10 Surprising Facts About Neanderthals

profile of neanderthal statue holding staff near face in sunlight

Erich Ferdinand / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Neanderthals are often pictured as stooped, brutish, hairy, and dumb. However, this image is based largely on the preconceived notions of ourselves and paleontologists from long ago. Thanks to more advanced science and open minds, new discoveries are constantly changing those old falsehoods.

It turns out, Neanderthals were comparable to modern humans in many ways. For instance, they created art and formed strong social bonds that manifested in compassionate actions. Here are 10 Neanderthal facts that may surprise you.

1. Neanderthals Thoughtfully Buried Their Dead

By studying gravesites in Western Europe, researchers concluded that Neanderthals sometimes buried their dead. They may have also left flowers and other grave markers with the deceased. This hypothesis comes from pollen findings in northern Iraq's Shanidar graves. It may sound inconsequential to us, as placing flowers on gravesites is common for modern humans, but for the Neanderthals, collecting them meant going out in the cold of the Ice Age and traversing the dangerous mountainside.

The symbolic gesture of leaving flowers with the dead (and the great lengths they went to to do it) is in line with other behavior that reflects symbolic thinking by Neanderthals, including decorating themselves with pigment, jewelry, feathers, and shells. No other primate and no other earlier human species practiced burying their dead.

2. They Were Artists

According to research published in 2018, Neanderthals made the earliest-known cave art. The study focused on art in three Spanish caves that contained red and black renderings of animals, dots, and geometric signs, plus hand stencils, handprints, and engravings.

Researchers found that the paintings were created at least 64,000 years ago — 20,000 years before Homo sapiens arrived in Europe. Neanderthals were the continent's only human species at the time, so they must have been the creators.

One result of this discovery is the indication that Neanderthals had an artistic sensibility much like that of early H. sapiens. "The art is not a one-off accident," says co-author Paul Pettit. "We have examples in three caves 700 kilometers apart, and evidence that it was a long-lived tradition."

3. They Could Control Fire

There was a time when H. sapiens weren't the only species to regularly start and use fires. Neanderthals were skilled at this as well, as a 2011 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed.

Through the University of Colorado Boulder, researchers looked at 141 fireplace sites in Europe and found evidence that Neanderthals had sustained use of fire at each, including burned bones, heated stone artifacts, and charcoal. They concluded that this behavior started as early as 400,000 years ago.

Neanderthals used fire to cook food, but they also used it to construct tools. They used pitch, a natural adhesive substance, to attach wooden shafts to pieces of stone. Since the only way to create this sticky liquid is through burning the bark of birch trees, the Neanderthals must have had the ability to control fire.

4. They Were Skilled Hunters

Neanderthals proved to be exceptional hunters with both a knowledge of the skills needed to capture game and cognitive abilities to coordinate attacks.

Dutch researcher Gerrit Dusseldorp noted that even the most difficult-to-catch game (e.g., large, powerful animals and herding animals) were all hunted by the Neanderthals. They were not lacking in strength — apparently, the number and distribution of fractures found on bones are reminiscent of those of professional rodeo performers, who also engage with large, dangerous animals. Additionally, Neanderthals likely had impressive hand dexterity, which would mean the ability to yield hunting tools.

They were also calculated in their hunting strategies. In 2011, research showed Neanderthals were aware of reindeer migration patterns, timing their stays in certain hunting locations based on the movement of their prey.

5. Neanderthals Shared Genetic Traits With Woolly Mammoths

artwork of woolly mammoths walking across snow with long tusks and icy fur

Science Photo Library, Leonello Calvetti / Getty Images

One of the large animals that Neanderthals hunted was the woolly mammoth, a now-extinct relative of modern elephants that was covered in fur and weighed up to 12,000 pounds. A 2019 study found that there are molecular signs of adaptation to cold environments that were shared by Neanderthals and the woolly mammoth.

This is plausible, as both species evolved from African ancestors before adapting to the cold climates of Ice-Age Eurasia, and both became extinct around the same time. The two species faced similar conditions and underwent similar adaptations as a result. This makes them a good example of convergent evolution.

6. Humans Bred With Neanderthals Quickly

It is well-known that modern humans mated with Neanderthals, but research published in 2016 shows that the interbreeding took place earlier than previously thought. The two groups likely encountered each other about 100,000 years ago in the Middle East or Arabian Peninsula when the first groups of modern humans traveled from Africa.

One way we know this is by analysis of the DNA of a Neanderthal woman found in the Altai Mountains of Siberia. Her genome included DNA from modern humans. She lived over 50,000 years ago, indicating a timeframe for some of the modern human/Neanderthal interbreeding that occurred.

While details of these encounters can tell us about when Neanderthal DNA entered the human story, they can also tell us about the end of the Neanderthal story. More recent research suggests that this interbreeding brought about Neanderthals' demise — that they may have mated themselves to extinction by diluting their DNA.

7. They Had Loud, High-Pitched Voices

No, Neanderthals did not grunt. And while they might not have had sophisticated vocabularies, they were capable of complex speech thanks to the presence and position of the hyoid bone, which is located in the neck and supports the root of the tongue. This is the same bone that enables modern humans to vocalize as we do.

But while they could speak like us, they didn't sound like us. The shape of their throats, along with their large chests and posture, likely resulted in a voice that was higher pitched and louder than the average modern human's. In this video, experts explain and demonstrate Neanderthals' vocalizations.

8. They May Have Disappeared Due to Climate Change

The cause of the Neanderthals' extinction is unknown, but two studies present interesting hypotheses.

In one 2017 study, researchers suggest that the extinction was a matter of population dynamics and timing. Neanderthals shared space with H. sapiens for a while, but eventually, the competitive exclusion principle — the ecological rule that two species cannot occupy the same niche at one time — began to factor in. Thus, H. sapiens naturally replaced the Neanderthals.

But in another study published in 2018, researchers report evidence that could link the extinction of Neanderthals with climate change. The authors of the study examined caves to create detailed records of ancient climate change in continental Europe. This revealed a series of prolonged, extremely cold, and extremely dry conditions that coincided with periods during which Neanderthal tools were absent. While this does not prove causation, it is compelling and opens the door to new theories.