Questions for ‘Neandertals were a lot like our human ancestors’

a reconstruction of what a Neandertal may have looked like, more human than many previous interpretations. Picture shows a bearded male with blond hair, blue eyes, a large wide nose and a heavy brow.

Archaeological evidence shows that Neandertals were intelligent and capable individuals. Genetic evidence also suggests some could have had light hair and fair skin. Artist John Gurche digitally reconstructed this head by working from the image of a skull from a classic Neandertal skeleton — La Ferrassie 1 — unearthed in France.

© J. Gurche 2023

To accompany Neandertals were a lot like our human ancestors’  


Before Reading:

  1. How might an archeologist answer the question “What is a Neandertal?” Now consider how a typical student might answer the same question. Write a short description of how a typical student might describe the behavior and capabilities of a Neandertal compared to modern humans.
  2. Imagine you lived 50,000 years ago. You have simple tools and make your clothes from animal skins. Describe the type of environment in which you’d like to live. It need not be a real place, so feel free to be creative! Describe the ideal climate. Is it hot or cold? How often does it rain? Then describe the landscape. Is this fictional landscape flat, mountainous or something else altogether? Is it a forest? What animals live here? Think about simple tools you would most want to have. (Remember that your species cannot yet work with metal, so these tools must be made from stone or animal/plant products.) Choose two tools. Briefly explain your choices.

During Reading:

  1. Why have scientists long assumed that humans must have been better somehow than Neandertals?
  2. In what year did workers first discover Neandertal artifacts near a hot spring in Italy? 
  3. Why is it rare to find wooden tools from ancient times? Why were the tools found near the hot spring so well preserved? How old are these tools? 
  4. From what type of wood were these tools made? What about this wood makes it “difficult to shape”? What extra step do archeologists believe the Neandertals used to make the wood-shaping process easier?
  5. What kinds of things did Neandertals likely use their “digging sticks” for? 
  6. In what country did archeologists unearth a piece of cord that had been made by Neandertals? How old is this cord? 
  7. From what type of plant did the Neandertals get fibers to make this cord? From which part of the plant? During what time of year must these fibers have been harvested?
  8. How does a three-ply cord differ from a two-ply cord? Which type best describes the Neandertal cord?
  9. What evidence did archaeologists find that suggests Neandertals were capable of caring for injured members of their community?
  10. According to unearthed skeletons, what share of Neandertals suffered traumatic injuries?
  11. Approximately how much Neandertal DNA do most modern humans carry in their genomes?

After Reading:

  1. Imagine your friend must research Neandertals for a class project. Your friend tells you they “really don’t want to because Neandertals were boring and couldn’t do anything.” What misconceptions does your friend have about people? What could you say to your friend to address those misconceptions? Include findings from this story to support your answer.
  2. The word “assumption” is defined by the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary as “a belief or feeling that something is true or that something will happen, although there is no proof.” Keeping that definition in mind, choose one ancient civilization with which you are at least a tiny bit familiar and write it down. (For example, you could choose ancient Egypt, Rome or the Maya.) Do you think you carry any assumptions about this civilization? Explain why or why not. To what extent might assumptions about ancient civilizations interfere with a person’s ability to learn more about that civilization? To what extent do you think humans make assumptions about present-day groups of people? Explain your answer.