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What’s Behind the Evolution of Neanderthal Portraits

Since the 1800s, Neanderthal depictions have evolved not only with changing science but also due to social views. An archaeologist explains why visualizations of our evolutionary cousins matter.
A person with short gray hair wearing a blue shirt holds a black camera up to their face and points it at a figure that looks like a hairy unclothed person with one hand on their lap and the other on its chin.

A photographer in 2004 snaps pictures of a pensive Neanderthal figure on display at the Prehistoric Museum in Halle, Germany.

Sebastian Willnow/DDP/AFP/Getty Images


In 1888, a few decades after the first scientifically named Homo neanderthalensis fossil surfaced, anthropologist and anatomist Hermann Schaaffhausen made a portrait of what that Neanderthal might have looked like in life.

Found in Germany’s Neander Valley, the actual fossil was just the top of a skull—a teardrop-shaped dome fronted by big brows—without the facial bones below. But Schaafhausen filled in the blanks and sketched a Neanderthal visage in profile: a hairy, husky fellow with a protruding jaw.

Eighteen years earlier, scientist Louis Figuier published an illustration that depicted the Neander Valley individual as a biologically modern, fur-clad European. From the same fossil, two contemporaries drew diametrically opposed images.

Why did this happen?

As a social Darwinist, Schaaffhasuen believed various races represented different stages in a linear progression of human evolution. To him, Neanderthals belonged to a primitive stage of cave dwellers. Gorilla-like and uncivilized, Schaaffhausen’s Neanderthal begged for physical and moral betterment. Figuier, a creationist, viewed Neanderthals as humans like us—manifested by a Biblical God on the sixth day of creation. He envisioned Neanderthals as biologically modern, but—like babies—needing to learn the ways of civilization.

A black-and-white graphic depicts several people wearing fur loincloths swinging clubs at an aggressive bear. Two mammoths are visible in the distance.

The image “Man in the Great Bear and Mammoth Epoch,” which appeared in Louis Figuier’s 1870 book Primitive Man, depicts Neanderthals as modern aside from their stone tools and furs.

Louis Figuier/Chapman and Hall/Project Gutenberg

A sepia and white sketch depicts the side profile of a person with a protruding brow, a large jaw, shaggy hair, and a mustache and beard.

In his monograph Der Neanderthaler Fund, Hermann Schaaffhausen reconstructed an ape-like visage of a Neanderthal based on the first-named fossil from Neander Valley and later finds from Spy Cave in Belgium.

Hermann Schaaffhausen/PressBooks

Since this early set of illustrations, plenty of ink and paint has been spilled over the interpretation and depiction of Neanderthals. These images must be situated within their historical contexts. When looking at Neanderthal reconstructions—and scientific illustrations at large—it is important to unpack how social and political views color the rendering of evidence.

Interpretations sometimes say more about their makers than their subjects.


Neanderthals, our evolutionary cousins, diverged from our lineage around 600,000 years ago. They roamed Eurasia for hundreds of thousands of years until they went extinct around 40,000 years ago. In many ways, they resembled our Paleolithic ancestors: Both used stone tools, cooperated, and took care of their kind. But distinctions stand out. Stockier and endowed with massive brows, Neanderthals survived some of Eurasia’s coldest conditions where no Homo sapiens ventured during those cold spells.

What Neanderthals looked like has always mattered. More than just accompanying artwork, Neanderthal visualizations represent a touchstone for what it means to be human.

A black-and-white graphic depicts a hairy, unclothed figure standing next to a towering rock with a club in one hand and a rock in the other. A skull lies on the ground in front of it.

For the 1909 illustration “The Man of La Chapelle-aux-Saints,” artist František Kupka relied on Marcellin Boule’s scientific interpretation of Neanderthal remains found in France.

Charles Phelps Cushing/ClassicStock/Getty Images

A gray, stone statue depicts the bust of a person with shoulder length hair, and a mustache and beard sits against a black background. Below that, a block of text reads, “Pt. V. The Neanderthal man of La Chapelle-aux-Saints, inhabiting the Dordogne region of central France in Mousteria times. Antiquity estimated as between 40,000 and 25,000 years. After the restoration modelled by J.H. McGregor. For the bodily proportions of this hunting race compare the frontispiece, Pl. I.

Using the same fossil material, curators and paleoanthropologists commissioned this bust, “The Neanderthal Man of La Chapelle-aux-Saints,” for the American Museum of Natural History in 1915.

Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons

Before the 20th century, only scattered bones of Neanderthals had been discovered. The first nearly complete skeleton was found at the French site of La Chapelle-aux-Saints in 1908. The French paleoanthropologist Marcellin Boule analyzed the fossils and placed Neanderthals closer to monkeys and apes than humans. An image, based on his conclusions, showed a hairy, stooped ape-like figure holding a club and stone.

