Justice for Neanderthals! What the debate about our long-dead cousins reveals about us | Neanderthals

There’s a human type we’ve all met: people who find a beleaguered underdog to stick up for. Sometimes, the underdog is an individual – a runt of a boxer, say. Sometimes, it is a nation, threatened by a larger neighbour or by the rising sea. Sometimes, it is a tribe of Indigenous people whose land and health are imperilled. Sometimes, it is a language down to its last native speakers. The underdog needn’t be human: there are species of insect, even of fungi, that have their advocates. But what all these cases all have in common is that the objects of concern are still alive, if only just. The point of the advocacy is to prevent their extinction. But what if it’s too late? Can there be advocates for the extinct?

The past few years have seen an abundance of works of popular science about a variety of human beings who once inhabited Eurasia: “Neanderthals”. They died out, it appears, 40,000 years ago. That number – 40,000 – is as totemic to Neanderthal specialists as that better known figure, 65 million, is to dinosaur fanciers.

What distinguishes these new books isn’t just what they tell us about an extinct sub-species of humans, but the surprising passion they bring to their subject. Their authors are enraged that popular ideas about the Neanderthals lag so far behind the cutting edge of paleontological research – research that has brought the Neanderthals closer to us than they have been in 40,000 years.

A poster for the 1953 film The Neanderthal Man.
A poster for the 1953 film The Neanderthal Man. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

In speculative fiction by HG Wells, Philip K Dick, Isaac Asimov, Michael Crichton, William Golding, and even, improbably, William Shatner, the Neanderthals have tended to be either brutes or hippies, savages or shamans. A band formed in the 1990s called the Neanderthals was best known for singing crude songs in animal skins. A critic once used the phrase “Neanderthal TV” to refer to television for laddish yobs. The fact that we need no explanation for that reference indicates just how widespread the stereotype is.

Dimitra Papagianni and Michael A Morse, authors of a fascinating recent survey of Neanderthal science, The Neanderthals Rediscovered, write in the hope that they might “restore some dignity to those we replaced”. But what could they mean? Since there are no Neanderthals around any more, the fight for Neanderthal dignity risks seeming not merely quixotic but absurd. What does it take to be indignant on behalf of the dead – no longer here to care much, if they ever did, for their own dignity?

Some basic facts about the Neanderthals are now pretty well settled. Of the many species of hominin, they were the dominant ones from roughly 400,000 years ago until 40,000 years ago. (Hominin is the now orthodox scientific term for any member of the genus Homo: a group of species that includes all human-like creatures but excludes, for instance, gorillas.) Their brains were large, their physical strength considerable. Remains of their bodies have been found scattered widely across Europe, even as far south as Gibraltar. Why they aren’t still around remains a vexed question. There are plenty of plausible hypotheses – and conjectures galore about their psychology and behaviour – but nothing yet approaching a consensus.

Our conjectures about the Neanderthals began in 1856, when workers in a limestone quarry near Düsseldorf discovered a cave full of bones, some of abnormal bulk. A local naturalist, with uncanny intuition, thought the bones had to be from a primitive kind of human. He sent them in a chaperoned wooden box to an anatomist in Bonn, who inspected them and came to the same conclusion. In 1863, Prof William King, delivering a short paper to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, argued forcefully that the bones belonged to a creature for whom we didn’t yet have a name. He went on to propose one: Homo neanderthalensis.

Why that name? The valley where the bones were discovered had been a favourite spot for the wanderings of a 17th-century polymath and nature-lover whose family name had originally been Neumann, before his ancestors rechristened themselves, faux-classically, Neander. “Neander” was Greek for “new man”, “Thal” was German for valley. The Valley of the New Man: “Could there be any more fitting moniker for the place where we first discovered another kind of human?” asks Rebecca Wragg Sykes, the author of Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art.

Remains of a Neanderthal skeleton found in 1856 in the Neander valley.
Remains of a Neanderthal skeleton found in 1856 in the Neander valley. Photograph: Action Press/Rex Features

The discovery of those bones, and their naming in 1863, came at a time when Europe was coming to terms with the implications of the theories of Charles Darwin. On the Origin of Species had been published only four years earlier, and it was becoming harder to deny that the world was older – dramatically older – than we had supposed.

