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Neanderthals and Homo sapiens: 5 key differences explained

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key point:
  • Neanderthals had short, stocky bodies with prominent browbones. They are capable toolmakers and extremely skilled hunters.
  • Although Neanderthals existed at the same time as Homo sapiens, they became extinct about 40,000 years ago.
  • The average height of a modern man is 5 feet 9 inches for men and 5 feet 4 inches for women. Neanderthals, on the other hand, reached an average height of 5 feet 5 feet 6 inches.

Neanderthals are an extinct species of archaic humans that lived between 350,000 and 40,000 years ago, while Homo sapiens are modern humans. Many people have long believed that we evolved from Neanderthals, but they were actually one of our closest relatives, living alongside early humans. For a long time, Neanderthals were portrayed as savage cave dwellers who walked with premonitions and brandished clubs. The word is even used as an insult for many of the same reasons. However, the truth is that there were far more Neanderthals than was first thought. So, what exactly is the difference between the two? Join us as we discover just how different Neanderthals and Homo sapiens really are!

Comparing Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals

Neanderthals (homo neanderthalensis) are known for their short, stocky bodies and prominent brow ridges. They are capable toolmakers and extremely skilled hunters. Homosapien, on the other hand, means "wise man," which is especially apt considering how much we've adapted and achieved. Despite the common misconception that Neanderthals are our ancestors, they were actually only a really close relative. But how close are they?

Check out the table below for some key differences between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals.

Homo sapiens Neanderthal
status live Extinct – lived 350,000 to 40,000 years ago
Place Global – adaptable in a wide range of climates and conditions Eurasia – usually in a cold and arid environment
high Varies by country and factors such as living conditions.
Estimated average height for men is 5'9" and for women is 5'4"
Average 5 feet to 5 feet 6 inches
limbs long limbs Short limbs, especially the calves and forearms
Chest normal shape Barrel
bone The pelvis is thinner and narrower than that of early humans thick bones and broad pelvis
Humerus Symmetrical asymmetrical
Metacarpal Thinner thicker
skull A more rounded skull without a prominent brow ridge The elongated skull extends from front to back. prominent browbones above the eyes, broad nose
teeth The teeth were smaller than those of early humans. The lower premolars have two cusps of equal size Larger front teeth, larger roots, and larger pulp chambers of molars. teeth grow faster
life The world average is 70 years old for men and 75 years old for women, depending on the country, living conditions, etc. About 80% of people die before the age of 40

5 Key Differences Between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens

Neanderthals vs Homo sapiens: Skulls

Neanderthal vs Homo sapiens 5 key differences explained 1
Neanderthals had differently shaped skulls and prominent brow ridges

© Hermann Schaaffhausen – Public Domain

One of the most obvious differences between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens is easily the difference in their skulls and facial features. Homo sapiens had a typically rounded skull, while Neanderthals' skulls were much elongated from front to back. This longer skull was to allow Neanderthals to have larger brains. Additionally, Neanderthals had a prominent brow bone above their eyes. They also have much larger noses. The nasal passages are significantly larger than those of Homo sapiens. This is thought to allow for greater oxygen intake during strenuous activity in particularly cold environments. Neanderthals also had less pronounced chins than Homo sapiens, but more sloping foreheads.

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Neanderthal vs Homo sapiens: height

Today, the height of Homo sapiens varies by country, living conditions, gender, race, and other factors. However, humans still outperform Neanderthals on average today. The global average is expected to be 5 feet 9 inches for men and 5 feet 4 inches for women. However, Neanderthals were smaller, averaging between 5 feet and 5 feet 6 inches. This height difference can be attributed in part to the shorter limbs of Neanderthals. Neanderthals had shorter calves and lower arms than Homo sapiens with longer limbs.

Neanderthals and Homo sapiens: Teeth

One of the deepest insights into Neanderthal life comes from their teeth. The teeth of Neanderthals started developing much earlier than those of Homo sapiens—in fact, they actually started developing before birth. Scientists believe this shows that Neanderthals actually grew faster than Homo sapiens. Other differences between their teeth include larger incisors, larger roots, a large gap behind the third molars, and enlarged pulp cavities in the molars compared to Homo sapiens.

Neanderthals and Homo sapiens: Bones

Neanderthals and Homo sapiens also had different skeletons. Neanderthals had much stronger and thicker bones than Homo sapiens. These thicker bones include thicker metacarpals and a generally sturdier character, befitting their harsh lifestyle. They also have an asymmetric humerus, as opposed to Homo sapiens, which has a symmetrical humerus. Neanderthals also had longer and thicker neck vertebrates, which would have provided greater stability to their differently shaped skulls.

