Man,” the characterization of Neanderthal is of the animalistic troglodyte. Their name, despite meaning “from the Neander Valley”, is culturally associated with stupid, rude, or offensive people.
However, recent discoveries are showing Homo neanderthalensis taking greater strides — than had been previously assumed — with their cultural practices, as well as their lasting footprints upon modern people.
Despite the recent understanding of our prehistoric relatives having more complex culture than once showed up in the archeological record, the crude stereotype is still proliferated. But, the question remains, while some depictions of ancient hominids are clearly inspired by Neanderthals, are all “primitive” cave people in animated popular culture representative of Homo neanderthalensis? One blogger analyzes the physical characteristics of big and small screen prehistoric characters.
New Views on Neanderthals
Neanderthals, while once seen as primitive cavemen, are now thought to have more “evolved” behavioral patterns. There has been evidence of Homo neanderthalensis intentionally burying their dead, ornamenting their bodies with feathers, bone jewelry, and pigments, and carving abstract art into cave walls. It is even thought that Neanderthals may have been musical, as inferred from a bone “flute” discovered in Slovenia. Scholars debate on whether this material culture, however, is evidence of intentional Neanderthal practices, created through inadvertent actions, or possibly even mimicking Homo sapiens.
In 2010, researchers completed their comparison of DNA samples taken from the skeletal remains of three Neanderthal females found at Vindija Cave in Croatia. They found that modern humans from Asia and Europe have inherited about 2% of their DNA from Neanderthals. No traces of Homo neanderthalensis DNA, however, was found in present-day humans hailing from Africa. This means that Neanderthal DNA is 99.7 percent identical to much of present-day human DNA. Modern day human DNA and Neanderthal DNA are also 98.8 percent identical to chimpanzee. This reinforces the notion that there may have been an admixture of genetic material between Homo neanderthalensis and ancient Homo sapiens during the twenty to thirty thousand years they inhabited the Eurasian continent together.
Neanderthals in World Heritage
Three places Neanderthals occupied are now preserved as World Heritage sites.
- Caves and Ice Age Art in the Swabian Jura (Germany)
- Sites of Human Evolution at Mount Carmel: The Nahal Me’arot / Wadi el-Mughara Caves (Israel)
- Gorham’s Cave Complex (Gilbrator, United Kingdom)
Our knowledge of our ancient hominid ancestors and their steps taken outward from Africa continues to expand. The information discovered at each site helps to tell the story about who we are, and from where we come, as a species. The preservation and interpretation of paleoarcheological sites becomes increasingly important when considering the necessity of widening our understanding about the cultural heritage of humankind.