That name, Homo neanderthalensis, did two things at once. It proposed that we, proud members of Homo sapiens, had not always been the only members of our genus. But the kinship it acknowledged in one breath, it took away from the Neanderthal in the other. Even if they were human, Neanderthals were humans of a distinct type. They were like us; indeed, they were rather more like us than the chimpanzees that we were beginning to acknowledge as our kindred. But they were still other. Perhaps that was the beginning of the denial of the Neanderthals’ dignity against which their 21st-century champions so bridle.

The fossil record was already beginning to show us how different a place the world of the mid-19th century was from the one that the Neanderthals inhabited. There were animals then that are no longer with us: enormous grazing cattle named aurochs, straight-tusked elephants, woolly rhinoceros, and the great auk, a giant penguin-like bird that died out around the time of the discoveries in the Neander valley.

That world, barely a blink of an eye in geological time, was, as Wragg Sykes puts it with sincere excitement, “sparkling with hominins”: Homo antecessor, Homo bodoensis, Homo heidelbergensis, many of which inhabited the Earth during the very same periods. There are at least a half dozen now that are widely recognised, and more seem to be discovered all the time.

The Neanderthals have been joined, much more recently, for instance, by such species as Homo floresiensis, irritatingly referred to as “hobbits” after the discovery of a diminutive skeleton in Indonesia in 2003. In 2010, we got decisive proof of the Denisovans, another hominin, in Siberia. In the years since, the hominin ranks have swelled yet further to include Homo naledi (South Africa) and Homo luzonensis (the Philippines). No one doubts that further archaeological work, particularly in Africa, will yield yet more hominins. But the parade of archaic humans all began with the most popular of our fellow hominins: the Neanderthals.

The most recent defence of Neanderthal dignity to appear in English is The Naked Neanderthal by the French paleoanthropologist Ludovic Slimak. He reports encountering an anthropologist at Stanford who joked, while projecting a slide of a Neanderthal skull, that “if I got on a plane and saw that the pilot had a head like that, I’d get off again”. Blunter still was the Russian academic who kept insisting that the Neanderthals were, simply “different”. Different how? “Ludovic,” he said, “they have no soul.”

What exactly is that supposed to mean? Dragged out of the realm of idle metaphor, the Russian scientist must have been saying that there were psychological capacities that we, Homo sapiens, have – capacities distinctive of our humanity – that Homo neanderthalensis lacked. But what were they? That is a scientific question, to be answered by research, not simply a matter for philosophical speculation.

It is beyond doubt now that the knuckle-dragging stereotype of the Neanderthal was based on a crude mistake. Marcellin Boule, a French pioneer in the subject, has much to answer for: faced with a well-preserved specimen from a French cave in 1908, he chose to reconstruct, for no obvious scientific reason, its legs and spine as stooped. A widely circulated illustration of a reconstructed body depicting the Neanderthal as more ape-like than recognisably human set the tone for the popular misunderstanding of Neanderthals: inarticulate, slouching, slow; therefore other; therefore inferior.

Like other champions of the Neanderthals’ dignity, the evolutionary biologist Clive Finlayson, author of The Smart Neanderthal and The Humans Who Went Extinct, was exasperated by the cultural influence of Boule’s scientifically groundless reconstruction. Armed with better-preserved skulls and fewer assumptions about the inferiority of the Neanderthals, he was in a position to show why our anatomical differences from Neanderthals have been overstated. In 2016, he went so far as to commission a pair of forensic artists to reconstruct full Neanderthal bodies based on a pair of skulls that had been discovered in Gibraltar, a trove of Neanderthal remains.

