smithsonian Institution

Neanderthals are often portrayed in pop culture as a far less intelligent species of human, to put it mildly. Our notions and portrayals of Neanderthals are often filled with ancient humans who acted almost as non-verbal, brutish, cartoon characters. Geologist, William King who first introduced this species of human in 1865 didn’t think too highly of them in regards to their intelligence either.

Since then, researchers have changed their tune in regards to the brain power of the Neanderthal. Discoveries in recent years are showing that our distant cousins may have been more like us that we thought. Although our ideas of Neanderthals haven’t changed much, we may be misspeaking when we call someone who’s acting brutish or unintelligent by the term. Here’s a little history on this fascinating species and new discoveries about their capabilities and accomplishments.

The History Of The Neanderthal

Geologist William King first introduced the species of human in 1864. The species was actually first discovered in the Neander Valley in Germany almost ten years before. This led way to their name, Homo neanderthalensis. Early thoughts from anthropologists were that one’s intelligence could be measured by the shape and size of a skull. This was a racist ideology of the time that evolution was more about progress. Neanderthals were thought to be much more primitive than the humans alive at the same time and especially modern humans today.

The earliest fossils of Neanderthals were actually discovered 430,000-450,000 years ago in Europe. Some eventually migrated into Southwest and Central Asia. In addition to fossils, tools were also discovered that were made out of stone. Physically, Neanderthals resembled humans but they were much stockier. They had short legs with big bodies to keep them warm outdoors in the cold. Men averaged around 65 inches or 5.4 feet in height while females were around 60 inches or five feet tall.

Ancestry suggests mating between humans alive during this time and Neanderthals. Anthropologists discovered that Eastern Neanderthals had shared anatomic ancestry with humans who migrated from Africa around 100,000 years ago. There are still a number of people today who actually have one to two percent Neanderthal DNA. Because of recent scientific discoveries, it’s now known that Neanderthals were actually a lot more like us than we previously thought.

Neanderthals, They’re Just Like Us

Although it was once widely believed by the science community and pop culture that Neanderthals were far less intelligent than modern humans, recent findings have since proved otherwise. Similar to the humans who inhabited the world at the same time the Neanderthals did, they used tools and ornaments made of stones. The stones were worked into tools along with bones. Using tar from the bark of birch trees, they also invented glue. The glue was able to attach wood handles to the stones to be used similarly to a hammer. Using Eagle talons, many were able to adorn themselves with necklaces. Food was able to be prepared using fire and contrary to popular belief, they were able to spark a fire with their tools.

Archaeologist, Shannon McPherron at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany has done intensive research on the differences in tools made by Neanderthals and humans during the same time in an effort to show their abilities. Early research was thought to show that Neanderthals didn’t make tools out of bone and stone differently despite their different properties. With new tools being found, scientists have actually seen that the tools were used for different purposes and were shaped for different users based on their materials. Some of these tool shapes are still even used today. This shows a complex understanding of tool creation, uses, and materials that Neanderthals weren’t thought to possess previously.

With the discovery of tombs in southwestern France, it’s believed that Neanderthals also had some form of ritual or spiritual practices. Within the tombs, it was found that Neanderthals buried their dead. Also in France, caves were discovered which held stone circles made of stalagmites nearly 176,000 years ago.

There is still some debate over the symbolic abilities of the Neanderthals. The humans who were alive at the same time were creating cave art using figures and abstract symbols while there are very few works of art found to be created by Neanderthals. The artwork that has been discovered dates back almost 65,000 years ago and was found by researchers in caves in Spain. Scientists can assume that the works were created by Neanderthals since the first modern humans weren’t believed to have made it to Western Europe until 42,000 years ago.

In terms of language and communication, Neanderthals were able to make complex sounds at the very least. By studying their bones, it was discovered that they were capable of communicating in some ways through sounds. Without any writings, it’s hard to determine if a formal language was used. Interestingly, humans during this same time also didn’t leave writings or signs of language for this same time period.


Some important takeaways from the recent studies of Neanderthals are that they may not have been that far behind from the first humans alive during the same time period. We now know that Neanderthals were capable of creating fire, cooked food, communicated using complex sounds, and were able to create tools suing stones, bones, and a glue of their own invention. We’ve also learned that humans mated with Neanderthals and some of us still even share the same DNA. Although it will be hard to debunk the stereotypes we have of our ancient cousins, these recent findings prove that there was a lot more to them than we may have originally believed.