What do we know about the lives of Neanderthal women?

By | January 13, 2021

Rebecca Wragg Sykes writes:

The first Neanderthal face to emerge from time’s sarcophagus was a woman’s. As the social and liberal revolutions of 1848 began convulsing Europe, quarry workers’ rough hands pulled her from the great Rock of Gibraltar. Calcite mantling her skull meant that, at first, she seemed more a hunk of stone than a once warm-blooded being, and obscured her decidedly odd anatomy – massive eyes, heavy brow ridges and a low, long cranium. While monarchies fell and serfs breathed the sweet air of freedom that year, it would take another decade for human origins as a science to begin its own overthrow of the old world order. The first recognised Neanderthal was a different skull-top, blasted from the Feldhofer cave in Germany in 1856, just two years before Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin presented their theory of evolution by natural selection.

However, the Forbes skull, as the earlier Gibraltarian find is now known, had to wait until 1863 for her turn in the limelight. Catching the eye of a visiting doctor with anthropological interests, she was packed aboard a ship bound for Britain, then introduced to none other than Darwin (who reportedly found the experience ‘wonderful’). While her overall anatomy excited huge interest, her potential sex was little considered. Instead, the world-wrenching significance of the Forbes and Feldhofer fossils was the first proof of another kind of ancient human entirely.

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th and more Neanderthal bones began to be discovered, scientists began to suspect that the Forbes skull was female. Despite the pulled-forward face and cavernous nasal aperture, her skull is small and brows slightly less jutting than the Feldhofer cranium. But it was only with the development of ancient genetic analysis – so preposterously beyond 19th-century science it would have seemed magic – that we were able to confirm she was a woman. Fine powder drilled from her inner ear was distilled down to genetic strands, then snagged onto a silica membrane; the same elemental constituent of the stone tools she’d been surrounded by in life. The researchers were interested largely in her age and relatedness to other Neanderthal genetic lineages, so the fact that she was a woman was something of a sideshow. But identifying X-chromosome frequency is one thing; what was the life of half the Neanderthal world that she represents – women – really like?

Archaeology is no exception to biases against women’s interests across science and the humanities. Since the early days, a tendency to conceptualise humanity’s deep origins as populated literally by ‘cavemen’ has led to presumed male activities being presented as most visible and interesting. A clear demonstration of this is found in the materialisation of these visions as reconstructions, both drawn and sculpted. The first ever sketch of a living Neanderthal imagined the owner of the Forbes skull, doodled (apparently casually during a meeting) by the biologist Thomas Huxley in 1864. Its decidedly simian features have no hint of female character. In fact, for most of the subsequent 160 years, female Neanderthals – if featured at all – tend to be fewer in number, peripherally located, and limited to ‘domesticated’ activities including childcare and skin-working. They are essentially scenery, in the words of the anthropologist Diane Gifford-Gonzalez, rather than active providers working on stone knapping or hunting and, in addition, they’re often fearfully lurking, hidden in dark grottos. [Continue reading…]

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