The Women of the Neanderthals
The first Neanderthal face to emerge from time’s sarcophagus was a woman’s. As the social and liberal revolutions of 1848 began convulsing Europe, quarry workers’ rough hands pulled her from the great Rock of Gibraltar. Calcite mantling her skull meant that, at first, she seemed more a hunk of stone than a once warm-blooded being, and obscured her decidedly odd anatomy – massive eyes, heavy brow ridges and a low, long cranium. While monarchies fell and serfs breathed the sweet air of freedom that year, it would take another decade for human origins as a science to begin its own overthrow of the old world order. The first recognised Neanderthal was a different skull-top, blasted from the Feldhofer cave in Germany in 1856, just two years before Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin presented their theory of evolution by natural selection.
However, the Forbes skull, as the earlier Gibraltarian find is now known, had to wait until 1863 for her turn in the limelight. Catching the eye of a visiting doctor with anthropological interests, she was packed aboard a ship bound for Britain, then introduced to none other than Darwin (who reportedly found the experience ‘wonderful’). While her overall anatomy excited huge interest, her potential sex was little considered. Instead, the world-wrenching significance of the Forbes and Feldhofer fossils was the first proof of another kind of ancient human entirely.
The adult female Neanderthal cranium discovered at Forbes’ Quarry, Gibraltar. Photo courtesy the Natural History Museum, London
As the 19th century gave way to the 20th and more Neanderthal bones began to be discovered, scientists began to suspect that the Forbes skull was female. Despite the pulled-forward face and cavernous nasal aperture, her skull is small and brows slightly less jutting than the Feldhofer cranium. But it was only with the development of ancient genetic analysis – so preposterously beyond 19th-century science it would have seemed magic – that we were able to confirm she was a woman. Fine powder drilled from her inner ear was distilled down to genetic strands, then snagged onto a silica membrane; the same elemental constituent of the stone tools she’d been surrounded by in life. The researchers were interested largely in her age and relatedness to other Neanderthal genetic lineages, so the fact that she was a woman was something of a sideshow. But identifying X-chromosome frequency is one thing; what was the life of half the Neanderthal world that she represents – women – really like?
Archaeology is no exception to biases against women’s interests across science and the humanities. Since the early days, a tendency to conceptualise humanity’s deep origins as populated literally by ‘cavemen’ has led to presumed male activities being presented as most visible and interesting. A clear demonstration of this is found in the materialisation of these visions as reconstructions, both drawn and sculpted. The first ever sketch of a living Neanderthal imagined the owner of the Forbes skull, doodled (apparently casually during a meeting) by the biologist Thomas Huxley in 1864. Its decidedly simian features have no hint of female character. In fact, for most of the subsequent 160 years, female Neanderthals – if featured at all – tend to be fewer in number, peripherally located, and limited to ‘domesticated’ activities including childcare and skin-working. They are essentially scenery, in the words of the anthropologist Diane Gifford-Gonzalez, rather than active providers working on stone knapping or hunting and, in addition, they’re often fearfully lurking, hidden in dark grottos.
More nuanced approaches since the 1980s to gender and women’s lives in later prehistory barely filtered through to research on early Homo sapiens, never mind Neanderthals. Most often discussed indirectly via theories of fertility as a potential reason for their disappearance by 40,000 years ago, Neanderthal women have been ‘protagonists’ only a few times in recent research. By combining newborn infant remains and rarely preserved pelvic bones, reconstructions in 2008 and 2009 gave us insight into the precise mechanisms of Neanderthal birth, while another notable study in 2006 directly considered sex-based activities, or rather a claimed lack of them. In general, however, despite ever-more ingenious archaeological methods and analysis, the experience of Neanderthal women’s lives has received relatively little attention.
Failing to consider the biological and social context of half the population will lead to unbalanced theories, and potentially miss key perspectives. One ‘fact’ many people have heard is that, contrary to their historical reputation as dullards, Neanderthals had larger brains than us. In fact, on average they’re comparable with human males but, since it’s suspected that males might be over-represented in the fossil sample, it’s hard to know what this really means.
