I began writing about cloned Neandertals after Harvard geneticist George Church claimed it could soon be possible to bring the archaic species of human back from extinction. In my research I found that recent evidence shows Neandertals weren’t all that different from us. To find out more about what we know about Neandertals you can read my blog posts In Defence of Neandertals and Facts about Neandertals. To find out more about the scientific process of cloning Neandertals you can read my blog post How to Clone a Neandertal.
Recently I gave a Deep Dive presentation on Neandertal Depictions in Pop Culture at Continuum 15 Convention in Melbourne. Below is a list of the movies and books I spoke about.
Neandertal depictions have been influenced by the scientific evidence available at the time of creation, as well as the political and social climate. Depictions have ranged from brutish ape-men to just-like-us. Our depictions of Neandertals reflect how we define humanity, intelligence, wisdom, and progress, they highlight our prejudices and concepts of Same and Other, reveal our difficulties in comprehending that other humans used to coexist, and remind us there’s a lot we still don’t know about human evolution.
The popular view of Neandertals as ape-like, was largely influenced by this reconstruction (above) of the La Chapelle-aux-Saints skeleton by French palaeontologist Marcellin Boule in 1911. This Neandertal was actually an arthritic old man. Boule exaggerated the stooped posture with his face thrust forward and embellished with thick body hair and the brutish club-wielding stance, despite the lack of scientific evidence for these things.
Neandertals were first characterized during the late 1800s and early 1900s when colonialism, scientific racism, and eugenics were in full swing. This climate influenced attitudes and interpretation of Neandertals remains.
Books depicting Neandertals:
The Quest for Fire by J.H. Rosny was published in Belgium in 1911 and was not published in English until 1967. Seems to be the origin of the enduring trope of Neandertals having no mastery of fire.
The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was published in 1912 and is an example of the type of story where Neandertals have lived isolated somewhere in hiding until modern times. It represents them as threatening and savage ape-men. Early depictions like this were influenced by the colonial mentality at the time of conquering the world for the ‘civilized man’.
In The Grisly Folk by H.G. Wells (1921) Neandertals steal the children of men when they venture too far from home. Describes warfare and the conquering of the grisly beasts by Cro-magnon man . Neandertals are portrayed as speechless, clumsy and not quick enough to hunt men.
In The Inheritors by William Golding (1955) Neandertals are no longer simply brutish and primitive. Rather are childlike and gentle. Story is told from a Neandertal perspective. The men practice telepathy and there is fertility cult. Still contains the idea of antagonistic confrontation and extermination of Neandertals by modern humans. Which has never been proven to be the reason for the disappearance of Neandertals but seems most easily imagined by artists.
Michale Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead (1976) reimagines Beowulf with Neandertals as the monsters and is one of several texts that imagine Neandertals as the source of troll and monster myths and legends.
The 1980 book The Clan of the Cave Bear was the first in the Earth’s Children series by Jean M. Auel who, reportedly, extensively researched the evidence about Neandertals available at the time. It’s kind of an ugly duckling story. The Neandertals call the Cro- Magnon orphan Ayla ugly, but when she strikes out and finds other Cro Magnon people after the end of the first book she finds out she’s actually really hot.
Early in the new millennium we saw the first of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series of novels. In this world Neandertals have been cloned to act as medical test subjects and following a public outcry are released to fill low-paying jobs. They have an excellent ability to read body language and produce abstract art.
In Hominds (2002), which is the first novel in the Neanderthal Parallax series, Neandertals exist in a parallel universe where they are the dominant species of human. They live in a kind of environmental and social utopia with no concept of religion. Despite this, they are still technologically advanced.
In Shaman (2013) the Neandertals are called the Old Ones and are assumed to be not as bright as the modern human protagonist. They communicate in broken phrases, whistles and clicks, and are intelligent but different from humans.
In American Neolithic (2014) a band of Neandertals have survived in secrecy and now live in squats in New York, dumpster diving and sleeping in a pile. There is a Neandertal protagonist who is portrayed as fairly intelligent. He has the ability to read, but has difficulty with numbers and abstract concepts. He’s not as adept with tools and speaks with a whistling slur. The Neandertals have a matriarchal society and are very timid and gentle. They have excellent eyesight, are prolific artists and good dancers.
