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Top 5 Neanderthal Myths

VO: Ashley Bowman
Written by Sean Harris They've been extinct for at least 28,000 years but we still haven’t got our facts straight! Get ready to rethink what you thought you knew about Neanderthals. Welcome to WatchMojo's Top 5 Myths, the series that finds the biggest myths people actually believe and dispels them one by one. In today's installment, we're counting down the top 5 myths about Neanderthals.
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They’ve been extinct for at least 28,000 years but we still haven’t got our facts straight! Get ready to rethink what you thought you knew about Neanderthals. Welcome to WatchMojo's Top 5 Myths, the series that finds the biggest myths people actually believe and dispels them one by one. In today’s installment, we're counting down the top 5 myths about Neanderthals.

Myth #5: We Are their Direct Descendants
The typical timeline of human evolution shows that we – the human race – followed on from the Neanderthals smoothly and naturally. But, according to a 2014 study published in the journal Nature, there was actually an overlap period of between 2,600 and 5,400 years, during which humans and Neanderthals inhabited the Earth together amidst a ‘cultural mosaic’ which existed for millennia. While it’s believed that the two groups lived largely separate from one another, it’s also suggested that interbreeding occurred and that modern humans (yes, us, today) are the product of that. This explains why scientists attribute parts of our genetic makeup to our prehistoric cousins; DNA linked to type 2 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, lupus, and biliary cirrhosis is thought to have been inherited from the Neanderthals. Even mankind’s propensity for nicotine addiction has been linked to neanderthal genes.


Myth #4: Their Speech Was Limited
When it comes to communications, we tend to think of Neanderthals grunting, growling and generally being unintelligible. However, recent studies and archaeological findings suggest that the species was actually capable of speaking in a similar way to humans. The idea first emerged in 1989, when a hyoid bone was discovered which looked just like a human’s. The hyoid is a horseshoe-shaped structure located in the neck, which supports the root of the tongue and enables us to talk. Other primate species have it, but, crucially, it’s located differently – which is why we can’t chat with chimpanzees. But Neanderthal fossils seem to have hyoids that are similar to our own. While it’s obviously impossible to categorically prove it without access to a time machine– which I’m hoping someone is working on– science has now accepted that Neanderthals were capable of some form of sophisticated conversation; the evidence speaks for itself, quite literally.


Myth #3: They Were Emotionally Insensitive Savages
Kill; eat; sleep; repeat. That’s the Neanderthal way of life, right? Actually, experts say that they may have been more emotionally developed than we might assume at first glance. Sure they needed food to survive the same as everything else, but their existence wasn’t as savage or as slaughter-filled as the films would have us think. Tellingly, there’s evidence of life-threatening injuries which were nursed back to health, suggesting that Neanderthals were healers as well as hunters. If they really were incapable of thinking past their next meal, then surely the wounded would have been left to die? Furthermore, fossilised musical instruments have also been found, indicating that Neanderthals enjoyed the entirely recreational pastime of music. Because no matter how good your prehistoric femur bone flute solo is, it’s not gonna put food on the table.

Myth #2: They Were Stupid
The word “neanderthal” has taken on a connotation of stupidity. However, in the words of researcher Paola Villa, “The evidence for cognitive inferiority is simply not there.” But there do exist some signs of braininess and intellect. Archaeological findings across Europe suggest that Neanderthals hunted in groups, executing routines and exercises which would have required pre-planning, teamwork and coordination. Far from using just clubs and rocks as weapons, they created and used tools shaped using stone, wood, and bone, and there’s evidence they manufactured cord. Some fossil evidence also suggests that their homes were organized into distinct areas for work, for rest, and sleep. There are extant cave paintings that may have been created by neanderthals too. So while popular perception paints the Neanderthal as a mindless creature and a mid-point between the apes and man, they were likely on the same level as us, just naturally not as advanced. Remember, we’ve got time on our side, almost 30,000 years of it!


Myth #1: Fire Was Rare
Until recently it was believed that fire was the ultimate friend and foe of the early hominid population – that the species had no clue how to make it and little idea how to control it when it did erupt, but that it also relied on it immensely. However, unlike the early homo sapiens in Quest For Fire, Neanderthals could create and keep flames for themselves, and, upon analysis of teeth, there’s even evidence of cooking over camp-style fires. According to Villa, at least some of them even used fire as a means of manufacturing other products – notably an adhesive liquid called pitch, which is made by burning bark from birch trees in a process that requires a high degree of care and sophistication.

So, how many of these myths did you believe? Here’s what Google searchers are asking about Neanderthals: (Did Neanderthals have dreadlocks? Were Adam & Eve neanderthals? Do neanderthals still live among us? ) For more blazing inferno Top 10s and burned out Top 5s published daily, be sure to subscribe to WatchMojo.com.
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