Reconstructed Neanderthals Flint and Nana in the Gibraltar National Museum.
Reconstructed Neanderthals Flint and Nana in the Gibraltar National Museum. Photograph: S Finlayson/Visitgibraltar.gi

The reconstructed “Flint” and “Nana”, standing proudly erect, looked as he expected: uncannily (as we are tempted to say) human. “The exaggerated features of skull anatomy,” Finlayson writes, “really fade away once you put skin and flesh to the bone.” The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote that the best image of the human soul was the human body. Acknowledging the soul – the dignity – of the Neanderthal might well have to start with acknowledging how alike their bodies were to ours.

Does the difference, then, between the Neanderthal and sapiens consist in something to do with intelligence? But how exactly can we compare our intelligence with that of beings who aren’t available to sit an IQ test? The answer appears to lie in working out, from archaeological remains, what they were able to do.

What immediately catches the eye about the new Neanderthal research is that it has managed to gather so much from so little. Even in France, where Neanderthal research thrives, Slimak reminds us that “no archaeological operation has turned up a new Neanderthal body since the late 1970s”. But the scientists have learned to make do with the meagre traces the Neanderthals left behind. A bone and a flint here, a cave there, have proven enough to tell us vastly more than we knew when the first Neanderthal skeletons appeared in Germany.

A hypothesis from the 1960s offers a vivid example of the kind of evidence that can be adduced for Neanderthal intelligence. A team led by the Cambridge archaeologist Charles McBurney was excavating at a seaside cliff on the Channel Island of Jersey. An early 20th-century dig had already turned up remnants – in the form of surviving teeth – of Neanderthal occupation. But at the base of the cliff, they found an uncommonly large number of bones belonging to mammoth and rhinoceros. Why were they there?

McBurney’s field assistant, Katharine Scott, advanced an intriguing hypothesis. Could the bones be there because the mammoths had tumbled to their deaths from the high cliff that overlooked the graveyard? Scott pointed to evidence, from surviving hunter-gatherer societies, of “drive lanes” used to kill large numbers of bison. The Native American hunters who had been known to practise this kind of hunting used controlled grass fires to sends the animals towards the cliff, and carefully positioned hunters to keep the animals moving. Had the Neanderthals used similar hunting techniques?

Papagianni and Morse propose that Scott’s hypothesis, if correct, attributes to the Neanderthals some quite advanced cognitive capacities. To pull off such a hunt, they “would have had to choreograph and execute a complex series of moves, testifying to their ability to plan several steps ahead and communicate that plan”. This suggests a picture of Neanderthals as well organised, co-operative killers, with advanced communicative systems.

The old picture of Neanderthals proposed that they had, at best, a tenuous grasp of how fire worked – perhaps they were able to use fire when they discovered it, but were unable to produce it when needed. But this is quite improbable. It is difficult to sustain the idea that a relatively fur-less species could have survived in Europe during the glacial periods, when they appear to have thrived, without a mastery of fire.

And so the archaeological record indeed suggests. Excavation sites are full of pieces of flint that show evidence of fire-making. Charcoal remains at these sites indicate that they were keenest on using resin-rich pine wood as fuel, suggesting they had decided tastes based on a long history of experimentation. They may even have learned to use bones to prolong the life of a fire, keeping them warm while they slept.

The study of ancient Neanderthal fires is itself a triumph of modern science. The name of the method – a mouthful – is “fuliginochronology”, a technique by which one turns a sooty cave into an archive, a veritable guest book of Neanderthal inhabitation. A fire burning in a cave will leave a mark in the form of “nano-scale stripes”, which, as Wragg Sykes helpfully explains, are “essentially tiny stratigraphies written in soot … formed when the fires of Neanderthals in residence ‘smoked’ the roof and walls, leaving thin soot films”. As one band of Neanderthals left the cave and another arrived, and started a new fire, the pattern of soot would produce a sort of unique barcode. All these fires could hardly be the work of a species with a tenuous grasp of its workings.

The Neanderthals, in other words, walked erect, hunted big game and knew how to control fire: hardly the knuckle-draggers of stereotype.

