Homo Neanderthalensis: Origin, Characteristics, Feeding

The Homo neanderthalensis was a hominid who lived mainly in Europe from 230,000 to 28,000 years ago ago. The species is popularly known as Neanderthal, although to a lesser extent certain experts have also called them Homo sapiens neanderthalensis.

The origin of Neanderthals is, unlike most species of the genus Homo, exclusively European. The evidence found so far indicates that Homo heidelbergensis descends, reaching Europe from Africa during the Middle Pleistocene.

For several decades the relationship between Homo sapiens and the Neanderthal was not very clear within the context of human evolution. The advances in the investigations and the analysis of the deposits found clarified part of the doubts and concluded that they were two different species that coexisted for a period.

Homo neanderthalensis had anatomical differences from sapiens. However, his brain capacity was also large, even greater than that of the modern human. The cause of their extinction still generates debates among experts, although the dominant theory indicates that they were overwhelmed by the number of Homo sapiens that arrived from Africa.


Africa is known as the cradle of humanity because Homo sapiens emerged on that continent some 200,000-180000 years ago. From there, the ancestors of the human being expanded to the rest of the planet, coming to dominate it. However, they were not alone in the evolutionary process.

In this way, another species emerged in Europe that, according to experts, had sufficient capacities to have become the dominant one. It was Homo neanderthalensis, a hominin that descended from the European Homo heidelbergensis.

H. heidelbergensis had to change its habitat during the Mindel Ice Age (between 400,000 and 350,000 years ago). The cold that hit the European continent forced them to settle in the south. Over the centuries, isolation conditions and the need to adapt led to the evolution of these hominids.

After the Ice Age ended, H. Heidelbergensis was beginning to resemble Neanderthals. Scientists mark that the time for them to become a different species occurred between 230,000 and 200,000 years ago. Homo neanderthalensis was born.

Homo heidelbergensis

The ancestor of the Neanderthals had appeared about 600,000 years ago on the African continent. From there, like other species, it passed to Europe, occupying a fairly wide area.

The need for adaptation caused that, 200,000 years after its arrival, H. heidelbergensis began to change. The Mindel Glaciation was one of the decisive factors in this evolution. The unfavorable climate pushed them towards somewhat more benign areas, mainly the Mediterranean peninsulas.

It was there that it ended up disappearing and being replaced by Homo neanderthalensis.


The recognition of the Neanderthal as a distinct species took a long time. The first remains appeared in Belgium in 1829, but the discoverers did not give them much importance. They also did not give it to him in 1856, when Johann K. Fuhlrott found other fossils in 1856, in the German Neander Valley, from which his name comes.

As a curiosity, it can be noted that the year of the discovery in Germany, a theory was launched to explain the remains found. It claimed that the fossil belonged to a Russian Cossack who had hunted Napoleon. To explain its strange anatomy, it was noted that the Cossack had suffered from rickets.

Keep in mind that at the time these remains were found, Darwin had not yet published his theory of evolution. This may explain the lack of interest in seriously investigating the findings.

The Neanderthal had to wait until 1864 to be taken more seriously. That year William King studied all the remains. The researcher concluded that they belonged to a new human species and named it after the Neander Valley.


Homo neanderthalensis, despite its long existence, never reached a large population. In this way, estimates consider that during those 200,000 years, their number did not exceed 7000 individuals.

The moment of splendor of the species occurred 100,000 years ago. The lithic tools found allow us to affirm that their capacities were quite high.

Despite their small number, very scattered fossils have been found, which proves that they spread throughout most of the European continent. It is even thought that it could reach central Asia.

Neanderthal and Homo sapiens

Contrary to the idea that evolution was a linear process that ended with the appearance of Homo sapiens, the reality was quite different.

Various species of the genus Homo came to share the planet, in different areas or coexisting in some. Thus, Neanderthals lived in Europe, sapiens in Africa and others, such as H. erectus, reached the East.

The research technique that has helped enormously to unravel how the human being appeared, has been the analysis of DNA . H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis were known to have coincided in Europe when the former left Africa, but little was known about their coexistence.

In 2010, the first study on the Neanderthal genome was published and the results were definitive. Today’s man, Asian and European, still has almost 3% Neanderthal DNA. This indicates that pairings occurred between both species, albeit in a specific way.