And this is a key point: when all you have are bones, identifying sex can be tricky. While we have a fair number of partial skeletons and thousands of fragments, all too often, the most crucial part – the pelvis – is missing or damaged. In its absence, tentative identifications rest on assuming that – as with us, H sapiens – Neanderthal women tended to be smaller and more lightly built. On that basis, very few of the more complete bodies have been described as women’s.
What if we stop treating Neanderthals as a monolithic population, and consider how being female might have influenced their life?
But things have begun to shift with the advent of ancient genetics, allowing not just confirmations in the case of the Forbes woman, but also tiny bony parts to be tested. Those identified through DNA include the Altai woman who lived in western Siberia around 90,000 years ago, another slightly later in time but relatively close by at Chagyrskaya cave, and the Vindija woman who died in what’s now Croatia much closer to the final few millennia of the Neanderthals.
Even where we’re lucky enough to have DNA samples, assumptions must still be made. Since prehistory lacks written texts, we can’t hear testimony on how Neanderthals categorised themselves. Therefore, archaeologists must draw on biological and anthropological understanding of sex and gender. While it’s highly likely that the majority of Neanderthals conformed genetically and visually to today’s sexual classification of male and female, in reality these aren’t neatly boxed because bodies are messy. For example, based on living people, around one in 2,000 Neanderthals might have been intersex.
Gender is another question. As a phenomenon that emerges from an individual’s unique biology and social context, gender can align with physical sexual characteristics or be more fluid.
These issues matter beyond semantics. Brain size is a case in point: in order to construct theories about their evolution, we need to know the real range of their variability. In a similar way, it’s now well understood that although some Neanderthals survived the blasting cold of Pleistocene glacial ages, plenty lived in balmier climes. As a species, they were as familiar with the clicking of reindeer hooves and trumpeting of mammoths as the bellowing of hippos amid screaming cicadas. Today, their unique anatomy is increasingly understood as adapted to intensive hunter-gatherer lifestyles, whatever the climate. But there has been less focus on sex. What happens if we stop treating Neanderthals as a monolithic population, and consider how growing up female might have influenced their experience of life?
Let’s begin at the start. Hold two crumple-faced newborn girls, one human, one Neanderthal, and you’d have to look closely to see differences. Both equally vulnerable, fitting the smallest-size onesies, their skin velvety-soft. The Neanderthal baby doesn’t yet have heavy brows and, lit by a hearth’s dull glow, her eyes are probably as slate-dark and limpid as any human newborn’s. But cradle her downy head, and it will feel slightly longer, with a bony nobble discernible above her neck.
She needs keeping close, her heartbeat and body temperature harmonising with those of her mother. Most crucially, she needs milk, and lots of it: her whole body feels weightier than a human of the same age, because her bones are already thicker. Born with a similarly tiny stomach as other babies, she must signal that she wants to nurse very often, touching her mouth, sticking out her tongue, rooting around hopefully on her mother’s chest. Perhaps the milk itself is richer, creamier: like a seal’s.
But sustenance for babies is about more than calories. As a fellow primate, she needs constant care and affection for proper development. Neanderthal infant brains appear to have started out around the same size though differently shaped, and followed a similar growth pattern to our own. She will hit roughly the same magical milestones as a human infant: looking intently at faces within the first month, probably smiling in some form by six weeks.
As she becomes a little girl, her body might grow up slightly faster. While there’s a lot of debate, it seems that most Neanderthal youngsters began losing their baby teeth a bit sooner. But, just like us, some were slower than others.
Muscle markings and bone development show that all Neanderthal children were highly active
Aside from being physically smaller than adults, did a Neanderthal ‘childhood’ exist? As our girl turned into an unsteady yet bold toddler, she would have spent less time around adults, and more with her peers. In hunter-gatherer cultures, gangs of kids form, from the littlest up to young teens, exploring and learning about both skills and relationships through play and foraging. Astonishingly, we can see something like this in Neanderthals. Among the rarely preserved ‘trace fossils’ at a handful of sites, juvenile footprints are commonest, and most striking are those from the dune site of Le Rozel in France. Here, around 80,000 years ago, most of the foot-shadows in the sand were left by at least four, and perhaps as many as 10, youngsters. They patter back and forth, and some are so diminutive that their owners cannot have been much more than two years old.
