Neanderthals: physically, how different were they really?
August 16, 2009 5:48 AM   Subscribe

Neanderthals: physically, how different were they really?

information about Neanderthals says things like:

Neanderthals looked very like modern humans, but were generally shorter and much more heavily built. Their skulls show that they had no chin, and their foreheads sloped back. The braincase was much lower but longer, and they had slightly larger brains than modern humans. They were much stronger, having particularly strong arms and hands.

But around the world today, there is an incredible range of body types among modern humans. Visiting Vietnam, I felt like a giant. In Micronesia I felt like a beanpole, in Polynesia, I felt like a boy.

I would imagine the variation within local populations, is as great as between the averages between different areas. I know that I certainly have a prominent brow ridge and a sloping forehead.

So Neanderthals were more solidly built, with larger brains than our contemporaneous ancestors. But if a Neanderthal were alive today, with a hair cut and clean clothes, would their gross anatomical features mark them out as a separate species at a casual glance?

Would they even look unusual? or would they fit into the spectrum of modern human bodies that you get used to seeing in a major cosmopolitan city?
posted by compound eye to Science & Nature (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Well a quick google turned up this, there is quite a bit more out there...
posted by thrako at 5:54 AM on August 16, 2009

The general feeling I got from my human evolution classes is that if a Neanderthal were around today with a hair cut and clean clothes, you wouldn't necessarily notice them as anything more than a really solidly built person. I have, since taking those courses, enjoyed pointing out Neandertal-like skull features on actors when I see them (prominent brow ridge, large occipital bone).

There are some features that are really quite distinct. It's been a long time since I've studied it, and there's probably someone on here more qualified than me to tell you about the details, but there are some very distinct features that would reveal them to, say, anyone looking at an x-ray or any medical imaging. They had much bigger sinuses than us across the cheekbone area, and I believe that there are some quite different ways that the muscles attached in the arms and possibly other places in the body.

If you want some more detail without all-out serious study, Ian Tattersall is a great author who makes human evolution pretty accessible. The Fossil Trail (which is the one I've read, I can't recommend the others directly) is really engagingly written, and is a really interesting look at human evolution through the process of discovery; that is it is written in the chronology of discovery, not in the chronology of evolution.
posted by carmen at 6:06 AM on August 16, 2009

I think you would be more struck by the lack of chin than any other facial feature. If you look at the human and neanderthal skulls from the side, that's a really big difference. Here's another Tattersall article specifically addressing the postcranial differences. If you can't access it, I'm happy to email it to you.
posted by Mouse Army at 7:20 AM on August 16, 2009

I remember watching a UK TV show (I think this one) Neanderthal some time back - how accurate it was... is another question.

They do makeovers/prosthetics etc to try to make people look right.
posted by selton at 7:36 AM on August 16, 2009

There's been a lot of speculation that Neanderthals didn't have the same ability we have to control tongue and voice box. If true, a living Neanderthal would speak slowly, and be difficult to understand.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:44 AM on August 16, 2009

Wikipedia on Neanderthal language; comparison of sapiens and neanderthalensis skulls; reconstructions of Neanderthal child and man.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:02 AM on August 16, 2009

Go here, and then go to the left sidebar under the Genus Homo section and click on Neanderthals and other archaic humans (actually the whole section on the Genus Homo is probably worth reading, to give you more context.)
posted by gudrun at 8:07 AM on August 16, 2009

Everything I've read, (Jared Diamond specifically makes this point), indicates that even with a shower, haircut and suit, a Neanderthal would seriously stick out. People would believe he was a human, but probably assume he had a deformity or something.

Neanderthals would probably be right at the bottom of the uncanny valley.
posted by spaltavian at 9:12 AM on August 16, 2009

The CBC Radio program Ideas has been broadcasting a series about Neanderthals (they keep pronouncing it like Neandertals, which was interesting) and their webpage has the broadcasts and links to related webpages.

The last episode I heard was talking about how physically different their neck was from ours, which researchers could then use as a basis for figuring out how different their speech would be from ours. Interesting stuff.
posted by hala mass at 10:24 AM on August 16, 2009

Would they even look unusual? or would they fit into the spectrum of modern human bodies that you get used to seeing in a major cosmopolitan city?

I don't have the answer, or even the information to formulate an answer, but there is a very clear way of figuring this out. Research how much neanderthals and modern humans interacted and lived together when we existed in the same place and at the same time. I know there are clear cases of living apart, but also some possible cases of coming together. Then your question is not 'would we notice', but 'did we notice'. Hypotheticals are useful, but I think here you could actually find out how we treated neanderthals when they were a very real part of our existence.

(From what little I know, I would guess that we saw them as like us, but not us, and for the most part we lived separately.)
posted by Sova at 11:31 AM on August 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

hala mass: The "T" pronunciation is becoming more standard than "TH"
posted by blue_beetle at 12:07 PM on August 16, 2009

National Geographic magazine did a detailed reconstruction of a female Neanderthal face in an issue last fall, and some last-minute DNA evidence had suggested that some Neanderthals actually had genes for reddish hair and fair, freckled skin. This is what they think a female Neanderthal may have looked like.
posted by Asparagirl at 2:28 PM on August 16, 2009

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