Last year, the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine was given to the scientist whose work has put a number to just how human the Neanderthals were. Svante Pääbo, a Swedish geneticist, was a pioneer in the study of “paleogenetics”, which began with the discovery of how DNA might be extracted from a range of sources: old bones and teeth, naturally, but also from cave sediments. The techniques he and his colleagues refined have enabled us to know vastly more about the Neanderthals, their bodies, their habits and their habitats, than their 19th-century discoverers could ever have imagined possible.

Perhaps the most entertaining thing about Pääbo’s 2014 book, Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, is how much of it is dedicated to an account of the palaeogeneticist’s greatest enemy: contamination. Pääbo takes us through the punctilious quest for absolute cleanliness in the laboratory and for methods that will help distinguish real Neanderthal DNA from samples contaminated with, say, the investigator’s own.

Having cut his teeth on trying to extract DNA from Egyptian mummies in the late 1970s, Pääbo began to apply his methods to even older bodies. His methods culminated in series of triumphs. First, he managed to extract mitochondrial DNA from a piece of ancient bone allowing him to publish, in 1997, the first Neanderthal DNA sequences. Thirteen years later came the publication of a full Neanderthal genome, based on DNA extracted from only three individuals.

The genome offered strong support to what had previously been only a hypothesis: that Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals had had a common ancestor who lived about 600,000 years ago. More significantly, it showed that when early Homo sapiens had walked from their original home in Africa into Eurasia, they had encountered Neanderthals there and interbred with them. The Neanderthals were among the genetic ancestors of modern Europeans and Asians (but not of modern Africans). Eurasians today have between 1.5 and 2.1% of Neanderthal DNA.

An excavation in the Valley of the Neanderthals, in Madrid, Spain, in August 2023.
An excavation in the Valley of the Neanderthals, in Madrid, Spain, in August 2023. Photograph: Europa Press News/Europa Press/Getty Images

Unusually for a piece of genetics research, Pääbo’s results became the stuff of salacious tabloid headlines. Playboy magazine interviewed Pääbo about his research, producing a four-page story titled “Neanderthal Love: Would You Sleep with This Woman?” The mucky Amazonian Neanderthal woman featured in their illustration was not designed to be a fantasy object. Meanwhile, men wrote to Pääbo volunteering to be “examined for Neanderthal heritage” – perhaps seeking a scientific basis for their stereotypically Neanderthal traits, being “big, robust, muscular, somewhat crude, and perhaps a little simple”. It was mostly men who wrote in, though there was the occasional woman convinced her husband was a Neanderthal.

Other readers of this research have found Pääbo’s conclusions a source of comfort. Those wondering what had happened to the Neanderthals 40,000 years ago had long been tempted by a dark speculation: perhaps we, Homo sapiens, with our superior weapons and new microbes, had killed them off. But Pääbo’s conclusions give an otherwise tragic story something of a silver lining: the Neanderthals are still alive, as alive as the archaic Homo sapiens they interbred with. They live on, to use an apt cliche, in us, their (very) hybrid heirs. The one vital trace they have left behind lies in our genes, in the frustrating susceptibility that modern Eurasians with Neanderthal DNA have to burn in the sun and develop Crohn’s disease. Perhaps that is a surer way to restore them to dignity than any other: to see them not as falling prey to our ancestors but as our ancestors.

Not all Neanderthal researchers draw such comfort from the DNA studies. Ludovic Slimak thinks the Neanderthals no more live on “in us” than an extinct wolf lives on in the poodle who shares sections of the archaic wolf genome. In Slimak’s way of thinking about the question, the comforting idea that there was no extinction, only a sort of “dilution”, is tantamount to a failure to see that Neanderthals were a genuinely “other” kind of humanity, neither better nor worse, and certainly not “soulless”. “That humanity”, he writes with a brutal brevity, “is extinct, totally extinct.”

Researchers anxious to emphasise how much Neanderthals were like us may well be motivated by the same worthy aspirations of those who thought they could fight racism by denying the existence of any real difference between human groups. But that, Slimak proposes, is itself racist. “Racism is the refusal of difference … Racism is those old images of Plains Indians trussed up in three-piece suits: just like us.” He sees this as a denial of radical difference, or “alterity” – a term popular in French philosophy and the social scientific theory inspired by it.

