Who or What are Neanderthals?

Ever since the discovery of the first Neanderthal fossil in 1856, scientists and theologians have been puzzled about the nature and place of these humans on the family tree. Where did they come from? Were they actual humans? When and why did they go extinct? These questions have relevance not only because of the particular features of the fossil findings, but also because the interpretations given by some scientists point to real conflicts with the biblical time frame and the development of human cultures, societies and self-consciousness. Neanderthal remains have been highly controversial, and scientists are now arguing whether they are a separate human species, a subspecies, or just plain humans. We will look at the scientific data available so far and discuss models for the origin of Neanderthals within the biblical framework. Dates indicated here follow the long-age evolutionary chronology in order to understand the controversies, but they deserve further investigation on how to fit them into a short-age biblical chronology.


The first remains that are attributable to this group of ancient humans were found in the cave of Feldoher, in the Neander Valley, near Dusseldorf, Germany in the middle in the 19th century. Since then remains of more than 400 Neanderthal individuals have been found in caves and other settings in much of western, central and eastern Europe (Belgium, Croatia, Germany, Gibraltar, France, Italy, Portugal, Spain), central Asia, and the Middle East.[1] Other specimens had been found earlier in 19th century but had not been recognized as Neanderthals until much later. Remains range from almost complete skeletons to fragments of a single bone and the age of individuals ranges from babies to relatively old adults. Animal and plant remains have been found associated with some Neanderthal skeletons, including mammoths, deer, woolly rhinoceros, bison, horses, hippopotamuses, cave bears, lions, hyenas, seals and dolphins.[2]


In the earliest studies, the German pathologist Rudolf Virchow claimed that Neanderthal bones showed evidence of rickets (a bone-deforming disease), which accounted for some of their distinctive anatomical traits.[3] According to Ivanhoe many of the Neanderthal specimens studied (especially child skulls) show signs compatible with severe rickets[4] suggesting Vitamin D deficiency. Other researchers have pointed to evidence of deformities by diseases such as syphilis and arthritis.[5] However, this evidence is not convincing, and even though some Neanderthal skeletons may show evidence for rickets and arthritis, they also have many distinctive features that cannot be attributed to diseases. Trinkaus and Shipman indicate that Virchow’s diagnosis was inaccurate, because people with rickets are undernourished and calcium-poor, causing their bones to be weak and bend due to the weight of the body, whereas the bones of Neanderthals were much thicker than those of modern humans, suggesting that the individuals were not weak but athletic and muscular.[6] In addition Neanderthals were geographically widely distributed including areas of medium-to-high solar radiation even during the Ice Ages (Gibraltar, Israel, etc.),[7] and artifacts suggests that they must have spent a lot of time outdoors hunting and gathering food. It is unlikely that a particular disease affected all Neanderthal skeletons from different regions. At present most scientists do not support the idea that the important anatomical features that make Neanderthals slightly different from modern humans are the result of diseases.

Neanderthals are usually classified as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, a subspecies of humans, owing to distinctive differences such as heavy brow ridges, a long low skull, a robust skeleton, and others. Some scientists believe that the differences are significant enough to justify the classification of Neanderthals as a separate species, Homo neanderthalensis. In this section we will review some of the Neanderthal traits that are relevant in this discussion.


The old depiction of Neanderthals with partially bent knees, round shoulders, and slightly simian posture was due to an incorrect anatomical reconstruction of the skeletons. Today researchers believe that Neanderthals’ foot, leg and vertebral column were almost identical to modern humans, except for their robustness, and therefore had a completely modern posture and locomotion.

The height of Neanderthals was between 1.55 and 1.78 m, with an average of 1.65 m. They were slightly shorter than early modern Europeans, early modern Western Asians and most living humans worldwide. Body-mass estimates, however, are greater than those for other ancient and modern humans.[8] This combination of short stature and high body-mass suggests that Neanderthals were very stocky and robust. How was this manifested in their bodies? In general, Neanderthals have smaller brachial and crural indices[9] than modern humans in general. This means that the tibia and fibula are unusually short compared to the femur, and that the radius and ulna are short compared to the humerus. According to the general principle known as Allen’s Rule,[10] these ratios correspond to warm-blooded animals or people that live in high latitudes and cold environments. Thus most researchers relate this feature in Neanderthal with adaptation to living in cold environments.

Other features also suggest that Neanderthals were robustly built and lived in relatively cold environments. Compared to other ancient and modern people, Neanderthals had a stockier, more robust body architecture with stronger and more developed muscles, as shown by the large muscle insertions scars on the scapula, humerus, and leg, foot, and finger bones.[11] Their ribs were less curved (forming a deeper, barrel-shaped chest), more robust, and bore more extensive and pronounced muscle scars, which suggests that Neanderthals were capable of ventilating large amounts of air and working rapidly.[12] Their pelvises were exceptionally broad as well. The skeletons show greater strength of their bones (joints of the elbow, large hip and knee, and thicker walls of leg bones) than modern humans. In general, their limbs and legs were strongly built, presumably to withstand hard labor. According to Leonard and colleagues, all these features point to a cold-adapted body that is comparable to those of people living in modern cold environments.[13]

Neanderthal fossils suggest that they must have endured a lot of physical stress. Most, if not all, of the known adult skeletons have some bone fracture, especially in the arms and skull. It’s common to see multiple healed fractures, which has been related to the practice of hunting large prey.[14] In the case of the St. Césaire Neanderthal skeleton, forensic analysis of the healed fracture in its skull attributes the feature to the impact of a sharp weapon during an act of interpersonal violence.[15] Also, there is abundant evidence that indicates they suffered from pneumonia, malnourishment, and other diseases.


