Were Neanderthals Really as Incapable as We Portray Them to Be?

Bruce Hardy presenting.By Maya Fenter

When we see Neanderthals in popular news reports, they are almost always portrayed negatively. These images and stereotypes stick with us and influence our opinions.

In a public lecture Nov. 6 entitled, “Neanderthals, Too Stupid to Live?,” anthropologist Bruce Hardy discussed his efforts to test these stereotypes about Neanderthals.

“[Neanderthals] seem to be pretty stupid, or at least that’s what you read about,” Hardy said. “One of the things that I’ve been trying to do over the years is say ‘Does that make any sense?’ If you actually look at the archeology, not just go with the stereotypes, if you actually go in and look at sites and see what they’re doing, what are they actually capable of?”

Dr. Hardy is an anthropology professor at Kenyon College. He received a BA in French and Anthropology from Emory University and MA and Ph.D. in Anthropology from Indiana University.

Neanderthals lived around 300 to 400 thousand years ago, primarily in Europe. Physically, they were shorter, stockier, had more robust bones, shorter limbs, wider hips and larger brains.

In his lecture, Dr. Hardy referred to an article entitled “News Flash: Negative Evidence Convicts Neanderthals of Gross Mental Incompetence” written by one of his colleagues, John Speth of the University of Michigan. The article includes some of Speth’s colleagues and friends’ arguments about Neanderthals, such as that they weren’t capable of fishing, specialized hunting or tailoring clothes, that they didn’t eat plant foods or didn’t have any language.

Through research and experiments, Hardy discovered evidence that contradict many of these conceptions.

The dental calculus on Neanderthal skeletons, or the hardened buildup on their teeth, had bits of plant remains, disproving the common myth that Neanderthals were carnivores. Neanderthals also generally lived in very cold climates, though many believe that they weren’t intelligent enough to tailor their own clothes. To test this, Dr. Hardy made a prototype needle by sharpening a stick that was able to puncture textiles, showing that clothing could have been made with the materials available to Neanderthals.

He believes that his research and the process of testing stereotypes is applicable to today’s society. “I don’t think of this as being just a cool story about hominids that lived a long time ago,” Hardy said. “I think the lesson here is to look at bias and look at stereotype and look beyond it and see what is really underneath.”

This lecture was presented by the Department of Anthropology and co-sponsored by the Humanities Center, the Department of Classics and the Department of Biology.