Neanderthals in popular culture

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An early (1888) reconstruction of what a Neanderthal male may have looked like; reconstructions such as this proved influential in the reception of "Neanderthals" in popular culture.
"Le Moustier Neanderthals" by Charles R. Knight (1920)
Neanderthal statue in Veringenstadt (1960s)

Neanderthals have been portrayed in popular culture since the early 20th century. Early depictions were based on notions of the proverbially primitive Caveman; since the later 20th century, some depictions were more closely modelled on life in the Middle Paleolithic.

In popular idiom the word Neanderthal is sometimes used as an insult, to suggest that a person combines a deficiency in intelligence and a propensity toward brute force, as well as perhaps implying that the person is old-fashioned or attached to outdated ideas, much in the same way as "dinosaur" or "Yahoo" is also used.

There are sympathetic literary portrayals of Neanderthals, as in the novel The Inheritors by William Golding, Isaac Asimov's The Ugly Little Boy, or the more serious treatment by Finnish palaeontologist Björn Kurtén, in several works including Dance of the Tiger, and British psychologist Stan Gooch in his hybrid-origin theory of humans.

Novels and short stories[edit]

Science fiction has depicted Neanderthals in novels and short stories in several ways:

  • Neanderthals appear in H. G. Wells' 1921 short story "The Grisly Folk," which portrays them as savage and barbaric creatures who deserved their fate of extinction.
  • Edison Marshall's 1935 novel Dian of the Lost Land features Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons as traditional enemies surviving in a warm valley of Antarctica.
  • L. Sprague de Camp's 1939 short story "The Gnarly Man" features an immortal Neanderthal living in the modern world.
  • Poul Anderson's story "The Nest" is told from the point of view of a Neanderthal who finds himself in a peculiar time-traveling colony mixing people from various time periods and locations. He eventually has a crucial role in forging an alliance of people from very many different backgrounds, together fighting the story's villains - bandit adventurers from Medieval Norman Sicily aided by 20th Century Nazis. Eventually, he is able to return to his own time from which he was kidnapped, but finds Neanderthal society (his name for his kind is simply "The Men") too boring and settles on a career of time-traveling adventures along with a Russian woman he fell in love with.
  • In The Ugly Little Boy by Isaac Asimov, a Neanderthal child is brought into the present via time travel. Neanderthals are sympathetically depicted as having an articulate and sophisticated society and language, in conscious rebuttal of the above stereotype. In 1992 it was expanded into a novel in collaboration with Robert Silverberg, adding a covergent plot taking part in the Neanderthal society of the past.
  • Philip K. Dick's novel The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike uses as a plot device the discovery of a Neanderthal skull in the United States. Neanderthal were also shown as living in primitive towns in the rural areas of the former United States in his book The Simulacra.
  • In Mary Renault's The Bull from the Sea, the Kentaurs are portrayed as Neanderthals.
  • In the Riverworld series, Philip José Farmer introduces a prominent Neanderthal character named Kazz, who interacts with modern humans. Jose Farmer's novella The Alley Man concerns a Neanderthal whose family has survived into modern times.
  • Michael Crichton's 1976 novel Eaters of the Dead places a small Neanderthal population in Northern Europe as the source of the battles recorded in Beowulf. This novel was also a base for a motion picture The 13th Warrior (1999), though the word "Neanderthals" was never mentioned in the movie.
  • Neanderthals appear as characters in Jean M. Auel's "Earth's Children" Series, including the 1986 movie adaptation of the first book, The Clan of the Cave Bear
  • Colin Wilson discusses evidence and theories of Neanderthal survival into the modern age, including the possibility of their recent breeding with humans, in his book "Unsolved Mysteries".
  • Neanderthals also appear in the 2005 Doctor Who New Series Adventures spin-off novel, Only Human, where they also show good intelligence but struggle with concepts such as fiction and lies, and they appear to not understand why humans 'are always making things up'
  • The clash between the last of the Neanderthals and the emerging race of Homo sapiens is portrayed in A.A. Attanasio's 1991 novel 'Hunting the Ghost Dancer'.
  • Harry Turtledove's novella Down in the Bottomlands is set in an alternate timeline where the Mediterranean Sea has stayed dry since the Miocene and Europe is still inhabited by Homo neanderthalensis, referred to in the story as "Strongbrows" and described as "shorter, stockier, fairer," than the "Highhead" people (presumably analogous to Homo sapiens).
