Misunderstood: Museum of History exhibition reveals the real Neanderthals

Imagining a Neanderthal. Drawing: Mauro Cutrona

Who were the Neanderthals and why do we keep saying all those rotten things about them? You know, things like they were little more than a nasty, brutish and short bunch with underdeveloped brains and a fondness for dank caves and big, wooden clubs.

Neanderthal, at the Canadian Museum of History until early 2020, wants to correct the record on those folks who thrived across Europe and parts of Asia for almost 300,000 years before vanishing, mysteriously, about 30,000 years ago.

The exhibition was created by the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle – Musée de l’Homme (Paris) and adapted by the Canadian Museum of History. It includes prehistoric materials from the Ami Collection, assembled a century ago by Canadian geologist and paleontologist Henri-Marc Ami. This is Neanderthal’s sole North American outing.

Skull and mandible of the Old Man of La Chapelle-aux-Saints, dating 45,000 to 57,000 years ago. Photo: Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle – Musée de l’Homme. Courtesy Canadian Museum of History

The exhibition blends more than 150 artifacts – including shaped tools, ornamental objects and, touchingly, a pair of seashells collected by an unknown someone – with scientific evidence and other elements to show that those nomadic hunter-gatherers were anything but stoop-shouldered dimwits. (The fact that some of us inherited up to four per cent of our DNA from Neanderthals may or may not convince the dubious that our long-dead cousins were actually pretty smart.)

Several skulls collected from La Chapelle-aux-Saints, Saint-Césaire and elsewhere in France help cement our relationship with these vanished humans who at the zenith, numbered about 70,000. The intact skull of a two-and-a-half-year-old child is especially poignant. “What did this little person witness and why the early death?” you wonder as you study those eye sockets.

Elsewhere, two large, flat fossils show the imprint of a hand and a foot. You can’t help but puzzle over what they were doing or where they were going when, unwittingly, those bodies left their mark for us to view millennia later.

This remarkable biface made of rock crystal may have been a tool or an artistic statement. Courtesy Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Musée de l’Homme.

Same goes for the gent whose full, fossilized skeleton was unearthed, along with stone implements, at La Ferrassie, France. The skeleton shows that, like us, Neanderthals walked upright and were not hunched over as once thought.

Unlike us, they didn’t know about flossing. That’s evident from some plaque-stained teeth. The nearby chunk of fossilized feces also links the past to us – when you have to go, you have to go.

As for those caves and clubs, forget it. Open-air shelters were apparently home sweet home, with a pre-historic floor plan sporting an open-concept flow that any modern home builder would admire. And, we’re told, no club has ever been found among the weaponry at Neanderthal archeological sites. So why all those misapprehensions about these inventive folks who seem to have had burial customs and, like us, were omnivores?

Neanderthal remains were discovered in the mid-1800s, says Canadian Museum of History curator Janet Young. “That was a time of colonialism and European superiority, and that was the framework that guided interpretation.” Those 19th-century scientists worked with artists to get their visions across to the public, and those images – furry folks with bowed backs – wound up in school books, misinforming young minds for generations. In fact, says Young, a reproduction of one of those early artistic renderings is available at walmart.com, dragging an old misunderstanding into the digital age. “The discussion in the show is the Neanderthal as ‘the other’ and will we ever correct that misinterpretation,” she says.

Some of those book illustrations along with both early and later artwork are part of the exhibition. Neanderthal Flintworkers, a large 1924 wall mural by Charles C. Knight, depicts an ape-like family at the mouth of a cave, seemingly alerted to an unseen threat.

Another, earlier rendering of a different group includes a bare-breasted woman with distinctly pre-Raphaelite features. Seems those Neanderthals were actually ahead of their time.

The exhibition has been fleshed out with more contemporary images including a 1940s magazine ad for men’s shirts featuring a svelte, club-toting cavewoman hauling off her well-dressed man by his hair. Misinformation is, clearly, a potent business opportunity.

Recent archaeological discoveries and technology-assisted analysis have helped put the lie to some of that misinformation. However, those advances haven’t revealed why the Neanderthal, who shared a common ancestor with us, disappeared. Everything from disease to competition with homo sapiens, and possibly a combination of factors, are credible culprits.

A silicone reconstruction of a Neanderthal woman in modern dress concludes the exhibit. An amused smile on her lips, she holds a book in her hand with a photo of herself on the cover. Degrees of separation are less than we think, her presence suggests.

Neanderthal continues until Jan. 26, 2020. Information: 819-776-7000, historymuseum.ca

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.