In contrast, British anatomist Arthur Keith thought that Neanderthals belonged to the European lineage. This was not a gesture of inclusivity: Keith, a proponent of scientific racism, believed that humankind originated in Europe. He worked with an artist to produce a Neanderthal illustration that, just like Figuier’s, looked like a European man. The figure sat by a fire making stone tools while wearing fur clothes and a necklace.

Boule’s ape-like man met an evolutionary dead end. Keith’s nearly European Neanderthal figured into human history.

Despite differing stances about Neanderthals’ place in human evolution, both perspectives were influenced by imperialism and the popularity of “race science.” According to this now debunked and denounced view, races were seen as biologically distinct groups that could be organized into a hierarchy. Neanderthals became a tool to further this ideology.

In 1911, Anglo-French artist Amédéé Forestier rendered this European-looking Neanderthal also based on interpretations of the fossils from La Chapelle-aux-Saints.

The horrors of World War II shifted perspectives on race and imperialism in public and academic spheres worldwide. Scientific racism retreated in the face of widespread criticism of the notion that certain living populations could be deemed biologically, intellectually, and culturally inferior.

In this post-war era, William Straus Jr. and Alexander Cave re-examined Boule’s original analysis of the La Chapelle-aux-Saints Neanderthal. In 1957, they detailed inaccuracies of the early interpretation. The work led them to believe that if a shaved, bathed, and well-dressed Neanderthal rode a New York City subway, “it is doubtful whether he would attract any more attention than some of its other denizens.”

With a push toward a more united perspective on humanity, Neanderthals were welcomed into the fold.


A major shift in Neanderthal perceptions occurred in 1971 when archaeologist Ralph Solecki reported on excavations in Shanidar Cave, Iraq. His work suggested Neanderthals cared for ailing kin and buried their dead with flowers based on the presence of pollen. He famously commented on Neanderthals that “although the body was archaic, the spirit was modern.” Although more recent research has shown the pollen likely came from burrowing rodents, Solecki’s report had a profound impact on perceptions of Neanderthals at the time.

Later that year, an illustrated nonfiction book for the public brought the Neanderthal flower people to life. In the book, Neanderthals held feasts and funerals. This updated, more human-like Neanderthal garnered the backing of scientists and increasing public sympathy.

Similarly, a 1985 National Geographic illustration depicted Neanderthals communicating and cooperating while butchering an ibex and crafting tools. Notably, the females are the focus. They butcher, gather, and converse. Male Neanderthals, on the other hand, stand largely in the background.

The depiction of female Neanderthals as central characters challenged portrayals of Paleolithic women—usually shown tending infants on the periphery while men hunted and fashioned stone tools. Reflecting the Women’s Liberation Movement, this cartoon visualized feminist critiques of male-centric approaches to research.


Still today, social and political forces bias interpretations of Neanderthals.

Contemporary depictions of Neanderthals at museums and in pop culture tend to have light skin as a result of genetics research in the early to mid-2000s. However, later studies examining more Neanderthal DNA concluded that at least some individuals had darker skin, brown eyes, and deep red hair.

How well can scientists glean skin tone from genomes? Another study considered both Neanderthals and well-known living people such as Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor at Harvard University and the host of Finding Your Roots. Using gene markers, the authors predicted lighter or darker skin pigmentation with about 60 percent accuracy for the living folks—little over the random chance of a coin flip.

Dutch artists and brothers Adrie and Alfons Kennis show how they craft models of Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens for the Natural History Museum in London in 2014.

Still, the image of the “white” Neanderthal has persisted. White supremacists have latched onto the idea that harboring Neanderthal genes represents a marker of European purity—despite the fact that populations worldwide have traces of Neanderthal DNA, including, contrary to first reports, some African genomes.

Since their discovery, Neanderthals have occupied a precarious space as our uncanny cousins. Neanderthal images, rendered by researchers or artists, convey not only scientific hypotheses. They also express social movements and notions of humanness.

So, when looking at a Neanderthal image or any scientific illustration, consider what else it may depict: Science braided with sociopolitics.

A person with shoulder-length black hair smiles at the camera.

Cindy Hsin-yee Huang (she/her) is a Paleolithic archaeologist with a focus on stone tools and cultural evolution. She is a Ph.D. candidate at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, and affiliated with the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University. Her dissertation, supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, studies the emergence and dispersal of microliths, or small stone tools, across Eurasia during the late Pleistocene. This research attempts to understand large-scale patterns of innovation and cultural diffusion during the ancient past and how those impacted, facilitated, and reflected human evolution, migration, and social interactions. Follow her on X, formerly Twitter, at @CHYHuang.


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