Roughly 123,000 years ago, oak, elm, and hazel forests grew across Europe. Macaques swung from branches and aurochs and horses grazed on grasslands. Hippopotamuses swam in deep lakebeds in what is now Yorkshire, England. Small bands of Neanderthals, who had already existed for more than 200,000 years, frequented lakes and springs and hunted in the forests.
The continent was remarkably warm — even warmer than it is today — and the period marked a point of Neanderthal culture that we don’t often associate with the species, according to Rebecca Wragg Sykes in her compelling new book, “Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art.”
Long portrayed as a cave-dwelling Ice Age species, Neanderthals persisted for about another 80,000 years, living through many frigid glacial periods in an epoch of vast and sudden climate change before eventually giving way to modern humans.
Neanderthals first appeared in Europe some 400,000 years ago, long before the arrival of Homo sapiens, though archaeologists now know the species overlapped for about 10,000 years and even interbred. (Their lineages are thought to have split from a common ancestor at least 500,000 years ago.) A little shorter, broader, and more muscled than modern humans, Neanderthals likely outnumbered Homo sapiens in Europe — at least at first.
“Neanderthals were never some sort of highway service station en route to Real People," writes Wragg Sykes, a Paleolithic archaeologist. “They were state-of-the-art humans, just of a different sort.”
Eventually, Neanderthals died out, and we still aren’t quite sure why. What we do know is that they were much more advanced than we first thought them to be. They chipped away at stone to make tools, hunted mammoths and rabbits, and worked hides into soft material. Evidence gathered over recent decades shows that Neanderthals were an adaptable, complex, and varied species, and their genes exist in many of us today.
"Their fate," Wragg Sykes writes, "was a tapestry woven from the lives of individual hybrid babies, entire assimilated groups, and in remoter corners of Eurasia, lonely dwindling lineages — endlings — who left nothing behind but DNA sifting slowly into the dirt of a cave floor.”
She details many of the caves, shelters, and lakebeds that offer evidence of Neanderthals that dispels many widely held misconceptions. Thanks to advances in technologies like dating and optical scanning, these places, and the bones and tools found there, now offer us a better understanding of how they lived, moved, and behaved.
The first Neanderthal bones were discovered in 1856 in a cave in the valley now known as Neandertal (spelled Neanderthal prior to 1901) in northern Germany. The owner of the limestone quarry where they were found, a member of the local natural history association, noticed that the bones might hold some interest, so he collected a few, including a skull fragment. A few years later, after scientists discovered more bones at other sites in Europe, the controversial claim was made that ancient pre-humans once existed. They received the scientific name Homo neanderthalensis.
Anthropologists initially surmised that Neanderthals were scavengers until they analyzed whole assemblages of bones left over from animals killed, skinned, and dismembered. Further analysis showed that the stone tools they made to hunt, process animal skins, and create bags and more tools were made in “more systematic, complicated and nuanced ways than was ever suspected,” Wragg Sykes writes. They shaped everything from flint to volcanic rock, creating sharp flakes to butcher and blunt stones to scrape.
Neanderthals were nomadic, hunting for large prey like bear and reindeer as well as seabirds and shellfish and plants. Some sites suggest that Neanderthals traveled and lived in bands of 10 to 20, using materials available where they went, including bone and shell, pine resin and beeswax to make their tools more durable.
“The enduring myth that Neanderthal technology was stuck in some kind of cognitive mire, bogged down by minds unable to innovate, is false,” according to Wragg Sykes.
She also raises questions about why so many human bodies, particularly babies, appear to be cannibalized at Neanderthal sites. “Might cannibalism simply imply that Neanderthals ruthlessly chomped down on weaker individuals?” Or might they have been antagonistic towards strangers? A better explanation, she posits based on chimpanzee and bonobo behavior and what remains at the sites, is that cannibalism was a way of mourning the dead.
“Suddenly it’s not difficult to envision how skills in carefully taking apart hunted carcasses might be transposed into a grieving process that involved butchery and cannibalism as acts of intimacy, not violation,” she writes.
Wragg Sykes uses the breadcrumbs of archeological discoveries (including the positioning of bones and what tools were found where) to persuasively hypothesize on this and various other theories about the life and times of Neanderthals, as well as their eventual demise.
While evidence from a growing number of sites from France to Uzbekistan show that Neanderthals ranged much farther than once believed, it's possible that the last Neanderthals existed “somewhere in the vastness of Central or East Asia,” she writes.
She also points out that, based on genome sequencing, Neanderthals mixed with Homo sapiens for a long period, showing just how alike the two species were. In fact, interbreeding with Neanderthals might have helped prevent Homo sapiens from going extinct when the species struggled some 70,000 years ago.
“Though Neanderthals remained physically distinct even in their last visible skeletal remains, the scale and repetition of interbreeding, plus the range of retained genes in us, means they were — and are — human,” Wragg Sykes writes.
Though only about 3 percent of any living person’s genome is now Neanderthal, it’s likely that those genes have helped us in some ways, possibly by coping with dark winters or famine, or by making us less susceptible to toxins in smoke, Wragg Sykes maintains. Advances in gene sequencing in the next decade or so will yield more clues, she writes.
To learn more about how Neanderthals lived, including what they ate, archaeologists have analyzed samples taken from the teeth of about 40 individuals. (The remains of up to 300 Neanderthals have been found in total, Wragg Sykes writes, with the majority comprising "the odd bone or jaw fragment with teeth valiantly holding on.") Still, there is much we don't know about Neanderthals, including how they vocalized or whether they performed rituals, not to mention how they had sex, swapped genes, adapted to climatic swings, or behaved when someone died.
The ultimate question is why Neanderthals disappeared from the fossil record around 40,000 years ago. Did Homo sapiens have better clothes, places to live, and hunting strategies, as some experts theorize, or did they flourish by traveling in larger groups with different social structures that helped them outcompete Neanderthals? Other theories suggest that inbreeding may have led to the Neanderthal’s demise.
Wragg Sykes suggests that “climate meltdown, plus a much more crowded continent, could have provided the stage for our persistence and the passing of the Neanderthals." She finished her book in the spring of 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, and she adds that “it’s impossible not to wonder if a terrible contagion might have been added into the mix.”
In the end, “a perfect storm of different stresses may have together been overwhelming,'' she concludes. "Crucially, populations and species can vanish through factors that have nothing to do with cleverness, but that simply come down to time and babies.”
Susan Cosier is a Chicago-based writer focused on science and the environment. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Science, The New York Times for Kids, The Guardian, and Audubon, among other publications.
Image: Replica of a fossilized neanderthal skull from Le Moustier, an archaeological site in France. Visual: Zdeněk Kratochvíl / Wikimedia Commons