Always new findings: The Neanderthals were very different

Many people still associate the term "Neanderthals" with the image of the club-wielding savages.

Always new findings: The Neanderthals were very different

Many people still associate the term "Neanderthals" with the image of the club-wielding savages. Research has long seen early humans in a different light. Especially since modern Europeans are also two percent Neanderthals.

At first glance, one would think that a little girl with pigtails would have sat down on one of the showcases in the museum and would be dangling her bare feet. The little one put on a charming grin. Only when you get closer do you notice that she looks somehow different. Her face appears unusually wedge-shaped, with an almost horizontal nasal bone. It is the reconstruction of a girl of about seven who was buried in south-west France about 65,000 years ago. A Neanderthal girl.

The Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann near Düsseldorf has set itself the task of communicating the latest research results on Homo neanderthalensis to a larger audience. His most important message: The Neanderthals were not club-wielding savages, but real people. They probably spoke in a similar way to modern humans. And her brain was even bigger.

In recent years, the image of the Neanderthals has been corrected and expanded so often by new studies that the museum has had to be adapted again and again. "We have to keep scraping off dates and reprinting them and exchanging texts because it's going really, really fast right now," says Bärbel Auffermann, the director of the museum, which has been in existence for 26 years.

It is in the immediate vicinity of the site of the fossil that was discovered here in 1856 and ultimately gave the human species its name, which is used worldwide today. The life-size replica of this Neanderthal, whose bones have been kept in the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Bonn since 1877, was recreated some time ago.

"After paleogenetics proved that the Neanderthals were not as light-skinned as we are, but had darker pigmentation, we recreated the figure again," reports Auffermann. According to the current state of research, lighter skin only appeared at a time when Neanderthals were long gone. In recent years it has become increasingly clear that Neanderthals must have had considerable cognitive abilities.

They may even have been artistically active, but at least they had an aesthetic sense and also communicated through symbols. Researchers discovered a giant deer bone decorated by a Neanderthal in the Unicorn Cave in the Harz Mountains. In Spanish caves, they painted walls with ocher more than 60,000 years ago. Researchers believe that the deeper caves, which are difficult to access, were sanctuaries for initiation rites or other important ceremonies.

Despite these testimonies, the term "Neanderthal" is still a swear word today. In colloquial language, the term stands for uncontrolled, rough and brutal people. This idea goes way back to shortly after the legendary discovery of bones in the Neandertal. Even in the first drawings, Neanderthals were depicted as stooped, hairy cave creatures. They always carried a club in their hand - although a club has never been found among the numerous Neanderthal fossils.

"The depictions were based on an image that had been widespread in Western culture since antiquity," explains Auffermann. "This is the wild man that lurks on the fringes of civilization. In this world, we are the noble savages who ultimately prevailed against the primitives." In truth, Neanderthals and Homo sapiens lived very similar lives: they were Ice Age hunter-gatherers, always on the move. They killed bison, reindeer and sometimes a mammoth.

With stone tools from that time, it is sometimes impossible to say today whether they came from Neanderthals or Homo sapiens. Science has long since moved away from the previously widespread notion that both human species constantly fought each other until finally only one was left. On the contrary: Neanderthals belonged, so to speak, to dear relatives. She and Homo sapiens frequently became close, had sex, and had children. That is why most Europeans today carry two percent Neanderthal DNA. A comparison of DNA strands shows: These genes have strengthened the immune system of modern humans, but also inherited disadvantages such as nicotine addiction and depression. So you can also imagine a melancholic Neanderthal.

Why the Neanderthals died out 40,000 years ago is still a mystery. Presumably they simply became a victim of changing climatic conditions. When Homo sapiens arrived in Europe from Africa around 40,000 years ago, the number of Neanderthals there had already fallen sharply due to the constant change from warmer to very cold climate phases. Auffermann is convinced: "It certainly wasn't a question of intelligence. We stayed behind purely by chance."

(This article was first published on Monday, August 22, 2022.)

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