A mirror held up to who we are

Wow. Tom Björklund has been making these amazing paintings to humanize Neandertals. Here are a few examples:

It doesn’t take much — a father teaching his child, a flower in the hair — to wrench one away from the usual distanced view we have of dead bones and stone tools. These were people.

I’d like to see a similar approach to australopithecines. We can see emotions in a chimpanzee — you know that Lucy had just as rich a repertoire of feelings as they do. We can only imagine how they expressed them.


  1. lumipuna says

    call me mark #2, They look rather like a more robust version of my dad and me when I was around 10.

    In Paleolithic, my dad would’ve been one of the expert flint knappers in the village, while I’d have been trying to find something easier to be an expert on.

  2. microraptor says

    That second picture makes me curious: what do we know about the diversity of Neanderthal skin tones, anyway?

  3. Dave Grain says

    microrapto (cool name!):

    “That second picture makes me curious: what do we know about the diversity of Neanderthal skin tones, anyway?”

    Interesting that “the second picture” brings this question to your mind, but not the first. Just goes to show the prevalence of thinking that white skin is “normal”, and it is only seeing other skin tones that makes you think of their existence.

  4. microraptor says

    Dave Grain @5:

    That’s because nearly every depiction of Neanderthals in more than a century has portrayed them as being brown-haired, blue eyed Caucasians with big brow ridges. I just happen to be interested in how accurate that depiction actually is, not get into an armchair psychoanalysis of my personal biases.

  5. says

    Considering how long the Neanderthals were around, I’d expect that they would have as broad a range of skin colours as those upstarts, the Sapiens.

  6. blf says

    On the Neanderthal skin tone, the Smithsonian writes:

    Ancient DNA has been used to show aspects of Neanderthal appearance. A fragment of the gene for the melanocortin 1 receptor (MRC1) was sequenced using DNA from two Neanderthal specimens from Spain and Italy: El Sidrón 1252 and Monte Lessini (Lalueza-Fox et al. 2007). MCR1 is a receptor gene that controls the production of melanin, the protein responsible for pigmentation of the hair and skin. Neanderthals had a mutation in this receptor gene which changed an amino acid, making the resulting protein less efficient and likely creating a phenotype of red hair and pale skin. (The reconstruction [at the link] of a male Neanderthal by John Gurche features pale skin, but not red hair.) How do we know what this phenotype would have looked like? Modern humans display similar mutations of MCR1, and people who have two copies of this mutation have red hair and pale skin. However, no modern human has the exact mutation that Neanderthals had, which means that both Neanderthals and humans evolved this phenotype independent of each other.

    If modern humans and Neanderthals living in Europe at the same time period both evolved this reduction of pigmentation, it is likely that there was an advantage to this trait. One hypothesis to explain this adaptation’s advantage involves the production of vitamin D. Our bodies primarily synthesize our supply of vitamin D, rather than relying on vitamin D from food sources. Vitamin D is synthesized when the sun’s UV rays penetrate our skin. Darker skin makes it harder for sunlight to penetrate the outermost layers and stimulate the production of vitamin D, and while people living in areas of high sun exposure will still get plenty of vitamin D, people who live far from the equator are not exposed to as much sunlight and need to optimize their exposure to the sun. Therefore, it would be beneficial for populations in colder climates to have paler skin so that they can create enough vitamin D even with less sun exposure.

    So, possibly, some Neanderthals had, or had evolved, pale skin. That doesn’t mean all Neanderthals did, and looking at the range of skin tones in Europe alone today in modern humans, it seems highly questionable to claim Neanderthals’s skin tones weren’t too varied. (Of course, people today are far more mobile, so this is perhaps a weak point, or at least an analogy which needs to be treated very carefully.)

  7. John Morales says

    davidc1 @7, I just followed your link and I believe your comment is misleading, though it is the actual headline there.

    The very first sentence: “MPs have voted to reject the inclusion of animal sentience – the admission that animals feel emotion and pain – into the EU Withdrawal Bill.”

  8. Dave Grain says


    “I just happen to be interested in how accurate that depiction actually is, not get into an armchair psychoanalysis of my personal biases.”

    Fair enough. Just bear in mind that the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.

  9. microraptor says

    Dude, get off your high horse already. You are not proving anything about biases when the discussion is about the way in which a species has been rendered in media vs how it probably actually looked.

  10. Dave Grain says


    Fucking really? Oh fuck off, and take your patronizing assumptions with you. Jesus, what a piece of work you are.

  11. says

    Over here in good old GB MPs have just voted that animals cannot feel pain or emotions.

    I saw that headline yesterday and immediately it caught my eye, so I read the article more carefully. In my opinion the headline is dishonest and manipulative. It implies a positive action on the part of the GB MPs to declare that animals cannot feel pain – but what the article itself explains is that because of brexit GB has no longer affirmatively signed on to the EU’s animal welfare standards which include a statement that animals can feel pain and emotions. That headline’s got so much ‘spin’ on it that you could use it to enrich uranium.

