If we are ever asked to imagine what a Neandertal was like, most of us would think of some half-witted cretin. In fact, the word Neandertal is often used as a term of abuse. It generally signifies that the individual to whom reference is being made acts brutishly and has very little feeling for others. This is a pity, because the more we learn about the Neandertals, the more we are forced to conclude that although they may have looked brutish, they were very caring people, who looked after the sick and elderly members of their communities.
The Neandertals are named after the Neander Valley, not far from Düsseldorf in Germany. The fossilized remains of a Neandertal man were first found there in a cave in 1857. Since then, remains of Neandertals have been found in western Europe, the Near East, and western Asia. Compared with modern Europeans, the Neandertal people were rather robust, and so for almost a century it was mistakenly believed that they were half way between ape-like creatures and humans.1
If a Neandertal man were bathed, shaved, and dressed in modern clothing he would probably pass unnoticed in a New York subway!The idea that the Neandertals were a link between apes and humans was reinforced by drawings which depicted them as stooping half-ape/half-human brutes ambling along on the outsides of their feet, like some oversized chimpanzee. This view persisted until the mid-1950s when a couple of American anatomists concluded that there was no valid reason for assuming that the Neandertal posture was different from that of modern humans. They went on to suggest that if a Neandertal man were bathed, shaved, and dressed in modern clothing he would probably pass unnoticed in a New York subway!2
It has also been suggested that much of the brutish appearance of the Neandertals, such as their eyebrow ridges, is due to the enormous chewing stress on the skull imposed by their powerful jaws. And this was due to the common eating of tough food. They are now placed in the same species as modern-day humans, being put into the sub-species Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (with us being in the sub-species Homo sapiens sapiens). However, the bony differences between them and modern people may be the result of trivial genetic differences. Similarly, people of modern ‘races’ today look more different than they are at the genetic level. Some ‘Neandertal’ bony characteristics are found in some Europeans today.
The spellings Neandertal and Neanderthal (with the added h) are both correct. Different authorities have adopted their own preferences.
Both Oxford (UK) and Webster’s (US) dictionaries have traditionally favoured the pronunciation of the word as nee-AN-der-tal, even when spelt with the h. In recent years the pronunciation nee-AN-der-thal has become common, and is the only pronunciation listed in Australia's Macquarie Dictionary.
From their remains, it has been discovered that some of the Neandertal people suffered from rickets. Rickets is a disease of childhood resulting from a deficiency of Vitamin D. Because this vitamin helps the absorption of calcium from the food we eat, people suffering from rickets have soft bones which cause them to have swollen joints and distorted limbs—sometimes they are extremely bow-legged, but in more severe cases they are completely crippled and unable to walk.
Vitamin D is found in fish oils, milk, and dairy products. If your diet is deficient in these, you may develop rickets. The fact that some Neandertals suffered from rickets indicates that they had a diet which lacked these products. However, you can get Vitamin D another way—Vitamin D is made in the skin when it is exposed to sunlight. From this we are able to conclude that the Neandertal people who had rickets must have lived at a time when they would not have been exposed to much sunlight—such as during the Ice Age.
Some of the Neandertal people suffered from arthritis, while others sustained injuries during their lifetime - perhaps by falling over when hunting. Broken bones were not uncommon. Although such people were no longer productive members of their community, they were cared for by other members of their tribe. Their bones demonstrate that they kept on living long after the onset of their disability. This shows that these people had tender feelings for each other—sometimes apparently providing support for those they knew would never get better.
From the evidence discovered, it can be deduced that the Neandertals were good hunters, making and using rather elegant stone tools effectively. They lived in huts which they sometimes located in caves. They kept warm with fires on which they burned bones—because it was the middle of an Ice Age, when there were not many trees growing in Europe. They cooked their food on fires, sometimes using stone hot plates. They wore clothes which they made by sewing animal skins together. In fact, far from being dull-witted brutes, these people were quite sophisticated—there is even evidence of a form of writing!
The Neandertal people also had a sense of the after-life—they buried their dead with ceremony and arranged flowers around the bodies of their dead. A pollen analysis of one grave from the Shanidar cave in the Zagros Mountains in Iraq has revealed the presence of yarrow, cornflower, St Barnaby’s thistle, ragwort, grape hyacinth, hollyhock, and woody horsetail. Most of these plants are known to have herbal and medicinal properties, so it appears that the Neandertals had some knowledge of medicine.
None of this is surprising when we consider that they were not primitive evolutionary ‘links’. They were people, forced to live in harsh conditions, after the dispersal of humanity at Babel, during the great post-Flood Ice Age.3