What did neanderthals wear?

ResearchBlogging.orgNeanderthals lived in Europe from ~400,000 years ago to ~28,000 years ago. During this time period the climate was difficult, with numerous ice ages and other dramatic climate shifts like Henrich events. Named after their discoverer, Hartmut Henrich, these are massive depositions of ice into the sea which can change direction of ocean currents. The gulf stream – which supplies Europe with warmth – in particular is vulnerable to these events prompting dramatic changes in the Earth’s climate. And there were over 40 Henrich events in the last 100,000 years alone!

Bone beads threaded into clothing provide one of the few ways archaeologists can “see” what prehistoric attire looked like

As if that wasn’t bad enough the neanderthals also had to deal with the  regular European climate. The human family evolved in Africa and the Europe was something new which neanderthals and Homo heidelbergensis – the neanderthals’ immediate ancestor – would have had to have adapt to. No doubt one of these many adaptations were technological, including the use of clothing. But just what was it neanderthals wore? Unfortunately clothes are rarely made from stone, bone or some other material which lasts for hundreds of thousands of years. Archaeologists are of little use here.

Instead, scientists have to try and infer what they wore by looking at modern hunter-gatherers. Whilst these people are obvious not neanderthals, they do provide a useful case study to see how people respond to a more natural environment than that you or I might be used to. In particular they can help show what factors influence clothing choices when it is your very life – not just your style – on the line. So Nathan Wales, of the University of Connecticut, poured over comprehensive data collected by the famous anthropologist Lewis Binford (coincidentally the same data I’m using in my dissertation) to try and investigate this issue.

The main issue here is that environmental variability is not the only factor which influences clothing choices by modern hunter-gatherers. Culture also plays a key role, with some items of clothing perhaps having a symbolic rather than a functional role. To try and circumvent this issue Wales analysed the clothes based on how much skin they covered rather than on precisely what they are. This also has the added advantage of providing a metric he could use to easily compare two different groups, allowing him to generate a complex statistical analysis of the hunter-gatherers’ clothes.

This analysis revealed that there was a fairly strong correlation between various environmental variables and percentage of the body covered. This would mean that we can use the detailed environmental data we have for the European climate during the time of neanderthals to predict how much of their body they covered with clothes. As if that wasn’t good enough, Wales also identified a correlation between various environmental variables and whether a specific part of the body was covered. In other words, we can also predict what the neanderthals were covering, as well as how much.

The relationship between clothing and temperature

However, before we can make such predictions we have to take into account the fact that the neanderthals had developed many adaptations for life at northern latitudes. They were short and squat, reducing their surface area so that it would loose less heat. They also had more muscle mass, which insulates better than fat. These adaptations mean we can’t take data for modern humans – who lack many of these changes – and use it to make predictions for neanderthals. Instead we have to first apply a correction factor to take into account how much better neanderthals were at retaining heat.

Luckily for Wales much research has been done into neanderthal energetics since it is a key area of research for scientists trying to work out why the neanderthals went extinct. Many of their adaptations would’ve required more energy to function. This would’ve put gracile humans at an advantage, particularly during warmer phases where neanderthals cold adaptations would be giving them no benefit. As such it was relatively easy for Wales to search through the existing literature on the subject and identify that neanderthals’ adaptations would have meant they could survive in temperatures 4 degrees c colder than modern humans.

So after correcting his models by 4 degrees, Wales calculated how much of their body neanderthals would have covered with clothing. The results of this model indicate that neanderthals would’ve had to have covered >80% of their body during the coldest periods, but only ~40% during milder times and for those living in downright pleasant environments – such as along the Mediterranean – they would’ve only had to have covered ~20% of their body. When plotted over Europe, the results look like this.

The annotation of this picture is pretty self-explanatory, so I’ll just add that “mousterian” refers to the toolkit produced by neanderthals.

He then ran his predictions of whether neanderthals would’ve covered their feet, hands and heads. These results indicate that neanderthals would more than likely have covered their hands in most of the environments they encountered, but would only have covered their heads in the coldest places. Finally, they would’ve likely have covered their feet most of the time.  Finally, just to be sure of all of these predictions he ran his models for modern hunter-gatherers to see if they were reliable. He found that the resulting predictions were only ~10% off which is not bad at all. So these results are indeed reliable.

The most accurate depiction of neanderthal clothing I could find in google images

Although this certainly is interesting, revealing a lot about neanderthal clothing, can we get more specific about what they wore? Archaeology may finally be have use here, showing that neanderthals did not produce complex technology needed to sew or stitch clothes together to create well fitting garments. Further, anatomical evidence suggests that neanderthals were not wearing high quality shoes which provided them with grip or traction. Instead it would seem that they wrapped their feet in skins or made other simple shoes.

