The Nature of Things·Article

Canadian museum brings Neanderthals to life in the 21st century

New research is rewriting the history of Neanderthals and showing us how they actually looked — just like us

New research is rewriting the history of Neanderthals and showing us how they actually looked — just like us

Neanderthal. The word alone is an insult — shorthand for a brute. But recent discoveries have shown Neanderthals were far more sophisticated than we thought. In The Real Neanderthal, a new documentary from The Nature of Things, we learn Neanderthals might have been more like us than we realize. 

In the documentary, we see artists assembling two Neanderthal models — a father and a daughter — who featured in the "Planet Ice" exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, and will appear in the same exhibit at the Ontario Science Centre in the spring. According to Ailsa Barry, the museum's vice-president of experience and engagement, Neanderthals were uniquely adapted to the cold period in which they lived. 

Reconstruction artists build life-like figures of a Neanderthal father and daughter: The Real Neanderthal

The Nature of Things

5 months ago
0:54
World-renowned reconstruction artists — and identical twin brothers — Adrie and Alfons Kennis are using archaeological evidence and forensic methods to build life-like figures of a Neanderthal father and daughter. 0:54

"We wanted to explain how Neanderthals, who lived in a significantly colder climate than [today], had physically adapted," she said. "Their outer extremities aren't long and lean, so they can retain heat better. They had very large nasal passages that were about 30 per cent larger than modern humans'.… One theory is that because that can warm and moisten large amounts of dry, cold air, [it] enables you to take in more oxygen and do more activities in the cold weather."

Rewriting Neanderthals in history

Barry said Neanderthals have gotten a bad rap. "They were considered crude people with no kind of emotional intelligence," she said. 

But those myths were largely rooted in false assumptions and bad science. Barry said when 19th century scientists first saw the Neanderthal's heavy, thick-browed skull, they jumped to conclusions.

"They didn't have the knowledge to look at it more forensically," she said. "And then you have to think about the time they were discovered, when people had quite strange concepts of anything other than themselves anyway. I think it essentially was ignorance…. [When these assumptions] are rooted in culture and rooted in mythology, they're really hard to get rid of."

More recent discoveries, like those explored in The Real Neanderthal, show our ancient cousins in a different light. There's evidence they made abstract art, shared food, and even cared for the sick and elderly. 

Evidence shows that Neanderthals cared for the sick and elderly: The Real Neanderthal

The Nature of Things

5 months ago
1:19
Ancient bones show impressive medical practices meant to heal and reduce pain. 1:19

"There have been a lot of signs in Germany of shelters built together in collective groups," said Barry. "We know that they were quite sophisticated in their hunting techniques. The area that I think is going to be interesting in the future is understanding what kind of social groups or social rituals or social culture they had, which was collective across Neanderthals."

We coexisted with Neaderthals for millenia, even had babies with them

Recent discoveries have also shown the traditional theories of how Neanderthals disappeared — that they were essentially driven to extinction by early modern humans — is also not true. In reality, Neanderthals and Homo sapiens coexisted for millennia. 

"We now know there was a whole range of hominids who were kind of coexisting at the same time," said Barry. "We're just beginning to understand how much they may have intermingled to give us what currently we have today on Earth, what we consider to be Homo sapiens."

All humans have some Neanderthal DNA, with people of Asian and European heritage sharing around 2 per cent of their genetic makeup.

Barry hopes with the models featured in the exhibit, where people could stand face to face with the Neanderthal father and daughter, were able to see that commonality and think about Neanderthals differently.

"When people are looking at the Neanderthals in their eyes — looking at the little girl, looking at the adult — they think, 'Hey, these people are not that dissimilar from me. They're hominids; I have their DNA in me,'" she said.

Barry added that she worked with the model-makers — Dutch brothers Adrie and Alfons Kennis — in her previous job at the Natural History Museum in London. She's seen how their work impacts museum-goers.

"We bought two figures — one Neanderthal and one ancient Briton — and I've seen people's reactions to having the figures up close and personal, particularly to the quality that the brothers can do," she said. "[That's] why it's a joy to work with them.... They are forensic in their scientific knowledge.... They do all the calibrations and look at what the actual model would be, working it all out, building it up and putting the muscle on.

"It's shaking up people's preconceived ideas about what Neanderthals were, what humans are ... it's a little bit messier and more interesting than we thought."

You can come face-to-face with these Neanderthals at the "Planet Ice" exhibit, opening at the Ontario Science Centre in the spring of 2021. 

Watch The Real Neanderthal on The Nature of Things.  

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