This is how long it takes to investigate the morphological and behavioural features of the Neanderthal man whose portrait is refined and humanised from one sequence to the other.

To discover in the exhibition

The original Neanderthal fossils are assembled here. Some, among them the calotte, have rarely been exhibited, while others, such as the vestiges of the Spy graves (Belgium) have been lent only once.

© MNHN – JC Domenech

Based on endocasts’, Neanderthals possessed a large brain, sometimes bigger than our own.

© MNHN – JC Domenech

The original Neanderthal fossils are here for comparison with artists’ reconstitutions since the discovery in 1856 of part of his skeleton in the Feldhofer cave (Germany).

© MNHN – JC Domenech

The original Neanderthal fossils are here for comparison with artists’ reconstitutions since the discovery in 1856 of part of his skeleton in the Feldhofer cave (Germany).

© MNHN – JC Domenech

Although the objets fashioned by Neanderthal are relatively rare, they prove nonetheless that Neanderthals were capable of innovating and creating objects with symbolic and esthetic significance.

© MNHN – JC Domenech

Did Neanderthals adorn themselves? Probably, since shells, perforated animal teeth worn as pendants, feathers and raptor talons were found in Neanderthal living sites.

© MNHN – JC Domenech

The fossils are keys to understanding Neanderthal funeral rites and artistic expression.

© MNHN – JC Domenech

Skeleton of an individual of the la Ferrassie 1 site. The great La Ferrassie shelter is famous for its eight Neanderthal tombs which are the considered at the time of their discovery as the absolute proof that Neanderthals buried their dead.

© MNHN – JC Domenech

Some fossils present specific pathologies such as arthritis and osteoarthritis or even cancer.

© MNHN – JC Domenech

Neanderthals: from head to toe

In 1829, the skull of a child was discovered in Engis, Belgium and in 1848, a complete skull was found at Forbes’ Quarry (Gibraltar)… Despite the specific anatomical features observed, nobody ventured to say that they belonged to another human species. These discoveries went unnoticed. It is not until August 1856 that Neanderthals began to attract attention. Quarry workers in the Neander Valley, east of Düsseldorf, discovered bones and a skull fragment. They handed them over to the local school teacher, a natural history enthusiast. 

Eight Neanderthal skulls are gathered, among which for the first time the skull cap from the Neander Valley, exceptionally lent by the Bonn Museum / Koenig Museum.  While the skulls were the first evidence of the existence of humans differing from Homo sapiens, more or less complete skeletons also came to refine the Neanderthal portrait. Today, we know Neanderthals from head to toe, as demonstrated by the cast of the so-called Rozel footprints, named after the site in Cotentin, where they were found in 2012. Every piece has a double history - that of its discovery and that of its interpretation. Who found it and how was it discovered? Who was entrusted with the task of studying it, and what conclusions were reached? Captions and photographs recreate the context of the discovery of these seminal pieces in the history of science. 

The skull from the Neander Valley, exceptionally lent by Bonn Museum Mile /  Koenig Museum
The skull from the Neander Valley, exceptionally lent by Bonn Museum Mile / Koenig Museum, by © LVR-LandesMuseum Bonn, J. Vogel

This discovery was at odds with the prevailing scientific theories. In its classifying mission, Western science had placed Homo sapiens at the top of the scale of descent, in which species succeeded one another in a linear way. The culmination of this evolution was Homo sapiens, or modern humans. At the time, such a differently shaped skull could not be that of another Homo species, but rather that of a pathological sapiens. Neanderthals long suffered from the hierarchy then in effect, despite the major discoveries at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century: the sites of Spy in 1886, Krapina in 1899, Le Moustier in 1907, La Chapelle-aux-Saints in 1908, La Ferrassie in 1909 and La Quina in 1911…

The exhibition room of representations

Alongside original fossils, eleven 19th century busts exemplify the first three-dimensional representations of Neanderthals. This audacious exercise, undertaken for museographic and scientific popularization purposes, often involved the collaboration between a scientist and an artist. Amongst these busts, there is a series realised by the sculptor Louis Mascré, upon the request of Aimé Rutot, curator at the Royal Belgium Institute of Natural Sciences. Very unrealistic, these representations both reflect the vision prevailing at the time and responded to the general public’s curiosity, fuelled by the recent discoveries reported in the press.

Sculpture by N. Montecucco, 1909
Sculpture by N. Montecucco, 1909, by © Museo di Antropologia criminale “Cesare Lombroso”
View of the bust showcase
View of the bust showcase, by © Nicolas Krief

Neaderthals: An athlete’s physique and a good head

How can one recognise Neanderthals?

You can recognise Neanderthals by a morphology differing from ours, as evidenced by the skulls and bones exhumed since the 19th century, which have been measured, compared, X-rayed, scanned and analysed. The characteristics of the skull: large with a sloping forehead, a supra-orbital ridge forming a visor above the eyes, a large face, small chin and a very specific braincase shape that is flat and elongated at the back like a rugby ball.

Those features are not very pronounced amongst Neanderthal children whose morphology was closer to that of Homo sapiens. The stature of Neanderthals: smaller than Sapiens (between 1.52 m and 1.56 m for women and between 1.64 m and 1.68 m for men), they were robustly built. They were stocky, with short bow-legs, a large barrel-shaped rib cage, strong bones, broad hips and shoulders and long, thick arms, enabling ease of movement. Their robust bones were enveloped in a strong muscle structure. It is estimated that Neanderthals weighed on average 72 kg, varying from 60 to 85 kg. Palaeogenetics has made it possible to complete this portrait: genes seem to indicate light skin colour and, for certain Neanderthals, brown eyes and red or chestnut hair.

What do we know about Neanderthals’ intelligence?

The Neanderthal braincase contained a brain that was bigger than ours, reaching up to 1750 cm3. The brain does not fossilise. However, current imaging techniques have enabled us - by virtually casting the inner surface of the skull without altering the fossil’s integrity -, to observe the prints on the outer surface of the brain and thereby study the shape of the lobes. There is no evidence suggesting that Neanderthals were less intelligent than us. Their cognitive abilities enabled them to adapt and survive for almost 350,000 years.

To find out more

 From primitives to full-fledged human beings: a fresh look at Neanderthals

Fossils under surveillance

The Prehistory collection of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle hosts more than 600 original human fossils, from very diverse areas and periods. The collection includes famous Neanderthals: La Chapelle-aux-Saints (Corrèze), La Ferrassie (Dordogne), La Quina (Charente), Malarnaud (Ariège), Fontechavade (Charente), Montmaurin (Haute-Garonne), Pech-de-l’Azé (Dordogne) and Upper Palaeolithic humans.
As objects of study that are preciously kept in the reserve collection of the Musée de l’Homme - some of which are displayed in the Galerie de l’Homme -, skulls are fragile fossils. 

On the occasion of the exhibition, restoration work was required in order to clean the varnish often coating them and, above all, to consolidate their structure without altering the meticulous assembling completed at the time of their discovery - sometimes small fragments that are maintained thanks to glues and waxes. 

Restoration of the skull of the Pech-de-l’Azé Neanderthal child
Restoration of the skull of the Pech-de-l’Azé Neanderthal child, by © Nicolas Krief