Half the Neanderthals Were Female

first reconstruction of a Neanderthal created using evidence from fossil anatomy and ancient DNA
first reconstruction of a Neanderthal created using evidence from fossil anatomy and ancient DNA

Laurie and Debbie say:

Paleolithic archaeologist Rebecca Wragg Sykes has a terrific longform essay, Sheanderthal, in Aeon. It will come as no surprise to any of us that Neanderthal women, like women and females in every species, have been undervalued and underexamined.

identifying X-chromosome frequency is one thing; what was the life of half the Neanderthal world that she represents – women – really like? … Most often discussed indirectly via theories of fertility as a potential reason for their disappearance by 40,000 years ago, Neanderthal women have been ‘protagonists’ only a few times in recent research.

Sykes is out to correct that oversight, and to use all of the physical and technical tools at the command of the contemporary archaeologist.  She starts with a history of the first Neanderthal skull, eventually identified as that of a woman, and goes on to explain why it’s difficult to identify sex from bones alone (so of course most bones and fragments have been assumed male). DNA testing has changed that picture. And Sykes, laudably, doesn’t assume that Neanderthal gender matched contemporary notions of Homo sapiens gender:

Those [individuals] identified through DNA include the Altai woman who lived in western Siberia around 90,000 years ago, another slightly later in time but relatively close by at Chagyrskaya cave, and the Vindija woman who died in what’s now Croatia much closer to the final few millennia of the Neanderthals.

Even where we’re lucky enough to have DNA samples, assumptions must still be made. Since prehistory lacks written texts, we can’t hear testimony on how Neanderthals categorised themselves. Therefore, archaeologists must draw on biological and anthropological understanding of sex and gender. While it’s highly likely that the majority of Neanderthals conformed genetically and visually to today’s sexual classification of male and female, in reality these aren’t neatly boxed because bodies are messy. For example, based on living people, around one in 2,000 Neanderthals might have been intersex.

She goes on to speculate about Neanderthal women’s physical appearance and social behavior, never for a moment letting us forget that this is speculation and guesswork, not confident knowledge:

Let’s begin at the start. Hold two crumple-faced newborn girls, one human, one Neanderthal, and you’d have to look closely to see differences. Both equally vulnerable, fitting the smallest-size onesies, their skin velvety-soft. The Neanderthal baby doesn’t yet have heavy brows and, lit by a hearth’s dull glow, her eyes are probably as slate-dark and limpid as any human newborn’s. But cradle her downy head, and it will feel slightly longer, with a bony nobble discernible above her neck….

As a fellow primate, she needs constant care and affection for proper development. Neanderthal infant brains appear to have started out around the same size though differently shaped, and followed a similar growth pattern to our own. She will hit roughly the same magical milestones as a human infant: looking intently at faces within the first month, probably smiling in some form by six weeks.

As she tries to imagine childhood and young adulthood, her speculations venture into primatology and anthropology: were Neanderthals like bonobos, chimpanzees, or later hunter-gatherers? How can we think about whether or not Neanderthal women were hunters, and how else did they spend their time?

One of the most convincing reasons to believe that Neanderthal women did experience life differently is the testimony of their own bodies. Research on limb bones suggests that, while their thighs were as strong relatively as men’s, their lower legs appear less intensively used. Sample sizes are small, however the impression is of different habits in moving around, with men perhaps scaling more rough terrain. Arms tell a similar story, with women’s lower arms getting more of a workout than their biceps. On top of this, while Neanderthal men apparently used their right and left arms differently (comparable to the asymmetry in professional tennis players), women’s arms were more symmetrically developed. Carrying heavy loads in both hands could cause this, just as we lug loaded travel or shopping bags. But pushing something up and down – or backwards and forwards – with both arms would also fit, which is particularly intriguing because one of the things we know that Neanderthals were doing an awful lot of is hide-working.

She walks us through what information we have to spark imagination about sexual encounters, about birth, about aging and grandparents, and finally about the end of the species.

In the decade since, recognised periods of contact now number at least four and perhaps seven or more, going back beyond 200,000 years ago. Most intriguingly, something of the dynamics is visible. In some earlier instances, Neanderthal women had the children of H sapiens men, but the later interbreeding after 60,000 years ago tells a different story. Nobody today has mitochondrial DNA like that in Neanderthals and, since it’s passed only maternally, this implies that interbreeding was more often between their men and our women.

It’s in these last hybrid babies that the female heritage of Neanderthals lives on. The DNA legacies of the mixed babies’ relations – half-sisters, half-aunts, half-grandmothers, and beyond – persisted through thousands of generations. Their billions of descendants are still here, walking Earth today.

The combination of superb science, careful sorting of fact from guesswork, and excellent writing is rare indeed. Read the whole article; you’ll spend some satisfying time thinking about the lives and possibilities of Neanderthal women.

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