Genetic studies support the idea that Neanderthal populations were fragmented and subdivided into three groups, one in Western Europe, another in Southern Europe and a third subgroup in Western Asia.[16] However, regardless the original provenance of the fossils, Neanderthals bore similar anatomical traits, and no significant variations occurred through time between the various populations; hence glacial climate might not have anything to do with anatomical morphology, the glacial climate was similar throughout their range or there was enough interbreeding to prevent local differences.


Another common assumption deriving from an evolutionist viewpoint is that Neanderthals had not developed the capacity to speak an articulated language. This is still highly debated with the current opinion favoring the primitive speechless opinion.

The ability to speak an articulated language mainly depends on two factors: the development of the Broca and Wernicke areas in the brain, and the development and placement of the hyoid bone (lingual bone) in the anterior midline of the neck. It is not possible to examine the brains of Neanderthals, but the morphology of the endocranial surfaces of several specimens indicates that Neanderthals had similar cerebral asymmetries to modern humans. According to Baruch Arensburg, professor of anatomy at Tel-Aviv University, and Anne-Marie Tillier, from the University of Bordeaux, “there is no anatomical criterion that allow us to think that in the Neanderthal the Broca and Wernicke areas were smaller or more ‘primitive’ than in modern humans. Based on the endocranial cavities, the Neanderthal’s capacity for language cannot be ruled out.”[17] These authors have also examined the morphology and the position of the Neanderthal hyoid bone found in the Kebara Cave, Israel in 1982,[18] concluding that, “the Middle Paleolithic man capacity for articulated language was very similar to the modern human.”[19] The brain capacity for language, and the development of artistic and cultural practices lead us to believe that Neanderthals had developed a language for communication.

Recent discoveries have shown artistic behaviors in Neanderthals including decoration of their bodies with jewelry and probably pigment.[20] Moreover, these are clear indicators that they made use of language and verbal communication.

Raul Esperante

Geoscience Research Institute

[1] Cartmill, M. and Smith, F.H., 2009. Talking apes: the Neandertals, The human lineage. Wiley-Blackwell, New Jersey, pp. 337-412.

[2] Stringer, C.B., Finlayson, J.C., Barton, R.N.E., Fernández-Jalvo, Y., Cáceres, I., Sabin, R.C., Rhodes, E.J., Currant, A.P., Rodríguez-Vidal, J., Giles-Pacheco, F. and Riquelme-Cantal, J.A., 2008. Neanderthal exploitation of marine mammals in Gibraltar. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(38): 14319-14324.

[3] Virchow, R. 1972. Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 4, 157

[4] Ivanhoe, F., 1970. Was Virchow right about Neanderthal? Nature, 227: 577-579.

[5] Wright, D.J.M., 1971. Syphilis and Neanderthal man. Nature, 229: 409.

[6] Trinkaus, E. and Shipman, P., 1992. The Neanderthals: Changing the images of mankind. Alfred A. Knophf, New York.

[7] Solar radiation on human skin triggers endogenous production of vitamin D, which helps prevent diseases like rickets.

[8] Cartmill and Smith 2009, p. 373

[9] Brachial index = 100 x radius length/humerus length; crural index = 100 x tibia length/femur length.

[10] According to Allen’s Rule, warm-blooded animals living in cold places tend to have relatively short limbs in order to decrease the body’s surface-to-volume ratio, hence reducing heat loss.

[11] Trinkaus 1990, p. 1161.

[12] Cartmill and Smith 2009, p. 374

[13] Leonard, W.R., Sorensen, M.V., Galloway, V.A., Spencer, G.J., Mosher, M., Osipova, L. and Spitsyn, V.A., 2002. Climatic influences on basal metabolic rates among circumpolar populations. American journal of human biology, 14(5): 609-620.

[14] Trinkaus, E., 1978. Hard times among the Neanderthals. Natural History, 87(10): 140-145.

[15] Zollikofer, C.P.E., Ponce de León, M.S., Vandermeersch, B. and Lévêque, F., 2002. Evidence for interpersonal violence in the St. Césaire Neanderthal. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 99(9): 6444-6448.

[16] Fabre, V., Condemi, S. and Degioanni, A., 2009. Genetic Evidence of Geographical Groups among Neanderthals. PLoS ONE, 4(4): e5151. The analysis of Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA indicates that the Neanderthals could be divided into three subgroups: one in western Europe, another in southern Europe and a third subgroup in western Asia.

[17] Arensburg, B. and Tillier, A.-M., 1984. El lenguaje del Neandertal. Mundo Científico, 10(107): 1144-1146.

[18] The Kebara Cave Neanderthal specimens is one of the most complete skeletons found to date, with a large part of the vertebral column, ribs, and pelvis. The cranium and most of the lower limbs were missing, but the hyoid bone was preserved, and this was the first Neanderthal hyoid bone ever found.

[19] Arensburg and Tillier, 1984, p. 1146.

[20] Zilhão, J., Angelucci, D.E., Badal-García, E., d’Errico, F., Daniel, F., Dayet, L., Douka, K., Higham, T.F.G., Martínez-Sánchez, M.J., Montes-Bernárdez, R., Murcia-Mascarós, S., Pérez-Sirvent, C., Roldán-García, C., Vanhaeren, M., Villaverde, V., Wood, R. and Zapata, J., 2010. Symbolic use of marine shells and mineral pigments by Iberian Neandertals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(3): 1023-1028.