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 found in one of the Shanidar graves in northern Iraq. 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 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) showed.

Through the University of Colorado, Boulder, researchers looked at 141 fireplace sites in Europe and noted evidence of sustained use of fire at each, including burned bones, heated stone artifacts, and charcoal. Their conclusion is that Neanderthals had sustained use of fire starting as far back 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 riders, who also engage with large, dangerous animals. Additionally, Neanderthals likely had impressive hand dexterity, which would mean the ability to yield hunting tools.

Neanderthals were also calculated in their hunting strategies. In 2011, research showed they 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. 2018 research suggests that this interbreeding brought about Neanderthals' demise — that they "may have mated themselves into oblivion" by diluting their DNA.

7. We Inherited Health Issues From Them

The genetic diversity that came from inbreeding with Neanderthals may have ensured that the humans who left Africa survived to modern times. However, it came at a price. According to research published in 2016, many modern-day genetic illnesses likely came from Neanderthal DNA.

Specifically, the inheritance pertains to a higher risk of blood clots and strokes, depression, skin lesions, a propensity for nicotine addiction, and malnutrition due to imbalanced thiamine (Vitamin B1). These traits are related to adaptations that would have been beneficial in prehistoric times when our bodies were regulated by circadian rhythms, fueled by a different diet, and in need of boosted immune systems. Unfortunately, in the modern world, those traits now lead to health concerns.

8. They Provided Health Care to One Another

Many scholars believe that Neanderthals formed strong social bonds and cared for one another in the form of health care.

A burial pit at La Chapelle-aux-Saints in France, first found in 1908, revealed the bones of an elderly man who had had debilitating arthritis and no teeth, showing that he was cared for into his later years, perhaps even to the extent of someone chewing his food for him. Another example is a Neanderthal male who had a degenerative disease of the spine and shoulders, a condition that would have eroded his strength and limited his ability to contribute to the group. Yet, evidence shows that he remained part of the group, which almost certainly would have required community support.

In a 2018 study published in World Archaeology, researchers pooled together evidence like this to argue that Neanderthal health care was "a compassionate and knowledgeable response to injury and illness."

9. 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.

10. 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.