What exactly did Neanderthals look like?


Neanderthal female in modern attire

What exactly did Neanderthals look like?  Pretty much like us.

Does the photo above look like a cousin of yours?  Could be.

Forensic facial reconstruction is the science of recreating the face of an individual from skeletal remains. 

Using techniques from the fields of anatomy, anthropology and artistry, forensic Anthropologists have reconstructed skeletal remains of several hominin species.  In the photo above the reconstruction was made using a female Neanderthal skull.  A striking twist on the result is to portray the individual as she would be perceived today with modern hairstyle, attire and makeup.  

 Marcellin Boule's Big Goof

First impressions really do count for a lot and they are so hard to change. Let me just say this right now, if you were a Neanderthal, Marcellin Boule's picture would be in the center of your dart board.  Why would a Neanderthal have a reason to be more than unhappy with this particular French paleontologist?  Because back in 1908 he made a huge, huge mistake.  He was responsible for making Neanderthals a neanderthal. 

Look it up in your dictionary, neanderthal with a small ‘n’ means dull witted, brutish, loutish behavior and other negative characteristics. 

In 1908 Boule’s analysis of a nearly complete Neanderthal skeleton described it as an ape-like creature of dull wit.  He said they did walk upright but hunched over and had a shuffling gait. 

Here is Boule’s neanderthal...

Boule's Neanderthal

Boule's misdiagnosis created the low opinion of Neanderthals which took hold and lasted for decades even among scientists and still persists today among a large percentage of the general population. His analysis defined the original ‘caveman’.  It took a long time to change but eventually with the discovery of more Neanderthal remains and the correct analysis of them, we have a very good picture of what Neanderthals looked like.

By the way, why the heck did Marcellin say those awful things about our cousin anyway?  A re-examination of the original 1908 remains revealed how Boule missed several important skeletal indicators.  First off, the hunched over posture of the individual was a result of severe arthritis, something that would make you hunch over too.  Secondly the bowing of the individual’s leg was from the deforming malady rickets. And that brutish face was due to loss of teeth and part of his jaw.

There are many ways the Boule analysis was just flat out wrong. We now know that Neanderthals are not even close to the apelike caveman Boule surmised.  The are basically us. It is also worth noting the individual Boule analyzed would have had a hard time surviving without the help and support of tribe members around him.  Care and sympathy for the infirm being more human qualities than brutish ape-like. 

Once scientists were able to unravel the Neanderthal DNA it became startling apparent how close modern man and Neanderthals are, basically we are the same.

Hey Good Looking

In a lot of the pictures you see with Neanderthals they are in the context of their own timeline. They are clothed in animal skins, the men have long beards and long hair, etc.  But when you take them and put them in our modern timeline, hello…

Neanderthal male in modern attire

Facial reconstruction used to identify a particular individual is very challenging.  It is what they attempt do in the movies and CSI shows. Way more challenging than trying to reconstruct an anonymous face. If you are a forensic Anthropologist and trying to reconstruct what a representative of Neanderthals looked like you aren’t trying to nail down a specific person but rather trying to get a representation of what an individual from that species could have looked like.   

We know for a scientific fact how the muscles and tendons attach to the skull and based on human skull anatomy we can theorize how the muscles and soft tissue would be for a Neanderthal skull.  Plus, since science has mapped Neanderthal DNA we now know how close to us they actually are, pretty darn close, almost exact.  So close that many Anthropologists would consider Neanderthals a sub-species of Homo sapiens and not a separate species. 

In the strictest terms we are classified as Homo sapiens sapiens and to many, Neanderthals should be classified as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, a sub-species.  After all we, modern man, did interbreed with Neanderthals.  All peoples on earth carry some Neanderthal DNA in them.  

Why bring this up?  Because it reinforces the fact that Neanderthal facial reconstruction is not some wildly speculative exercise, even though we don’t’ have any pictures of live Neanderthals. The facial reconstruction of Neanderthals is very well validated based on all the current body of knowledge from the science of forensic facial reconstruction. 

This next reconstruction of a Neanderthal female depicts her as she would look in her own  timeline…

young adult Neanderthal female

We also can see another version of a Neanderthal female. But this time it is how she might look now, in our time with modern attire.

female Neanderthal in modern attire

The next two pictures are facial reconstructions of a Neanderthal teen and young boy.

teenage Neanderthal

Neanderthal as a young boy

This next photo is how another adult male Neanderthal would look, this time clothed in a suit.

adult male Neanderthal clothed in a modern set of clothes

Once you clean up a Neanderthal, give him a good haircut and shave and nice clothes it's hard to tell the difference between us and them.

actor Ron Pearlman

The way Neanderthals looked compared to modern man can only be really assessed if both are looked at in the same environment.  Is there really a big difference between the next two examples? Which one is the Neanderthal in modern attire and which one is the modern man in Neanderthal attire?

adult male Neanderthal facial reconstruction

actor Sean Penn

Neanderthals and modern man shared a common ancestor and began to split apart as far back as 800,000 years ago.  However, during that time it is increasingly apparent that interbreeding happened on a regular basis whenever the two groups came into contact for any prolonged period of time.

Neanderthals lived in Europe, Eurasia, and Asia.  There is a lot of speculation and controversy about how advanced Neanderthals were. The more discoveries are found and the better the science becomes behind analyzing new finds and re-examining old ones the clearer it becomes that Neanderthals and modern man have very few differences.

For all practical purposes the morphology between modern man and the Neanderthals is identical.  The visual differences are no more than the visual differences between individuals from different  ethnic backgrounds today.

In my next post, The Many Faces of Man, I am going to take a look at just how different modern man looks from one part of the world to another.  There is a wide range of facial characteristics and yet no one disputes any human alive today is mot from the same species.  


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