The old knuckle-dragging conceptions of Neanderthals certainly don’t do justice to what the evidence tells us. But they at least did the Neanderthals the courtesy of allowing them to be different from us. The challenge, Slimak argues, is not to dignify the Neanderthal by making them, effectively, identical to us, a sort of “ersatz sapiens”. The challenge is to let them have their dignity while remaining themselves, a different kind of human, a different kind of humanity.

The unavoidable talk of “humanity” in these debates forces us to confront a more fundamental philosophical question of what exactly we take the “human” to mean in the first place. Agustín Fuentes, an American primatologist, writes that the deep moral lesson of our new research on the Neanderthals is that we now need to “reconceptualise the human to recognise our contemporary diversity, complexity, and distinction as part of a narrative of hundreds of thousands of years of life, love, death, and art”. The contemporary champions of the Neanderthals do indeed seem to take the task before us to be one of recognition, of acknowledgment. But Slimak worries that the language of “recognition” conceals what is really going on: projection. And projection, even from the most honourably egalitarian of motives, is still a distortion and a failure to respect the dignity of difference.

There appear to be perils in both directions, perils that the analogy with racism brings out. These debates echo conversations that have haunted us since Columbus arrived in the New World in 1492. But it is an essential part of our conversations about colonialism that enough of the colonised – and enough of their ways of life – have survived for them, or their descendants, to give their own answers to these questions about similarity and difference. Importantly, not every person in a colonised nation has given the same answer to these questions. Maybe we shouldn’t even assume it has a single correct answer.

It is surprising just how affecting accounts of Neanderthal extinction can be, how often it moves otherwise sober science writers to unaccustomed pitches of lyricism. Being a responsible scientist, Wragg Sykes is aware that “ascribing any level of formal spirituality to Neanderthals would go far beyond the archaeological evidence”. But she is convinced that we have enough evidence to be able to say that “they too encountered all of life’s sensory marvels. Perhaps as photons from a salmon-belly sunset saturated their retinas, or the groaning song of a mile-high glacier filled their ears, Neanderthals’ brains translated this to something like awe”. Her “perhaps” registers her awareness that all this is speculation, maybe even wishful thinking, not (yet) science.

The Neanderthals cannot speak. As we put our insistent questions to their bones, their genes and their hearths, we can never be sure that the voice that answers isn’t just ours, echoing back to us from an ancient cave. But perhaps the mistake lies in thinking that the question “Are they like us or different?” presents a real choice. Perhaps the correct answer to that question is, quite simply, “Yes”. Maybe the best way to accord them their dignity is to treat them as we treat each other in at least one respect: by allowing them to be puzzling.

In puzzling over them, we reveal something of ourselves. Why might some of us care so much about creatures so long extinct? No doubt part of the answer is that questions about the Neanderthals serve as proxies for questions about ourselves. The old fiction writer’s choice between a picture of the Neanderthals as thugs and one of them as prototypical flower children no doubt reflects anxieties about human nature that have haunted the last few centuries of our history: are we built for war or peace?

There is more to this than a projection of narcissistic concern. Contemporary scientists appear to be divided between those who think Neanderthal dignity calls for a recognition of their similarity to us, and those who think it calls for a recognition of their difference. It is striking that the camps are of one mind in thinking that dignity – or respect or something of that kind – is owed here, and that fact itself needs an explanation.

But is it really all that eccentric? Is it really odder to want justice for extinct Neanderthals than it is to want a wrongly convicted friend to be posthumously exonerated? Thinkers dismissed in their lifetimes as kooks or cranks have been vindicated several centuries after their martyrdom, by those who rejoiced that justice had finally been done. It is, if anything, a part of human nature to resist the idea that our interests die with us: a part of our nature, and a beautiful one at that. And it makes one wonder: when the civilisations of Homo sapiens have been reduced to bones and rubble, will our successors on this planet, digging up our mounds of plastic waste, be as anxious to give us our due?

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