One of my favorite book series as a child was The Time Warp Trio books, by Jon Scieszka, about a group of boys who manage to zip around time and space via a magic book. My favorite in the series? Your Mother Was a Neanderthal, in which the trio stumbles around prehistory, encountering smilodons, woolly mammoths and, yes, cavemen along the way. They were your stereotypical cavemen- dumb, awkward brutes- but the way the trio interacted with the Neanderthals suggested they were something more: misunderstood.
The truth is Neanderthals as a species often are misunderstood. Their very name is used an insult, implying insensitivity or a dearth of intelligence or some antiquated mindset. In movies, they are depicted as ape-like, with a hunched back, strange locomotion and no discernible form of language. They walk about with giant clubs in hand, the better to swing haplessly at rodents with. Perhaps there is some subconscious logic at work in our portrayals of the species; surely these creatures can't reflect aspects of our own human past?
The majority of our stereotypes and assumptions about Neanderthals can be traced back to a few, early specimens. These skeletons were reconstructed incorrectly, given forms similar to those of great apes even though no skeletal evidence existed to suggest doing so. Modern research has discounted most of our past assumptions about the species, but the misconceptions remain and continue to shape cultural depictions of our distant cousins.
In recent decades, many anthropologists and other scientists have concluded that the Neanderthal of prehistory has little in common with the Neanderthal of popular culture. As far as their hunched, loping gait, Neanderthals were actually fully bipedal, and would have walked much like modern humans do. Most of their physical characteristics fall within a range variation found in modern humans, as well. In fact, their anatomy is so similar to that of humans' that some scientists considered the two as subspecies of Homo sapiens; others have suggested that Neanderthals and ancient humans procreated and that modern humans have some genetic trace to Neanderthals.
And if you're judging intelligence by brain size, well, Neanderthals had us beat; they could claim a larger cranial capacity than modern humans can, though questions remain on how their brain structures were organized. Much of their known behavior implies intelligence, as well. Skeletons have been found across multiple regions surrounded by mounds of pollen, indicating burial gifts of flowers. These graves in turn imply that Neanderthals had some conception of mortality and the afterlife, and were likely able to grieve, as well. Furthermore, such burials indicate that Neanderthals created something we consider unique and definitive of humans: culture.
Graves aren't the only window into Neanderthal culture. Anatomical reconstructions suggest the species had the ability to speak, though we can only speculate on what they might have talked about. Though their bodies were adapted to frigid climates, it is likely they wore clothing as their bodies did not have the right proportions to emit sufficient heat for survival. Amazingly, several musical instruments are associated with Neanderthals, including a flute made of bone. And of course, there are the iconic cave paintings that symbolize Neanderthals in the minds of most.
All things considered, our cultural image of the Neanderthal isn't very accurate after all, reducing an emotional, creative creature into a grunting beast. Research into this and other species continues to reveal startling insights about the nature of what it means to be human. Given the similarities between humans and Neanderthals, we can only speculate on how they might have depicted us had history twisted some other way.