Neanderthals vs Homo sapiens: Size

One of the most striking differences between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals is body size. Homo sapiens – Humans today have normally shaped chests and narrow pelvises. Neanderthals had a barrel-shaped chest and a wider pelvis. Their barrel chests consisted of longer and straighter ribs, possibly allowing greater lung capacity.

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Neanderthals were short in stature, with short, stocky limbs

©IR Stone/Shutterstock.com

Where did Neanderthals and Homo sapiens live?

While Neanderthals date back 40,000 to 400,000 years ago, Homo sapiens existed for most of that time, if not as far back. Neanderthals and humans likely evolved from a common ancestor that existed between 700,000 and 300,000 years ago; the two species belong to the same genus. The oldest Neanderthal skeleton dates back to about 430,000 years ago and was found in Spain. It has even been suggested that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens shared settlements in Spain and even France before the Neanderthals went extinct.

Neanderthals get their name from one of the earliest archaeological sites, the Neander Valley in modern-day Düsseldorf, Germany, where bones were found. Researchers have determined that these hominids inhabited parts of Eurasia from the European Atlantic region eastward to Central Asia.

While scientists may have difficulty determining the exact age of Homo sapiens, their presence spread farther than Neanderthals during the period between 200,000 BC and 40,000 BC. Homo sapiens emerged in southern and eastern Africa 200,000 years ago, eventually migrated north and inhabited Eurasia by 40,000 BC, Southeast Asia by 70,000 BC, and by 50,000 BC Live in Australia.

neanderthal family
Neanderthals are named after the Neander Valley near Düsseldorf, Germany, where their remains were first discovered.

© iStock.com/gorodenkoff

FAQ's (Frequently Asked Questions)

Were Neanderthals and humans the same species?

Both Neanderthals and humans belong to the same genus Homo, but not the same species. Neanderthals (homo neanderthalensis) and humans (homo sapiens) are two different species. Everyone alive today is Homo sapiens . However, Neanderthal DNA has been found to be present in some people, which means that Neanderthals and some early humans actually interbred.

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Did Neanderthals talk?

For years, people have speculated whether Neanderthals could talk. Nonetheless, recent research has shown that they are at least capable of speaking some language . Speech is related to the structure of the vocal tract and the size of the pharyngeal space at the base of the skull. Neanderthals' skull bases were found to be more arched than chimpanzees but less arched than humans, meaning they were able to produce some speech, but not necessarily the same range of sounds as humans. Still, the fact that Neanderthals were skilled toolmakers and skilled hunters suggests they must have been able to communicate effectively.

Were Neanderthals smart?

Neanderthals weren't as dumb as people thought, research suggests. In addition to evidence that they must have been able to speak and communicate effectively, Neanderthals were found to have buried their dead. There is significant evidence that they marked graves and made symbolic objects. Additionally, they are able to start and contain fires, make tools, and live in shelters. There is even evidence that they tended to sick or injured family members.

Were Neanderthals stronger than Homo sapiens?

While it's impossible to know for sure, or to what extent, Neanderthals are generally believed to be stronger than Homo sapiens. Neanderthals were shorter, stockier, and more muscular, which naturally means they were well suited for strength. In fact, given their harsh lifestyles, it's easy to assume they're pretty strong. Neanderthals were master hunters, often wrestling with large animals such as mammoths in order to capture and kill them. Not only that, but even after they were killed, they would bring large amounts of meat back to their families.

How old was the oldest Neanderthal - Prehistoric mammoth meets
Neanderthals were very strong because they hunted large mammals such as mammoths

©Esteban De Armas/Shutterstock.com

What did Neanderthals eat?

Neanderthals were primarily carnivores, hunting and eating large mammals such as mammoths, elephants, deer, woolly rhinos, and wild boars. However, preserved food found in Neanderthal teeth suggests they also ate some plants and fungi.

Why did Neanderthals become extinct?

Neanderthals became extinct about 40,000 years ago, although their DNA is present in some humans. The exact reason for their extinction is unknown. However, some of these reasons are thought to include increased competition from early Homo sapiens, and interbreeding with them. Furthermore, the inability to cope with extreme conditions such as climate change and natural disasters is another reason for their extinction. The general consensus is that it is unlikely that any one specific cause contributed to their extinction, but rather a combination of factors.


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More from AZ Animals

featured image

Primitive caveman in animal skin looking around with stone pointed spear exploring prehistoric forest for animal prey. Neanderthals went hunting in the jungle

© iStock.com/gorodenkoff

about the author

For many years, I have been writing professionally, with an emphasis on animals and wildlife. I love spending time outdoors, and when I'm not writing I'll be found on a farm surrounded by horses, dogs, sheep and pigs.

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