In short, neanderthals covered most of their body in cold environments, less so during the warm. They often wore gloves and shoes, but only wore hats during the coldest times. However, these clothes were likely just simple furs or skins, tied or just draped over their body. They lacked the technology to produce tight fitting tailored clothes, like the kind modern humans wore.

Wales N (2012). Modeling Neanderthal clothing using ethnographic analogues. Journal of human evolution PMID: 23084621

45 thoughts on “What did neanderthals wear?

  1. I’m a little puzzled here. If Neanderthal footprints are found in caves–cold, wet clay & mud, which would mean they were barefooted in the “cold slop,” why would science suggest that they wore shoes/clothing at all? As for the theorized “squated” nature of their torso evolving for the cold, didn’t ALL other “pre-humans”, even those in the warm climate of africa, also have triangular shaped/squated ribcages? Moreso, and recently discovered, with the genome base pairs of Neanderthal resembling a greater relation to chimp than Sapien, why would they still be considered hairless like us? (www.genome.ucsc.edu) Should there be a peer-reviewed paper written by now evaluating this?
    Sincerely, Jason (common sence deepthroat) J.

    • Science suggests that Neanderthals wore clothes because, as discussed above, there is evidence for it. The fact that Neanderthals went barefoot in some circumstances doesn’t indicate they had no clothes at all. I’m not wearing shoes at the moment, doesn’t mean I’m naked. Further, the circumstances in which they went barefoot aren’t quite as harsh as you suggest. Neanderthals lit and heated their caves with fire and torches, so they were quite amicable surroundings. The fact they went barefoot around a fire hardly proves they had no clothes, or even that they had no shoes.

      Both humans and Neanderthals are descended from an earlier hominin, known as Homo heidelbergensis. Their ribcage is quite similar to ours as, like us, they appear to have been a species adapted for warmer climates. As such the Neanderthal ribcage is a new development and one that must be examined.

      Finally, the genetic differences between humans and Neanderthals are very small; particularly when compared with chimps. Drawing significant comparisons – including body hair – between the two is unjustified.

  2. If you live in an environment where the temperature often drops down to 50 below zero, even with physical adaptation your skin will turn to ice. Showing neanderthals exposing their arms and legs and wearing primitive skins seems to be a silly preconceived notion. They must
    have been able to sew fully insulated, waterproof suits similar to the Inuit. Anything less would mean death to a Hominid. How well do tiny bone needles stay preserved over the eons? Reason suggests Neanderthals could sew – possibly even boats to cross rivers. Neanderthals were likely the most advanced people on earth until the hybrid Cro-Magnon man replaced them. They were the “Dwarves of the North” who mixed with Homo Sapiens in the Levant and created Homo Sapiens Sapiens – AKA modern man.

    • As the chart of Mousterian sites included in the post shows Neanderthals retreated to Western Europe and around the Black Sea during the glacial periods. There the temperature rarely dropped below -8. Whilst obviously not idea, it’s far from the Arctic conditions you posit.

      • If they wore clothing, then why all of the footprints in cold sloppy mud? I’m still waiting on UCSC to provide the chromosomal count to prove reproduction with sapien. If they had 46 then yes, if they didn’t then no. Just the footprints alone is more contradictory evidence to your claim, right?

    • The evidence we do have for interbreeding suggests it occurred on a very small scale, perhaps a dozen or so instances. People have this romanticised vision of humans and Neanderthals combining into one species but this simply did not happen.

  3. These Inuit kids are adapted to cold, heavily insulated, yet even they could easily freeze to death on a bad day. The ice ages had the worst days EVER. Replace their faces with “handsome” bearded Dwarves and a clear picture of Neanderthal attire becomes apparent.

  4. Neanderthals appear to be a dwarfed Heidelberg man -which was a troll – like 6-7 foot tall giant in fairer climates, but due to cold weather adaptation dwarfed down like the viking inhabitants of Greenland before they perished. Had they not been exposed to extreme cold they would not have dwarfed in the first place and would have remained giant Heidelberg mammoth hunters. The Inuit picture is to display cold weather clothing essential to surviving extreme ice age conditions which many ancients would have been trapped in and forced to adapt to.

    • Except, as I said before, they weren’t living in environments as extreme as the Arctic.

      And I wound’t describe heidelbergensis as particularly troll like either.

    • Except they weren’t that heavily build. Heidelbergensis was notable for having a rather gracile build. Nor were they particularly tall, with the average being around the same height as us.