  12. Holms says

    Are you trolling? “Dude” is often used in a neutral manner, much like ‘buddy’ or ‘mate.’ And even if it were being used to refer to you as a male, I might point out that your name is very closely associated with being male. And I second the request that you dismount your lofty equine.

  13. microraptor says

    Dave @15:

    Why don’t you reread everything you’ve already written in this thread, then try to contemplate the irony of you calling someone else patronizing.

  14. blf says

    Can the trolls (plural) yelling past each other see the curvature of the universe from their respective bubbles?
    (With apologies to Terry Pratchett.)

  15. Dave Grain says


    “Are you trolling?”

    ““Dude” is often used in a neutral manner, much like ‘buddy’ or ‘mate.’”
    I call bullshit. Those 3 words are absolutely used (almost? not even sure if necessary) for people identified as male by the speaker.

    “And even if it were being used to refer to you as a male, I might point out that your name is very closely associated with being male.”
    You didn’t? Did you? Fuck me I think you did.
    1) You do not know my name, you know the collection of letters I have chosen to call myself here.
    2) Wearing pants and neckties, liking football, having a penis and testicles, being aggressive, being emotionally closed…do you see any problem with all this? You and microraptor need to get yourselves signed up for a few 101 courses.

  16. Holms says

    Oh you “call bullshit” do you? Do I get to veto your statements similarly? Consider that done, because you’re simply wrong there. The customary use might vary by region, but over here ‘dude’ can mean male or be neutral, and ‘mate’ can be used for anyone at all.

    As for 1)… the ‘collection of letters’ you choose to go by here can be called a ‘name’ for brevity, or ‘psuedonym’ for sticklers. But bear in mind that psuedonym simply means ‘false name,’ meaning you are fussing over nothing much.

    Oh and your 2) pretty much cements that you are a troll, because my statement “your name is very closely associated with being male” in no way implies those other things you bring up; you brought them yourself.

  17. chigau (違う) says

    Dave Grain #13
    Fair enough. Just bear in mind that the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.
    How dare you?
    Talk about a piece of work.

  18. blf says

    It depends on just how you count, but of the 22 (as I type) comments, as few as three (3) are directly connected to the OP. A handful of others have an indirect connection. The rest are trolls yelling past each other, contributing nothing, and successfully derailing this thread.

  19. John Morales says

    chigau, FFS, tu quoque is beneath you.

    So, to get back to topic. No doubt Neandertals were humans, if not the very same species of humans as we are. I endorse PZ’s sentiment without qualification.

  20. Rowan vet-tech says

    I’m happy to see Neandertals portrayed as properly human.

    And on the ‘Dude’, discussion, as a Californian…. Dude is most often used as an exclamation. This can be a good thing, a bad thing, an irritating thing… I ‘dude’ my coworkers (all female) and they ‘dude’ me. I ‘dude’ the animals I work with. I ‘dude’ my computer when it goes on the fritz. I softly ‘dude’ as a sentiment of sorrow.

    If there is a ‘my’ in front of ‘dude’ then yeah, it is usually referring to a close male friend. But dude(used here with a tone of censure), most of the time it’s an emotive marker.

  21. jahigginbotham says

    Two comments:

    1) The lighter skinned figures look more like current people (see first two comments) whereas the darker skinned one has a bigger brow and much more sloping forehead.

    2) The male figures are involved with hunting tools or suchlike; the other darker-complected figure, perhaps a female as it is wearing a top, sits around with a flower in her hair.

  22. michaelumilik says

    All the dude needs is a top knot and a latte and he’d fit right into that crowd gentrifying my hood. Seems to me we take away from neanderthals if we “humanize” them to the degree that they look like contemporary hipsters.

  23. davidc1 says

    @12 and 16 ,But they might going to use to bill to undo all the animal welfare laws that we have being part of the EU .

  24. The Mellow Monkey says

    The woman with the flower in her hair looks rather like my sister or grandmother, were their foreheads of a Neandertal-ish shape. It’s interesting to see how the artist has drawn out features we modern viewers might see as beautiful in these paintings, without really sacrificing the skeletal traits we know they had. There can be a common humanity without it being the same humanity.

  25. wondering says

    After reviewing the pictures at the provided link, I don’t believe that the father/son painting was intended to be of Neanderthals as it is not included with the pictures labelled as Neanderthal. The lady with the flower in her hair is.

    One set of Neanderthal paintings here: https://www.facebook.com/tombjorklundart/posts/1678018722249570

    The other set Neanderthal paintings is here: https://www.facebook.com/tombjorklundart/posts/1648374121880697

    He’s got a lot of cool stuff; lots of art of prehistoric animals and Homo Sapien hunters and gatherers etc.