The sophisticated Neandertal
Is The Flintstones a more accurate picture of Neandertals than evolutionary documentaries?
Many people watched The Flintstones growing up. This popular cartoon show from the 1960s featured two families of ‘cave people’ enjoying all the conveniences of modern life, albeit in dinosaur- and mammoth-powered versions. There’s no evidence that Neandertals actually vacuumed the floor using a mammoth’s trunk (trunks don’t tend to fossilize). But new evidence suggests that they enjoyed sophisticated home comforts that are a surprise only because we’ve been told for years that they were brutish ape-people only one step up from gorillas.
In fact, modern geneticists have confirmed that Neandertals were human.1
And they contributed a significant amount of DNA to the modern gene pool, to the point where they are the ancestors of billions of people alive today.
Let’s take a look at these ‘mysterious’ people. When you consider the evidence for their humanness, they stop being so mysterious.
The homey cave dwelling
Neandertals may have lived in caves, as some people still do today. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that these abodes were primitive. They divided the cave into rooms, built wind breaks to keep the draft out, and strategically placed hearths for cooking and warmth. The stone dividers that survive could have supported barriers made of skin or other materials that simply didn’t survive to the present day.2
What’s for dinner?
It turns out that Neandertals may have been quite the culinary artists! Unlike the secular documentaries which show Neandertals as barbarians eating raw meat or burning it over a fire, they had a variety of cooking methods. For example, just like we do today, they seasoned their meat with herbs to enhance the taste.
There is even evidence they boiled bones to extract nutrients. Many modern recipes call for ‘bone broth’, which adds a nutritious and tasty angle to a lot of our traditional foods. They also ate quite a large range of plant-based foods like pine nuts, moss, legumes, and palm dates, as well as a selection of non-poisonous mushrooms.3 And they ate the seeds of grasses which are comparable to early versions of barley, wheat, and rye.
Call the doctor!
When Neandertals got a headache or an infection, they could pull out their ‘first-aid kit’. It seems they used bark or buds from the poplar tree as a pain reliever. This contains salicylic acid, which was first isolated from willow tree bark, and is a precursor of aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid). Poplars, aspens, and willows are in the same family, the Salicaceae, but not all species contain salicylic acid. Neandertals would have needed a basic knowledge of botany to know which parts of which tree species contained the desired ingredient. They also consumed the antibiotic-producing mould Penicillium.
Neandertal remains also show evidence of medical procedures applied to crushed limbs, fractured skulls, and tooth abscesses. Many of these individuals survived these conditions, indicating that Neandertals gave their injured and sick effective medical care.4 One researcher stated,
“The high level of injury and recovery from serious conditions, such as a broken leg, suggests that others must have collaborated in their care and helped not only to ease pain, but to fight for their survival in such a way that they could regain health and actively participate in the group again.”5
Neandertals were seemingly able to dress wounds, manage fevers, and call on a surprising number of plants for their ‘cave man’ pharmacy.
Also, like humans today, Neandertals often required assistance to give birth. This was due to the size of the baby’s head relative to the size of the mother’s pelvis. Neandertal researchers concluded they must have had midwives.5
When Neandertals died, they were often buried intentionally, involving ritual elements.6
The latest fashions
There’s a lot we don’t know about Neandertal clothing, because materials don’t generally survive the ravages of time. But we know that Neandertals living in the coldest climates must have covered 80% of their body to survive the weather. They likely would have made fur boots and mittens, though it is unclear whether they actually engaged in sewing—they may have tied skins around their bodies rather than tailoring garments. But this is hardly a ‘primitive’ behaviour. Some modern people living in cold climates still do this today, and it allows them to stay both warm and dry.7
And not all that Neandertals wore was solely utilitarian. Neandertals had an eye for beauty as shown by their jewellery. Bone, stone, and shell pendants have been found in which a hole was drilled. A leather strap could have been threaded through these, allowing them to be worn as a necklace.8
And they even had makeup! Archaeologists have found containers of crushed minerals which they surmise were used as ‘war paint’ or cosmetics. They even mixed minerals in complex combinations.9 Today, all-mineral makeup is sold as ‘natural’ and beneficial to the skin, but Neandertals had such things thousands of years ago!
The Neandertals were ancient, but not primitive
Given the harsh circumstances in which many Neandertals lived (e.g. in Europe during the Ice Age that was caused by the biblical Flood10), it is impressive to consider the progress they made as they fought against the elements. The picture is not one of primitive ‘apemen’, but of distinctly human people who were smart, inventive, creative, and loving. They, like you, were made in the image of God, and descendants of Adam through Noah.
References and notes
- Carter, R., Neandertal genome like ours (There may be Neandertals at your next family reunion!), 1 Jun 2010; creation.com/neandertal-genome-like-ours. Return to text.
- Spinney, L., Cosy up with the Neanderthals, the first humans to make a house a home, New Scientist; newscientist.com, 6 Feb 2019. Return to text.
- Harmon, K., Fossilized food stuck in Neandertal teeth indicates plant-rich diet, 27 Dec 2010; blogs.scientificamerican.com Return to text.
- Robson, D., Neanderthals suffered a lot of traumatic injuries. So how did they live so long? The Atlantic; theatlantic.com, 15 Oct 2018. Return to text.
- University of York, Neanderthal healthcare practices crucial to survival; eurekalert.com, 4 Oct 2018. Return to text.
- Gray, R., Cave fires and rhino skull used in Neanderthal burial rituals, New Scientist; newscientist.com, 28 Sep 2016. Return to text.
- Benton, A., What was Neanderthal clothing like? Filthy Monkey Men; filthymonkeymen.com, 13 Nov 2012. Return to text.
- Wade, L., Neandertals made their own jewelry, new method confirms; sciencemag.org, 16 Sep 2016. Return to text.
- Carter, R.W., The painted Neandertal: ancient cosmetics are upsetting evolutionary stories, 20 May 2010; creation.com/neander-painted. Return to text.
- Ice Age and Mammoths Questions and Answers; creation.com/ice-age. Return to text.