Crude cave dwellers or close cousins? Meet the Neanderthals — long viewed as primitive creatures, the species is much more like us than we previously thought.
Drawing upon the most recent scientific discoveries, this major exhibition from the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle (France) takes a new look at this species of the genus Homo. It brings together, for the first time, exceptional fossils rarely shown to the public outside Europe.
Neanderthals were great hunters, worked stone, mastered the use of fire and buried their dead. They lived throughout Europe and Asia for 300,000 years before mysteriously disappearing 30,000 years ago.
An exhibition developed by the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle – Musée de l’Homme (Paris) and adapted by the Canadian Museum of History, with the support of the Government of Canada.
© Sculpture Elisabeth Daynes, Neanderthal-La Chapelle-aux-Saints. Photo: S. Entressangle.
- About the Exhibition
- Did you know that Neanderthals…
- Neanderthals: stereotypes vs reality
- Mark Your Calendar
- Get Your Souvenir Catalogue
About the Exhibition
This exhibition is divided into the three sections described below.
Come face to face with the real Neanderthals: great hunters, stoneworkers, masters of fire, and our social and empathetic human cousins.
The Changing World of Neanderthals
For more than 300,000 years, Neanderthals lived in a range of environments across Europe and in Southwestern and Central Asia, from hardwood forests to grasslands, and from tundra to frozen deserts. They thrived in often extreme climates that alternated between ice ages and warmer temperatures, and they coexisted with dangerous animals.
Although stereotyped as cave dwellers, Neanderthals mainly created open-air shelters. A recreation of a dig space features designated areas for specific activities, such as fashioning stone tools or cooking over the hearth. Discover the advanced tool-and weapon-making capabilities of Neanderthals, proof of how this species thrived under extreme conditions.
This section also features the Canadian legacy of Dr. Henri-Marc Ami (1858–1931), who established the Canadian School of Prehistory in France and shipped home a vast number of artifacts including a large cave bear, now held by the Canadian Museum of Nature.
Neanderthals’ physique reflects almost 300,000 years of evolution. Excavated remains were first identified in 1856 as a separate species and were incorrectly likened to apes before being classified as an inferior race. This stereotype was perpetuated in art as 19th century scientists commissioned visual artists to render creative interpretations that painted the Neanderthal as a brute.
Much of the species’ brain was devoted to the five senses and control of the body, leading some scientists to believe that this left little room for abstract thinking. Yet science shows that the Neanderthal brain’s two main language centres were well developed. And aside from demonstrating intelligence, these prehistoric people showed an aptitude for culture and society. They collected beautiful stones and shells, used pigments to express themselves, wore jewellery and buried their dead.
More than 160 years’ research on fossilized Neanderthal remains and artifacts continues to shape our understanding of their social dynamics and artistic expression, and their potential for complex thought.
New discoveries and enhanced scientific tools, including DNA testing, have vastly expanded our knowledge of prehistoric species. We can now learn a great deal from a single tooth, and what we are discovering is revealing the very roots of human existence. Neanderthal dental plaque and fossilized excrement produce unique genetic signatures, allowing scientists to identify whose environment the Neanderthals might have shared, the food they ate, and even the types of germs they may have hosted.
DNA reveals that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens (modern humans) share a common ancestor. As Neanderthals developed in Europe and Asia, Homo sapiens evolved in Africa before a small group met up again in the Middle East. Remnants of these encounters are found in modern humans of non-African descent, who carry 1 to 4 percent Neanderthal DNA. Homo sapiens burials in Israel have been found with items used by both species, attesting to the sharing of physical space, culture and knowledge.
There are many hypotheses explaining why Neanderthals disappeared, ranging from too much competition to lack of intelligence. Out of the original five hominid species that existed at the same time as Neanderthals did, we are the only ones remaining. Exploring the reasons behind Neanderthals’ disappearance raises existential questions about why we have survived and what the future has in store for humanity.
Did you know that Neanderthals…
… began fashioning unique tools about 300,000 years ago? Production of these tools required not only skill but a significant amount of intelligence, planning and preparation.
… may have been the first “artists” of Europe? Pigments found at several sites may have been used as body paint or to create art, including some that were found in caves.
… buried their dead? Their burial practices are reflected in the arrangement of bodies in graves, and the inclusion of funeral-related goods.
… were quite well versed in natural medicine? They used medicinal plants to treat ailments similar to our own, such as rheumatism, arthritis, cancer, tooth abscesses and digestive problems. They even consumed molds containing a natural antibiotic.
… had a varied diet based on what was available around them? They would eat mammoths, small mammals, plants, nuts, fish, shellfish, tortoises, reptiles, birds and even sea mammals.
… shared many physical characteristics with their ancestors and with modern humans? They also had features entirely their own, including short stature, stocky bodies with strong skeletons, powerful muscles, large barrel-shaped chest cavities, and short forearms.
… were extraordinary artisans? Skilled and adaptable, they not only developed complex tools, but also fashioned ornaments, used pigments and may have created symbolic expressions.
… may have been prehistoric collectors? Visually appealing artifacts, with no clear purpose, have been found at Neanderthal archaeological sites.
Neanderthals: stereotypes vs reality
- Neanderthals lived in caves, right?
Wrong! Neanderthals mainly created open air shelters, such as this one found at the La Folie archaeological site near Poitiers, France.
- Neanderthals would often be seen carrying a club, right?
Probably not. No clubs have ever been found at Neanderthal archaeological sites.
- Neanderthals didn’t like their veggies and mostly ate red meat, right?
Wrong! Researchers have found that Neanderthals were omnivorous — eating meat, plants and fish — adapting their diet to what was available. Much like we do.
- Making tools by hand requires talent that was clearly beyond Neanderthal capacity, right?
Wrong! Neanderthals were skilled artisans who, for hundreds of thousands of years, fashioned tools like knives, blades and scrapers.
- Neanderthals were definitely less smart than modern humans are, and that’s why they disappeared, right?
We don’t know. Their disappearance is shrouded in mystery, but was most likely due to multiple factors that may include the impact of Homo sapiens.
Mark your calendar
Get Your Souvenir Catalogue
Complete your visit by picking up the Neanderthal souvenir catalogue, on sale online and at the Museum Gift Shop.