  5. Most of the Heidelberg skeletons found so far come from mountainous Spain, not the big game hunters of the Eurasian steppe or the 7 to 8 ft tall giants found in South Africa. Their height varied as much as modern humans but to say they were gracile – compared to Neanderthals sure but to modern humans no way! Look at the nutcracker like jaw on this beastman”s skull.

  6. by the way I”m from “across the pond” so I’ll have to remember to put an F or a C when talking global mean temperatures.

  7. Question: If Arctic sea ice extends as far south as Spain and the ocean drops 400 ft, would there not be arctic like conditions across much of the northern Hemisphere a good part of the year? And what was your climate model based on?

    • Sea ice extended as far south as the English Channel, perhaps northern France. Arctic environments extended as far south as perhaps Germany whilst the Mediterranean wasn’t much different from how it is today. Between them was various sub Arctic environments, such as steppe. Whilst not the most pleasant environment, still notably distinct from anything Arctic.

  8. Gee, why is everything so barren above the tree line?
    Is it the weather? Line B must not have been such a nice place to live during the Wurm. In fact the tiny snapshots of time your figures represent can’t begin to encompass the 300 thousand year epic that was the age of the Neanderthal.

  9. A midwinter arctic blast can drop temperatures down close to that
    where I live and I don’t even live near the arctic or in an ice age.
    The state north of mine has cold snaps like that from time to time and it’s even more common in Canada. I have personally experienced -40F
    where I live. (Midwest) The native Americans who once lived where I do had cold weather clothing insulating them head to toe and without it would have died. I believe it was the Neanderthal’s ability to craft things that made survival in the northern climate possible. It was not just a physical adaption, it was a mental adaptation as well. Those ancient Dwarves were an elder race that made life in the north possible for the human race. For a few tools weapons or trinkets, a Dwarf merchant
    could buy a bushwoman slave/wife.. http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mas7rc7P8B1rebd9po1_500.jpg
    Amazing that the Bushmen are still alive today while the Dwarves have died out and have been disavowed by their descendants..

  10. Pingback: ::headdesk:: | A British historian learns to knit...

  11. Neanderthals would NOT have retained hairlessness – an adaption to keep cool – while living with minimal technology in the coldest part of the world for nearly half a million years with no evidence they sowed clothes. Through out history we have sought to link intelligence with physical traits and this is no different, admitting Neanderthals was very hairy AND intelligent just makes some too uncomfortable. The more intelligent we discover they were the more modern human like they are depicted. In my opinion Neanderthals were completely covered in thick long body hair for insulation. Hairlessness is not an intelligence trait. We need it cause of our recent savanna history but Neanderthals certainly did not.

    Common sense suggests that since the bones of neanderthals show EXTENSIVE adaptation to cold climate(which no one disputes) HAIR, the VERY first line of defense against the cold would also have been employed. It is ludicrous to say that their entire body shape would change because of the cold but the most effective adaptation HAIR would remain unchanged. The only other hairless land mammals (elephant and rhino) got hairy when the reach Europe.
    “The first known sewing needle came from southwestern France and dates to about 25,000 years ago” NO ONE was sowing 500,000 years ago!!

    Hey Google “alec baldwin chest hair” the hair is so thick you can’t see the skin beneath it, and he only has 1-4% neanderthal DNA like most Europeans. And he is not the hairiest, there are many men walking around with way more body hair or Just Google search “hairy men” and go to the images.
    And tell me why neanderthals would have been so desperate to remain hairless that they would risk head to toe frost bite for hundreds of thousands of years!.

  12. There is evidence they made glue/epoxy and threaded jewelry. if a person can use a leather strip to make necklaces they can certainly figure out a way tie their pants together. It’s as if everyone has been trained to see an image of neanderthals being more primitive – more like Hieldelberg trolls or Erectus orcs with a smaller number of cc’s in their brain case.
    And as for sewing needles how common is it to find them at all, especially from ancient ages. Being that a fish bone in your garbage dumpster can become brittle, finding perfect conditions to preserve one for many thousands of years would be a pretty lucky shot. Of course sewing needles are not really needed if your just poking holes, threading leather strips and sealing it with glue. If you asked modern day people if they know a way to make a glue that becomes hard like epoxy most would not know – but so-called cave man brutes mastered it and relied on it for countless thousands of years. History is a vast ocean of long dead lives come and gone, great rises of high culture and power mixed with epic falls into dark ages and oblivion. The ancient Dwarves of Europe must have had a high tide somewhere in their thousands of generations. When the Dwarven Axe was feared, respected, coveted.