Furthermore, those crossovers began much earlier than previously thought. Already 100,000 years ago, individuals of the two species interbred. Some of the remains of H. sapiens found had part of the genetic load of Neanderthals.


The extinction of Neanderthals continues to be debated in scientific circles. So far, there are several different theories, without being able to establish which is correct. In recent years, in addition, new data have appeared that seem to delay the exact moment of their disappearance.

The belief a few years ago was that the Neanderthal was extinct between 41,000 and 39,000 years ago. At that time Europe began to cool down considerably, reducing natural resources.

However, recent studies seem to show that there are still some settlements in the north of the continent, dated between 34,000 and 31,000 years ago.

As for the reason for his disappearance, some experts point out that it could be due to the aforementioned climatic changes. Others, on the other hand, attribute their extinction to the arrival of Homo sapiens.

Supporters of the latter hypothesis point out that the number of H. sapiens was 10 times higher than that of Neanderthals. The struggle for resources, some diseases that affected the Neanderthal and the crossing between species would explain the disappearance of the species.

Physical and biological characteristics

The fossils of Homo neanderthalensis found so far, about 400 specimens, provide enough information to know their physical characteristics. Thus, broadly speaking, it was a species with a robust skeleton, a wide pelvis, short limbs, and a barrel-shaped thorax.

Similarly, the forehead was low and sloping, with prominent supraorbital arches. The jaw lacked a chin and they had considerable cranial capacity.

The arms, like primates, were longer than those of modern humans. Its pelvis, apart from its width, has characteristics that seem to indicate a difference in its gait with respect to H. sapiens, although it was also bipedal.

Research indicates that their life expectancy was not very long, perhaps due to the harsh environment. Thus, men did not usually exceed 40 years and women, 30.

Adapted to cold

Neanderthals had to survive in an environment marked by the last ice age. This caused them to have to adapt to this extreme cold climate to survive. Traits such as the elongated skull, its short stature and the broad nose, are according to the experts some consequences of this adaptation.

As noted, Neanderthals were not notable for their height. The mean for the species was 1.65 meters. This was offset by his robust build, both bone and muscular. It is thought that they were not well equipped to run long distances, although they were well equipped for short and fast races to capture prey or escape from danger.

Larynx and mouth

More than the purely anatomical aspect, what is interesting in the larynx of Neanderthals is the use. In this way, his location, higher than that of modern man, could have allowed him to articulate limited phonetics.

On the other hand, experts have concluded that the opening of the mouth was greater than that of modern man. This made it easy to take big bites of food.


As with many other aspects, modern research techniques have provided new data on the feeding of Homo neanderthalensis. Previously it was thought to be eminently carnivorous. The food came from horses, deer or large bovids. Apart from this, it also hunted larger prey, such as rhinos.

However, the most recent studies indicate that their diet was much more varied. The most important thing in this aspect was the adaptation to the environment, consuming the resources they found, animals or plants.


The Neanderthal was an omnivorous species, with a diet that changed depending on its habitat. It is known, for example, that in Mediterranean areas they consumed small animals, such as rabbits or birds.

On the other hand, they also took advantage of marine resources. Remains have been found that prove that they ate mollusks, seals or dolphins.

Apart from the carnivorous diet, the Neanderthal also ingested a significant amount of fruits and vegetables. In fact, some specialists estimate that 80% of their diet came from these sources.

Knowing fire, they were able to improve their diet, cooking animals or plants. Regarding the latter, there is evidence that indicates that they used some to alleviate or treat diseases.

The variety of the diet has led scientists to believe that Neanderthals developed complex techniques for hunting and gathering.


One of the aspects that was most controversial at the time was the existence of cannibalism among Neanderthals. The Moula-Guercy or Vindija sites have provided fairly conclusive evidence of this fact.

For example, bones with cuts made with stone tools have been found, with clear signs of careful removal of the meat.

However, experts point out that it was not cannibalism due to food causes. The motive appears to have been ritual, as shown by ethnological comparison and cutting techniques compared to animals intended to be eaten.

Cannibalism was practiced in different regions and for long periods of time. Apart from the aforementioned sites, evidence has been found in others such as El Sidrón, in Spain or Krapina, in Croatia.

The Spanish case, however, presents some significant differences. This has led to think that, in that case, it could have been a cannibalism out of necessity, due to the great famines that were experienced in the area. The bones found had been treated to remove the marrow, one of the parts most appreciated for its nutrients.

