The Real Neanderthal

Neanderthals weren't brutish or dim-witted. New discoveries reveal they were more human than we ever thought!
Available on CBC Gem

The Real Neanderthal

Nature of Things

Neanderthals, our distant cousins, first appeared in Eurasia around 400,000 years ago. They’ve long been portrayed as sturdy, but brutish and dim-witted: the ultimate caveman. But ever since the first Neanderthal fossil was discovered in the mid-19th century, it’s been impossible to grasp who they really were and how they lived —until now.

New archeological discoveries, combined with cutting-edge scientific techniques, are bringing us closer than ever to Neanderthals. The Real Neanderthal, a new documentary from The Nature of Things, follows experts around the world as they uncover incredible new evidence which upends our perception of them. It seems Neanderthals were actually much more like us than we imagined.

The journey begins in the Netherlands, where 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.

Scientists and archaeologists take us through their surprising discoveries. Neanderthals were organized, social and caring. Ambitious adventurers, they roamed Eurasia in small clans of all ages. They had advanced building skills and an astonishing mastery of fire. They might have been some of the world’s first artists, capable of abstract thought.

Neanderthals had advanced knowledge of healing, using plants as painkillers and antiseptics. They also crafted remarkable tools and used hunting techniques we never thought them capable of. For archaeologist João Zilhão, the evidence is clear: “[If] you assess intelligence on the basis of what people actually did, you find no difference between what people we call Neanderthals and the people whom we call modern humans in Africa were doing at the same time.”

But the most amazing discovery is how their story intertwines with our own. Forensic studies show that, at some point, Neanderthals and our direct ancestors — Homo sapiens — crossed paths. Our two species were similar enough that they could produce successful offspring. Even though Neanderthals disappeared tens of thousands of years ago, parts of them still walk the Earth today. Neanderthal DNA makes up approximately two per cent of the genome of people of non-African descent. Not only that, but some of our physical traits and mental health issues — like depression and addiction — may be linked to our distant cousins.

Through the remarkable work of international experts, the stunning landscapes where Neanderthals once lived and roamed, and the fascinating cave interiors they explored, The Real Neanderthal answers bold questions about who we are and how we came to be.

A much clearer picture is just beginning to take shape.