It’s not possible to identify the sex of the Le Rozel children but, in general, might Neanderthal girls have had particular experiences of childhood? One way to think about this is by considering our closest primate relatives. Over their first three years, young female chimpanzees stick closer to their mothers for longer, and have fewer playmates, than males. This mirrors the lower sociability of adult females who often lack friendships with their own sex. But this does mean that, unlike the faster-developing and more independent males, young females master the difficult technological skill of ‘termite fishing’ much sooner, by up to two years.
Intriguingly, female-specific activity in juvenile chimps seems to extend beyond mother-daughter interactions. Youngsters in one community have a stick-carrying tradition that researchers believe is similar to doll play: basically, mimicking infant care. It can last for hours, including bringing the stick into nests and playing ‘with’ it. It’s most common in females, but crucially, unlike other uses of sticks, the carrying stops once they’ve had their first baby. This means that youngsters can’t simply be copying it from their mothers – rather, they’re learning from their peers.
Unfortunately, without more DNA analysis of Neanderthal children’s remains, it’s impossible to pick out evidence for a distinctive ‘girlhood’. But, in general, muscle markings and bone development show that all children were highly active. Youngsters certainly begin mimicking – or were taught – key life skills. Wear and tiny scratches show that nine- or 10-year-olds were nimble enough to slice food held in their teeth, while even smaller children’s mouths must have ached from holding or chewing materials, perhaps animal skins.
Shifting into adolescence, biology kicked in hard. Across human cultures, even when younger children hang out together, their ‘work play’ tends to be associated with their own gender, and this becomes amplified during puberty. As Neanderthal girls became women, something similar might have been going on, and perhaps one of the things driving them to spend time with each other would have been menstruation. Assuming a comparable or slightly faster development pattern to humans, Neanderthal girls probably began bleeding between 11 to 16 years of age, and their actual experience was likely just as variable as it is today. Discomfort and even pain would have been known, while others might have been less bothered. However, rare research with hunter-gatherer women suggests that perhaps their periods were shorter, lasting three days or less, compared with the experience of women in industrialised populations. But the practicalities – what it meant to bleed, how to clean themselves – are something else. Who they learned this from is an interesting question: peers, older siblings, or mothers? Sanitary cloths might well have been one use for those animal skins that their teeth had already been working soft for years.
Of course, the other key thing many of us associate with being a teenager is a rapidly growing interest in sex. Flooded by horny hormones, along with growth spurts and emotional turmoil, we should absolutely expect that Neanderthal girls were getting it on. But did they make the connection between sex and its frequent result: babies? Comprehending reproduction is universal across all human societies, and an apparent clear line between us and the rest of the animal world. Maternal relationships are fairly obvious, but if Neanderthals grasped paternity this would have made more complex ideas such as kin lineages a possibility.
What’s unclear however is whether young women left their groups to live independently. Despite huge differences in the ways that their societies operate, both chimpanzees and bonobos are patrilocal, meaning that the young females must shift to another troupe to mate. Yet among hunter-gatherers, the overwhelming pattern is matrilocal: girls typically stay with their mothers. In practice, movement between groups is fluid, and sometimes siblings or even non-blood kin will host them.
However, some Neanderthal populations might have been so sparse that there weren’t many options for sexual partners. The Altai woman’s DNA from Denisova cave in Siberia revealed that she not only belonged to a tiny ‘breeding population’ overall – probably fewer than 100 individuals – but that her parents were very close relations too. We’re talking either an aunt with a nephew, a grandparent with a grandchild, or even two half-siblings; by most standards, that’s beyond inbred and into incest. What she, or her mother, thought of this situation is unknowable. It might have been normal or not but, intriguingly, though not coming from such close parents, the Chagyrskaya girl from the same region also came from a similarly small breeding population.