Cranial capacity

As previously mentioned, the skull of Homo neanderthalensis was elongated, with a low forehead that had a notable slant.

The most striking feature was the enormous cranial capacity they possessed. According to the latest studies, the capacity was 1500 cubic centimeters, equal to or greater than that of modern human beings.

This parameter is often used to measure the intelligence of the species, although it is not definitive. In this way, although it is known that the Neanderthal possessed some intelligence, the real extent of its mental capacities is not known.

Used tools

The main raw material used by the Neanderthal to make their tools was stone. During the Middle Paleolithic, this species used a manufacturing style known as Mousterian culture. Likewise, the species has been linked to the Upper Palaeolithic Chatelperronian culture, although there is controversy about it.

One of the revolutionary aspects about the utensils made by Homo neanderthalensis is that, for the first time, specialized tools are found. In this way, there were some destined exclusively for meat, others for woodworking, etc.

Mousterian culture

In 1860, Gabriel de Mortillet, found in Le Moustier, France, a large archaeological site with an industry for the manufacture of stone tools. Later, in 1907, several Neanderthal fossils appeared in the same place. The style of the utensils was given the name of Mousterian Culture, which was associated with that species of hominids.

The main stones used were flint and quartzite. Among the tools were back knives, splitters, points, or scrapers.

The way to manufacture them was on flakes, with the use of a technique called Levallois carving. This method allowed a better accuracy in the designs, apart from the greater specialization of the parts.

Levallois carving consists of obtaining flakes with a predetermined shape. To do this, they had to prepare the core in advance, which shows highly developed skills. The result, as noted, was much better than that obtained with other manufacturing methods.


The Neanderthal man had already learned to handle fire. Beyond taking advantage of the one that was produced naturally, by lightning or similar causes, these hominids could turn it on when they needed it.

As with the other species that succeeded, the mastery of fire provided heat to ward off extreme cold, help to ward off predators, and grilled food. Thanks to this, the food was digested better and, in addition, it lasted much longer without spoiling.


Homo neanderthalensis created societies with an increasing level of complexity. Normally, the groups they formed were made up of about 30 members. They still conserved nomadism, although they could build temporary settlements.

A curious aspect is the care they paid to the burial of the children. Experts explain that it could have been motivated by its low demographics, which caused children to be seen as something valuable.

The Neanderthal was also one of the first hominids to be dressed. No doubt due to the cold of the time, they had to use the skins of the animals they sacrificed and turn them into leather to cover themselves completely.

Finally, it should be noted that remains with serious injuries have appeared, but with obvious signs of having been cared for and healed. This shows that they were trying to recover the sick and injured.


As in other respects, the type of language that Neanderthals were able to use is the subject of debate. It is not known whether it was similar to modern, complex and compound, or less developed and similar to that of some apes.

It is possibly impossible to discover the answer one hundred percent. What is known is that they were biologically prepared for oral language , although with less articulate sounds than those emitted by modern humans.

Funeral rites

One of the aspects that most caught the attention of the first paleontologists who found Neanderthal remains were the samples of their funerary rites. This indicates that they attached importance to death, showing that they had the capacity for abstraction and self-awareness.

The funerary rite thus became one of the most important among these hominids, with a sense that could be classified as religious. Besides, as already pointed out, there was also a ritual based on cannibalism, which could have similar components.

Finally, there was a third type of ritual dedicated to the cave bear, which some come to call a cult.


  1. Prehistoric Wiki. Homo neanderthalensis. Retrieved from es.prehistorico.wikia.com
  2. Corbella, Josep. Homo sapiens and Neanderthals have mated for tens of thousands of years. Obtained fromvanaguardia.com
  3. Very interesting. Homo sapiens “flooded” the Neanderthal. Obtained from muyinteresante.es
  4. Helm Welker, Barbara. Homo neanderthalensis. Retrieved from milnepublishing.geneseo.edu
  5. Smithsonian Institution. Homo neanderthalensis. Retrieved from humanorigins.si.edu
  6. Bradshaw Foundation. Homo neanderthalensis. Retrieved from bradshawfoundation.com
  7. McCarthy, Eugene. Homo neanderthalensis. Retrieved from macroevolution.net

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