The Last Neandertal (2017) has a modern day narrative alternating with the story of a Neandertal woman set 40,000 years in the past. It is a motherhood story that underscores how humans and Neandertals share much in common genetically, how we once lived together and even interbred.
2019 Read first chapter
Movies Depicting Neandertals:
1953- The Neanderthal Man
By the 1950s scientists widely believed Neandertals may be the ancestors of modern Europeans and more evidence had proven them less-apelike than first assumed. However it seems that public perception and pop culture was still stuck in the ape-man paradigm.
Neanderthal Man is about a scientist who turns himself into an ape-man who kills men and carries off women.
1977 The Ugly Little Boy
The Ugly Little Boy was originally a short story by Isaac Asimov, written in 1958. In the story the Neandertal child is 3 years old and stays for four years where he learns to speak and read and is very much like a human child.
In the 1977 short movie the Neandertal child is played by an actor with the stage name of Guy Big who was actually a thirty something with dwarfism. The boy is portrayed as very ape-like, barely able to walk and with a limited ability for language.
1981 Quest for Fire
Based on the 1911 Belgian novel discussed above. The story is set 80 000 years ago and shows a number of different hominin species co-existing. The Neandertals are portrayed with squatting, grunting, mouth breathing, sniffing, spear wielding, simple, they wear animal skins, child like, ape-like movements and noises. The replication of Neandertal facial features earned the makeup department an Oscar for this moviw.
The movie also portrays the exchange of culture and technology (fire and spear throwers) between Cro Magnons and Neandertals, as well as interbreeding. And demonstrates the trope of rampant and patriarchal Neandertal sexuality.
Iceman is a Neandertal fish out of water story. Set in modern times it features a Neandertal, Charou, miraculously thawed from an ice block. The Neandertal doesn’t have the typical facial features, but he does display the typical squatting, grunting, mouth breathing, sniffing, spear wielding, loin cloth wearing, he’s simple and child like with ape-like movements. Charou displays a knack for art, hunting and has ritual, spiritual beliefs and alludes to a nuclear family structure. The tropes of rampant sexuality and patriarchal ideas are also evident in Iceman. There are also colonial themes at play, for example they anglicize his name from Charou to Charlie and equate his culture with that of nearby indigenous people.
1986 The Clan of the Cave Bear
The Clan of the Cave Bear was the only of the Earth’s Children books to be made into a movie. Ayla, the Cro-Magnon orphan, is depicted as much smarter than her Neandertal clan. Neandertals can no longer change or develop whereas Ayla is creative and represents progress. The clan is depicted as a patriarchal with women subservient and forbidden to hunt or touch weapons. There is an interbreeding event between species- Ayla has a half Neandertal child.
In this movie Neandertals have limited speech and vocalizations and communicate primarily with sign language. They have a knowledge of fire and medicine, they wear and make jewellery, and have a belief in spirits and magic.
The rarely spotted female Neandertal!
1992 Encino Man
People assume Link in Encino Man is a Neanderthal. I always thought he was supposed to represent a Cro Magnon man until I saw the poster (below) that uses the word Neandervision. Franky I don’t think the people who made the movie really thought too much about what it’s actually about or did any research. The movie does include the Neandertal tropes of obsession with fire, loin cloths, squatting, grunting, rampant sexuality. As well as being a fish out of water story is also a makeover story as they turn Link into a Californian teen.
2006 Night at the Museum
In this movie four Neandertals on display in the American Museum of Natural History. Along with everything else on display in the museum they come to life at night. The Neandertals are played for comedy value with all the tropes of fire and grunting and spear wielding and childlike stupidity. They set themselves on fire when night guard Larry gives them fire and one of them is shown drinking from the fire extinguisher. They also fight with the other exhibits.
2014 Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb
In this installment of Night at the Museum the Neandertal exhibit is given a new addition in the form of Laaa. It’s the same depiction 8 years later, stupid, childish, barely able to speak, but he does get a love interest in the form of a security guard played by Rebel Wilson and from memory he is not at all rapey with her which is a nice change.
The Ridiculously Photogenic Neandertal
In 2016 this ridiculously photogenic wax Neandertal from a museum in Belgium was the subject of many an internet photoshop makeover
The Comments Section
Comments found after a Neandertal documentary on Youtube
Disclaimer: This is not an exhaustive list of Neandertal depictions and inclusion on this list does not equal endorsement or recommendation