Neanderthal women very likely did hunt – and were probably accompanied by babies and children
Yet that’s not the case everywhere. The Vindija woman’s population, although still small, was several times larger and not hugely inbred, implying that individuals must have sometimes moved between groups. On balance, since Neanderthals are far closer evolutionarily and in lifestyle to hunter-gatherers than to chimps, perhaps we should assume that it was young women looking forward to male incomers, rather than the other way round. Large, seasonal gatherings of herds could have offered a chance to encounter strangers from far and wide, and such experiences were probably just as exciting as intimidating.
Whether she stayed or moved away, what was an adult Neanderthal woman’s life like? Did she, for example, hunt? Among chimpanzees and bonobos, the dominant hunters mirror their differing social organisation, with males and females respectively taking the lead. However, while active predation (rather than scavenging) probably extends back over a million years in the Homo lineage, so far there’s no direct evidence of which sexes were involved.
Could Neanderthals have been like hyaenas and wolves, where all adults hunt? Among recent hunter-gatherers, women as dominant lioness-style predators seem nonexistent. But across various cultures they do take part and make kills, very frequently taking small game and often accompanied by children and elders. Medium-sized species are also targeted, such as Copper Inuit women hunting reindeer or seal. The Agta women of Luzon in the Philippines are especially well-known, and in one study women hunters alone or in teams provided a third of big game by weight (add in mixed-sex groups, and it’s almost half). Overall, women spent a similar amount of time on hunting as men, killing wild pigs and deer, sometimes using bows and arrows. There’s also archaeological evidence from post-glacial cultures in the Americas of women’s burials containing hunting weaponry.
But there are nuances. The larger the animals or the further away they are to be found, the less often women take part. Perhaps tackling true megafauna and fanged species – whether mammoth on the steppe, or bears slumbering in winter dens – might have been mostly male tasks.
Taking all this together, Neanderthal women very likely did hunt some or much of the smaller game we find in sites, such as tortoise, rabbits and birds – and probably accompanied by babies and children. Yet the identity of big-game hunters probably shifted according to climate, season, landscape and other factors. Some 123,000 years ago, Neanderthal women of the forest marshes dragged beavers from their lodges, while their descendants 70 millennia – and 3,000 generations – later stalked red deer through wooded uplands.
One of the most convincing reasons to believe that Neanderthal women did experience life differently is the testimony of their own bodies. Research on limb bones suggests that, while their thighs were as strong relatively as men’s, their lower legs appear less intensively used. Sample sizes are small, however the impression is of different habits in moving around, with men perhaps scaling more rough terrain. Arms tell a similar story, with women’s lower arms getting more of a workout than their biceps. On top of this, while Neanderthal men apparently used their right and left arms differently (comparable to the asymmetry in professional tennis players), women’s arms were more symmetrically developed. Carrying heavy loads in both hands could cause this, just as we lug loaded travel or shopping bags. But pushing something up and down – or backwards and forwards – with both arms would also fit, which is particularly intriguing because one of the things we know that Neanderthals were doing an awful lot of is hide-working.
Even if they weren’t always hunters, it’s extremely likely that women were wielding butchery tools in the bloody aftermath. Part of this was about skin preparation: gore and membranes from fresh skins leave a particular polish on stone tools, while the laborious scraping of dried hides produces its own distinctive lustre. From at least 50,000 years ago, there are even special, round-tipped bone tools for the latter stages of softening and burnishing, called ‘lissoirs’. Made from the ribs of larger animals such as bison, crucially they would have needed two hands to use; exactly the pattern we see in Neanderthal women’s arms. Moreover, the intensity of tooth wear seen in Neanderthal women resembles that in Indigenous cultures with strong hide-working traditions, such as the Inuit, Yupik, Chukchi or Iñupiat.
