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What did Neanderthals look like?

11 February 2005

Reconstructing a Neanderthal

For the first time, experts have reconstructed a Neanderthal skeleton. No complete Neanderthal skeleton has ever been found so this reconstruction was made using bones from Neanderthals found in Germany, France and Israel.

By looking at the structure of the skeleton, experts were able to obtain strong evidence for what Neanderthals would have looked like and their behaviour. The skeleton was no more than 1.62 m (5 foot 4 inches) tall with a powerful build. Features of the skeleton were:

  • A striking ribcage that continued to flare out giving the Neanderthal no waist. One explanation for this wide and deep ribcage was that it would have retained heat better in a cold environment, which would have been a clear advantage as Neanderthals lived during the Ice Age.
  • The right arm had much clearer muscle markings than the left and the forearm had a curving radius, all suggesting a very powerful right arm with a powerful grip. This suggested Neanderthals were ambush hunters thrusting spears into their prey. This fitted in with the fact that heavy spear points have been found alongside Neanderthal bones at many sites suggesting that spears were used to ambush and stab prey rather than to throw.
  • From impressions inside the skull it was determined that the brain was slightly larger in size than the modern average but as far as could be judged, its external form suggested similar cognitive abilities to our own.
  • The hyoid bone in the throat was similar to our own but reconstruction of the vocal tract suggested that Neanderthal speech would have been higher pitched but more resonant.

Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum says ‘Regarding the question of why the Neanderthals died out, the conventional view is that modern humans replaced them because of superior intelligence, technology and adaptations.

However, the climate of Europe was very unstable during the time that Neanderthals and modern humans overlapped in Europe, and it is likely that rapid climate change added to the pressure on the last Neanderthals, contributing to their extinction.’