    • “The theory that some Neanderthals were advanced enough to create jewellery and tools similar to those of modern humans has suffered a major setback.
      Scientists using radiocarbon dating found that an archaeological site that links Neanderthal remains to sophisticated tools may actually contain items from different eras mixed together”
      Source – research team, led by Oxford University
      Dwarf Elder there is absolutely no evidence that Neanderthals were advanced enough to make clothes, assuming they did is just wishful thinking. If their physiology – evident in the bones – hadn’t significant adapted to the cold I would not be so certain. Common sense says their adaptation to the cold would have included increased body hair.
      Check out pictures of the Ainu people from the 1800s showing their men with so much body hair the skin beneath is not visible. They may have the most Neanderthal DNA admixture.
      “Ainu are shorter than the Japanese people, with lighter skin, robust body and short limbs. Unlike typical Mongoloids, their hair is wavy and the body hair is abundant”
      Source — softpedia
      Don’t let your biases blind you to the truth.

  13. I have witnessed a long held bias that neanderthals were not modern men. Some going so far as to suggest that neanderthals were “Wookies” or Bigfoot-like carnivorous apes. It seems the Neanderthals/Denisovans that developed in the east must have been less hairy than the European variety, otherwise more east Asians would have inherited genes for a full beard. The Ainu are extinct, they now look like the typically rare, fully bearded east Asian Oriental, though some may have mixed with Russians in recent times as well. I would consider the Ainu to be a Cro Magnon man that migrated east, bringing the epic Dwarven beard with them and facilitating the rise of the wise old Kung Fu master. {(;>>>

  14. Adam, Why are you entertaining far-flug posites from someone calling themself Dwarf Elder. Clearly there is an agenda here to make real the characters from one’s youth spent playing Dungeons & Dragons, or Tolkein fetishism. Rarely to the people posting these ideas have the background needed in basic population Genetics, Genomics, Anthropology Ethnography, Climatology, Philology, etc. to make realistic claims. In this day of sloppy reporting and Ancient Alien-esque dodgy science it is easy for many people to latch onto these implausible theories and give them the bit of steam they need to cloud the general public’s understanding of our prehistory.

    Hell, if you look the remarks made previously you can surmise that Greeks and Italians should have less body hair than Inuits and Mongolians. Though silly, this makes a point that people will often over look glaring holes in their logic to prove a point.

    But, I think differently than most people. It must be my Nanderthal DNA. They better put a new spot on the ethnicity checklist found on most government forms. Neoanderthal (_) “CHECK”

    Now I need to write a shoddily researched book on how the Neanderthal people saw the vast hoard of Sapiens coming with their bows and arrows and then in an act of last resort interbred with the Sapiens to take on their chacteristics so they could hide among them. But… Oh, no!!! The Neanderthals lost their identity hiding among the Sapiens. Now there are only vague tales of monsters from the frozen north called “Yotten”. And the Neanderthal tales of child-like gracile archers, describing Sapiens, became Human tales of elves.

    Okay? Perfect! We can now stop speculating and all Archaeologists can retire. There is no more history to discover.

    • So you are saying that two species with a minimum of 202 different mitochondrial base pairs can mate and produce a viable offspring? Genetically impossible. A bonobo and common chimp only have 75 differences and they can’t produce a viable offspring. Alas, there is hope. Currently, two zoologist are now doing a study to refute Paabo and Ker’s silly, moneymaking scheme where people pay $99 to see that they are 1.7-6.7% Neanderthal. The new study that questions it is claiming that it is common ancestor or simply similar instructional genetic coding.

    • Giving them the name Neanderthal makes them far away and foriegn while calling them Dwarves makes them more familiar. Hairy, bearded, stocky, northmen have been around for a long time – as long as humanoids have lived in Eurasia. I don’t have to “make real” a fantasy when it actually existed.
      Most forensic interpretations of Neanderthals today show them appearing as an archetypal Dwarf. They were not tall, skinny, brown-skinned Africans adapted to the tropics like Sapiens.Their European decendents most closely resemble them. It’s a no brainer you choose to obfuscate instead of adding useful input. Somehow Sapiens went from looking like east African bushmen with no beard to having beards, red hair, and lighter red hair becoming blonde. The humanoids in this pic without a doubt look more related than any other hominid races on Earth- http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-hex7N7H07BA/T5NEstK0_JI/AAAAAAAAQCU/7SrW2UCfyOo/s1600/Skulls-Say-It-Humans-and-Neanderthals-Split-300-000-400-000-Years-Ago-2.jpg Which one appears to be a Dwarf?

  15. Pingback: What did prehistoric people wear? | EvoAnth

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