Neanderthal life saw a growing tendency to split up activities across the landscape. While initial skin cleaning was done near kill sites and potentially by both men and women, it might be likely that the more time-consuming softening and stretching using mouths and lissoirs was happening where meaty joints and slabs of fat also ended up: family living sites.
Whether caves or open-air locales, Neanderthal homes were places where things from many places arrived, often accumulating around fires. It’s here, surrounded by aureola-like spreads of waste from shared meals and tool resharpening, that we can imagine a woman handing round animal skins, working them to softness as a child curls into her lap. This might sound unexpectedly domestic, but the archaeology itself reveals how hearths centred daily life.
If Neanderthal women cradled their bumps, they experienced the kicks of squirming infants within
The other thing happening in the light of the flames were relationships. Aside from archaeological evidence that they had a resource-sharing society, unlike other primates, Neanderthal body size doesn’t seem to have differed much between the sexes. It’s much more similar to most H sapiens populations, which suggests that violent male competition was not the dominant social structure. Instead, more likely something akin to the bonobos, whose adult lives are based around long-term female friendships, might have been possible.
Undoubtedly squabbles happened alongside jockeying for popularity, but the emotional and sexual lives of Neanderthal women were probably just as much about affection expressed by supplying of food – even gifts – as well as verbally and physically. Based on what we see among humans and in the animal kingdom more broadly, at least some intimacy could have been between women themselves.
Whether or not sexual caresses were exchanged as abundantly as between bonobos, it’s certain that the consequences of heterosexual encounters had an enormous impact on women’s experiences in life. No Neanderthal had a life of leisure, but bringing the next generation into existence added an extra burden to women’s already energy-hungry bodies. Gestation likely lasted as long – and bellies swelled as impressively – as ours, provoking the same physical discomforts. If Neanderthal women stroked and cradled their bumps, they certainly experienced the kicks and weird undulations of squirming infants within.
What might giving birth have been like? While experiences today vary dramatically, birthing can be life-defining: physically draining and emotionally tumultuous. Anatomically however, reconstructing this for Neanderthal women has been tricky. One of the very few mostly complete female skeletons emerged from Mount Carmel in then-Palestine in 1932, at the opposite end of the Mediterranean from Gibraltar. Known as Tabūn 1, her hip bones are partially preserved, and 21st-century modelling suggests that her and her contemporaries’ birth canals were shaped differently. Babies didn’t need to twist, and heads emerged sideways instead of facing backwards. On the other hand, while this potentially meant that births could have been somewhat faster, with less risk of infants getting stuck, the babies’ longer skulls meant it was still a tight squeeze.
Birthing would certainly have made women vulnerable, and a secure location would be critical, not just during labour but for the hours afterwards. Mothers probably preferred caves or other sheltered places, but did Neanderthal women go through this alone? It’s been proposed that H sapiens is unique in the desire and even need for birth ‘attendants’ but, assuming that Neanderthal social groups included friendship between women, this might not have been an unreasonable scenario for them too. It’s known in bonobos, where experienced females physically supporting and protecting the mother have been observed, even holding the baby’s head as it emerged.
After birth, other work begins, and breastfeeding was among the childcare skills that Neanderthal mothers needed to learn. Isotopic studies of teeth indicate that babies continued nursing beyond one year old, but were being introduced to solid foods around six or seven months: remarkably similar to many human cultures. Another kind of isotope shows that babies too little to walk were nonetheless moving around the landscape, and someone must have been carrying them. Frequently nursing, completely dependent babies need to be kept close and, for groups who were probably not staying anywhere for more than a few weeks, practical transport could have meant using skin wraps.
So far, archaeological science hasn’t developed a method to tell which particular female Neanderthals were mothers, though most probably were. The Forbes woman was certainly old enough to have gone a stage further and become a grandmother. Estimated to be least 40 years old, her skull bears a distinctive bony growth that can lead to headaches, thyroid issues and substantial weight gain. Potentially caused by high oestrogen levels, it might well be connected to her age.
