Caveman in the Mirror: The Case for Our Closest Cousins.

If someone were to call you a “caveman” or a “Neanderthal,” you probably wouldn’t exactly take it as a compliment. Maybe you wouldn’t exactly be offended…but I think it’s safe to assume that Neanderthal isn’t really a term of endearment.

Screen Shot 2018-08-19 at 5.05.49 PM

Merriam Webster’s definitions. #2 isn’t so polite.


That’s not an accident. Neanderthals are the original “missing link.” That hypothesized link in the chain that connects us to our ever-more-apelike ancestors. Neanderthals have long been assumed to be “less than” human. In anthropological circles, even in lower level anthropology courses, that assumption has been under debate.

That assumption, it turns out, is an accident.

But lets start at the beginning.

In 1856, the top of a skull was found in Kleine Feldhoffer Grotte, which is a cave in the Neander Valley of Germany. You recognize Neander, right? I’ll give you one guess what the word for “valley” is in German.

You were close. It’s not “Thal,” but it is “Tal.” In German, the Neanderthals are called “die Neandertaler.”

“The people from the Neander Valley.”

Now. This skull cap was interesting. It was pretty big. Human big. Not great ape big. But it didn’t seem to be human.

Keep in mind that this is 19th century Europe, and Europeans had spent the last few hundred years sailing around the world and murdering people that didn’t look like them. They felt they had a decent grasp on the range of variation in humans. And this skull didn’t fit.


The original Neander 1 specimen in Bonn, Germany. Photo by Hans Weingartz


It has no real forehead to speak of. We have pretty high foreheads. It has this intense, thick brow ridge. And the back of the skull comes out in this weird…bun.

It was found with some other bones. The study of them sparked considerable scientific debate (his was 3 years before Darwin published On the Origin of Species) and it became the beginning of Paleoanthropology as a discipline.

However, it was another find, The Old Man of La Chapelle, that wound up painting the image of Neanderthal that became the popular understanding of them being stooped-over idiots–somewhere en route to full humanity, but not quite there.


This is about as accurate as the image this is parodying.


See? Right there. Neanderslob. Just before humans, just after something even less-so. This perception is based on the reconstruction of the Old Man of La Chapelle by scientist Pierre Marcellin Boule. Partly based on the assumption that Neanderthal was a crude brute and partly based on osteoarthritis that had crippled the individual, Boule’s reconstruction showed Neanderthal as not quite upright. Not quite human.


Why so much hair?

And this is where the impression came from. Boule, an accomplished, capable, and respected scientist by all measures, was influenced by societal expectations of human evolution, notions of “the Great Chain of Being,” and evidence of disease that was somewhat overlooked because of his preconceived notions.

But…how wrong was he?

Well, the first thing we know about Neanderthal is that they were incredibly successful. As in, they lived in incredibly inhospitable climates and persisted for almost twice as long as we have. They lived during the brunt of the last ice age, more accurately called the Pleistocene.

It turns out they, like us, likely weren’t super hairy. They were stockier, shorter. Physically denser individuals and intensely muscled.

They were so strong (which we know from the points at which muscles attached to their bones) that one scientist (I can’t remember his name but I will figure out which book it was and update this someday) said that an adult male Neanderthal could “throw a gridiron linebacker over the goal post.”

Maybe that’s a bit of a stretch. Probably it is. But they were so intensely strong that it prompted (if I remember correctly) a European scientist to care about American football for a second.

So far I’ve made the case for their strength. Which we already knew from Boule’s reconstruction, flawed though it was. But what about their supposed intelligence, what about their humanity?

Well, Neanderthals were tool makers. Their tool kits appear to have been a bit less complex than “ours,” ours meaning anatomically modern humans. They had stone tools, bone tools, it’s possible that they had sewing implements, and while that remains somewhat controversial, they did have clothing and jewelry.

They used pigments and created art. In fact, the oldest cave art yet found is from 20,000 years before anatomically modern humans made it to Europe. “We” weren’t there. But “they” were. Meaning they created the oldest art in the world. The stupid brutes.

They had the use of fire, whether it be scavenged or created. They hunted. Now, this bit is interesting. They weren’t thought to have had projectile spears. Anatomically modern humans had lightweight spears that could be thrown, either by hand or by use of an atlatl to kill or at least maim larger prey from a distance.

Neanderthals didn’t have that. It isn’t super common that wooden implements survive for tens of thousands of years, but some longer (2 meters or so) heavier wooden spears have been found that are most likely associated with Neanderthal. These spears were used for thrusting, rather than as projectile weapons.

This brings up a lot of things.

First, when you think, “Ice Age,” what animal comes to mind?

Probably this guy:

By Flying Puffin (MammutUploaded by FunkMonk) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Woolly mammoths were big guys.

These weren’t small animals. At at least 10 feet tall at the shoulder, males would have been formidable for hunters with projectile spears. And they would have been intimidating as anything. I’ve seen a wild elephant in person, not 30 feet away from me. You don’t want to need to poop when one of these pops up out of nowhere.

So keeping in mind that there’s nothing in the world that could make me glue a sharp rock to a stick and go fight a wild elephant, there was still plenty that Neanderthals could go hunt. Also keep in mind that anecdote about Neanderthals being able to throw someone through a goal post. They were a lot stronger than I am.

So lets say they were hunting a deer with one of their spears. You’re not easily going to do it alone. You’re not easily going to do it at all. You’re going to have to coordinate it with your friends. And you’re all going to have to be completely alert, observant, capable, and ready.

And the injuries seen on Neanderthals suggest that they were indeed hunting in close quarters.

Just taking a look at the Neanderthal called Shanidar-1, there’s a whole suite of injuries. At some point during his life, he received an intense impact injury to the left side of his face. It completely crushed the left orbital bone and would likely have left him blind in that eye. His right arm was withered, having been previously fractured multiple times and then healed. However, it led to the loss of use of his right hand and likely partial paralysis of his right side, which led to deformities of his lower legs and right foot. He likely walked with a painful limp.

I’ve read of Neanderthal injuries being related to those seen in rodeo riders. And it makes sense. If you’re going to rush a large deer and hope to jam a pointy stick into its lung, it’s not always going to go so well. Rodeo riders are often thrown from the animal they’re on, with injuries resulting from the fall, or from subsequently being trampled or gored.

Furthering that rodeo analogy…rodeos aren’t solo things. There’s one main person riding the bull or horse or whatever. But you also have the people who protect the individual thrown from the animal. Which requires communication. You need to understand what’s going on and be able to tell one another where to go and when.

Moving to another individual found in the Shanidar Cave, Shanidar-2, seems to show evidence of a ritual  burial. There were stones and stone points piled on top of the burial, and there was a large fire nearby.

Most recently, evolutionary geneticist Svante Pääbo led a team of researchers in isolating and sequencing ancient DNA recovered from several Neanderthal individuals. Previously thought impossible, it’s shed a lot of light into the question of where Neanderthal falls in relation to Anatomically Modern Humans. The Neanderthal Genome Project has become comprehensive enough to be able to compare the DNA of you and I (individually…in a literal sense) to that of Neanderthals, and give an estimate of how much of your genome is the result of your distant ancestors interbreeding with them.

If species are too distantly related, they cannot mate and produce fertile offspring. The fact that Neanderthals and Anatomically Modern Humans were able to reproduce says that we were not very distantly related at all. From having my own genome sequenced, I know that 3% of my DNA was obtained from Neanderthal.

In fact, all people with European ancestry tend to have between 1-3% Neanderthal DNA floating around in them. That’s not the case with African populations who have never had ancestors leave the continent. Which is consistent with the hypothesized multiple migration patterns out of Africa in the deep past–the group that left Africa and gave rise to the Neanderthal through future genetic changes was earlier, with subsequent human populations in Africa not having those mutations.

Paleoanthropologist Milford Wolpoff used to say that he sees a Neanderthal in the mirror every morning when he wakes up. It’s also been said that if you dressed up a Neanderthal in modern clothing, you wouldn’t be able to pick him out of a crowd on a New York subway.


Wolpoff with his reconstruction of a Neanderthal bust.


Now maybe that says more about New Yorkers than about the Neanderthals, but I think there’s something to that.

Think about it.

These were people who had complex communication, art, complex tools, clothing, and used fire. They hunted and buried their friends. They persisted for hundreds of thousands of years longer than “we” have, in some of the harshest climates ever seen on the planet.

They cared for their sick, with individuals who were clearly unable to provide for themselves or for others living into advanced old age (for a Neanderthal…so we’re talking like 50). The Old Man of La Chapelle had no teeth! His gums had bone growth over them and it’s conceivable his food would have had to have been ground up for him before he could eat it. These aren’t individuals who could have survived on their own, and there were no nursing homes to dump them in back then.

These were people. And there’s a good chance they still live in you. They still live in me.

Remember the Geico commercials–It’s so easy even a Caveman could do it?

And the caveman is just going about his life seeing all these discriminatory ads?


I think this may have been my favorite ad campaign ever.


I don’t know if someone was reading Wolpoff or what when they came up with this. But I love it. They may not have known it…but they got it right about Neanderthal.

There’s a lot that’s misunderstood about the study of biological human origins. The idea that we are a necessary pinnacle is one of them I’d like to help dismiss. We are the result of a braided chain of branching populations that cross paths again in the future.

Evolution is not a linear process. It becomes difficult after a while to separate out which species “directly led to us,” and perhaps that’s simply because no one species did.

Neither of your parents is more responsible for your existence. None of your grandparents more responsible than any other. Same goes for your grandparents.

It’s the result of diverse people from different ancestral populations coming together. Resulting, eventually, in you.

It’s the same story with human evolution, only writ large. Lines between species and evolutionary history are much more blurred than we’d like, and don’t often fit into our need to distinctly demarcate and categorize everything.

It’s an incredibly humbling experience to deeply study the evolution of our lineage. And one I hope to help more people understand and just maaaaybe become a bit fascinated with.

5 thoughts on “Caveman in the Mirror: The Case for Our Closest Cousins.

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