But even if elder women were perhaps less robust, they might have had a crucial role. Returning to the issue of hunting, one of the factors that allows Agta women this freedom isn’t just the close proximity of game so they need be gone for no more than an hour or two. It’s also that they can rely on someone else to look after the infants and young children they leave behind. Older children can be babysitters, but often it’s more senior individuals – and, for many women, that will include their own mothers.
Grandparents have been proposed as a secret weapon of our own species, not just for their child-minding, but as reservoirs of wisdom too. Many decades of life translates to grandparents’ greater stores of knowledge and skill. One among many theories that sought, post hoc, to put Neanderthals in their place as evolutionary failures claimed that they died too young for a generation of elders to exist. However, when the totality of the skeletal data is examined, there isn’t much difference between them and early H sapiens. Hoary old ones are there and, even if they grew slightly faster as children, this wouldn’t have reduced total lifespan significantly. There’s no biological reason why elderly Neanderthal women – perhaps great-grandmothers – couldn’t have huddled by hearths.
Perhaps our own biases might be limiting possibilities for Neanderthal men, too
Beyond the bare fact of women’s existence in the deep past, that we can spy any glimmers at all of their experiences is quite remarkable. From birth, emerging into ember-glow or lucid dawn light, still connected to the bodies of their mothers, Neanderthal girls began to follow their own particular path. Surrounded as babies and toddlers by the sights, smells and sounds of adults and their activities, the threads of girl- and womanhood began aligning. Yet, the materialisation of sex-specialised roles doesn’t mean rigidity, but can be understood as an ever-shifting dialogue between biological considerations and the ancient hominin habit of collaboration, sharing and innovation.
Caveats exist, however. The current identified female sample is still quite small and, alongside unpicking the archaeological evidence, we must disentangle our own expectations of Neanderthal women. The asymmetry in Neanderthal men’s upper arms doesn’t really match how spear use activates muscles, yet the possibility that this was due to one-handed hide-scraping has been deemed unlikely due to its ‘un-masculine’ association in recent hunter-gatherers. Perhaps our own biases might be limiting possibilities for Neanderthal men, too.
And while chimpanzees or recent hunter-gatherers are useful as points from which to draw interpretive inspiration, what was going on 50,000 or 350,000 years ago might include things with no modern analogues. Just as the steppe-tundra contained a mosaic of plant species that are no longer found together, Neanderthal lives might have included things that we aren’t even imagining. What could have been normality for a girl growing up in the arid valleys of Central Asia would have been unfamiliar to her far-flung relation on the rocky coast of Iberia. These were ways of being human on a continental, epochal scale.
We began with the ‘first’ Neanderthal face; what about the last? Somewhere around 40,000 years ago, the many generations of Neanderthal women become invisible, at least in skeletal terms. The processes underlying this must have come in many guises, in many places, but one thing we know is that women of another kind – H sapiens – played some part, because Neanderthals were not entirely extinguished. Just 10 years ago, the first nuclear genome was meticulously reconstructed from three genetically identified females at Vindija; it revealed that, rather than ousting Neanderthals from Eurasia, we had in fact interbred with them.
In the decade since, recognised periods of contact now number at least four and perhaps seven or more, going back beyond 200,000 years ago. Most intriguingly, something of the dynamics is visible. In some earlier instances, Neanderthal women had the children of H sapiens men, but the later interbreeding after 60,000 years ago tells a different story. Nobody today has mitochondrial DNA like that in Neanderthals and, since it’s passed only maternally, this implies that interbreeding was more often between their men and our women.
It’s in these last hybrid babies that the female heritage of Neanderthals lives on. The DNA legacies of the mixed babies’ relations – half-sisters, half-aunts, half-grandmothers, and beyond – persisted through thousands of generations. Their billions of descendants are still here, walking Earth today.
Rebecca Wragg Sykes is a Palaeolithic archaeologist and honorary fellow at the University of Liverpool, specialising in Neanderthals. She is co-founder of the Trowelblazers website, celebrating women archaeologists, palaeontologists and geologists through the ages, and the author of Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art (2020). She lives in Wales.
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