  • Harry Harrison describes a Neanderthal population in Norway and Sweden in his Alternate History "Hammer and the Cross" series. In these books, Neanderthals hybridize with H. sapiens and are the basis for troll legends.
  • The short-lived animated series Cro centered around a Cro-Magnon child being adopted by a tribe of Neanderthals.
  • In John Darnton's 1996 novel Neanderthal a group of surviving Neanderthals is discovered in the mountains of Afghanistan. In the novel Neanderthals are said to possess the ability to read minds due to their larger cranial capacity. However, in the novel, Darnton denied that Neanderthals had, unlike Cro-Magnons, gained the capability of deception on more than two levels at a time, any more than any known specimens of great ape had. He blamed the near-extinction of the Neanderthals on this shortcoming.
  • Joan Dahr Lambert's novel 'Circles of Stone' tells the story of a band of early Homo sapiens teaming up with a remnant band of Neanderthals to defeat a hostile band of H.sapiens who are trying to take over their territory. Set in the Pyrenees, Neanderthals are dying out because they can't give birth to enough children. Neanderthal infant heads are too big.
  • In William Shatner's Quest for Tomorrow series of novels, Neanderthals were a primitive psychic species which caught the eye of a large alien empire. They decided to try to isolate the telepathic gene and transplanted several subjects to another world. The original Neanderthals were eliminated so that no one else gets the same idea. The homo sapiens were left alone. The transplanted Neanderthals eventually evolved into an industrial society. However, this took much longer than it did for humanity, as a telepathic species would have problems inventing complex technology without the use of writing - an unnecessary tool for telepaths. The Neanderthals eventually joined together and transcended their physical shape, becoming a god-like being.
  • In The Silk Code by Paul Levinson (winner of 1999 Locus Award for Best First Novel), Neanderthals are still living in Basque country in 750 AD, and a few survive in the present world.
  • Waiting by Frank M. Robinson
  • The T'lan Imass characters in the anthropologically-rooted fantasy series Malazan Book of the Fallen appear to be physiologically based on the Neanderthals.
  • In Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series of novels Neanderthals are portrayed as having been brought back from extinction by cloning to act as medical test subjects thanks to their close relation to Homo sapiens but lack of legal status as human beings. Following a public outcry at the practice they go on to fill low paying jobs. They have an amazing ability to "read minds" from tiny facial movements and indistinct body-language, even into detail such as marital status, job and true love's identity; it is said by Neanderthals that faces can form verbs. They can instantly spot a liar, and therefore respect humans more if they say exactly what they mean, no matter how offensive or obtuse. Their art is abstract, but they can instantly understand it as if it were photorealistic, and they will never work, play or even walk in the rain, to show it respect.
  • Robert J. Sawyer's Neanderthal Parallax trilogy portrays contact with an alternate world where Neanderthals, not Homo sapiens, became the dominant species. The first book in this series, Hominids, won the Hugo Award in 2003. (Sawyer's 1997 novel Frameshift used Neanderthal DNA as an element of a plot set in modern-day America.)
  • Dance of the Tiger by Paleontologist Björn Kurténce, follows interactions between European Homo sapiens sapiens and neanderthals, possible worldviews and origins for troll mythology.
  • In Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear (winner of 2003 Nebula Award), a phenomenon which caused the Neanderthals to die off now threatens modern humans.
  • Stephen Baxter's Manifold: Origin prominently features Neanderthals from an alternate timeline. This is a sequel to Manifold: Space where Neanderthal characters also appear, in a narrower context, as genetically engineered slave laborers.
  • The novel Heaven by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen features spacefaring Neanderthals who were removed from Earth by powerful aliens for unspecified reasons.
  • In S. M. Stirling's novel The Sky People, Neanderthals inhabit an alternate-history Venus.
  • In Orson Scott Card's anthology Keeper of Dreams, the story "Heal Thyself" describes the accidental resurrection of Neanderthals during testing of an immune system enhancement.
  • In The Adventures of Cletus, a vulgar and comedic story found on Cleti and Oti's Amazing website, the main character is an immortal named Cletus that claims to be a Neanderthal.[1]
  • In the Italian comic series Martin Mystère published by Bonelli Comics, sidekick of the protagonist is a Neanderthal called "Java".
  • In Savage Eden by Nathan Martinez, the last living Neanderthal girl and a runaway autistic boy bond and learn to survive together as their hidden wilderness in the Caucasus Mountains is invaded by human death squads and armies on the eve of global nuclear war.

Films and TV series[edit]

  • In a Looney Tunes cartoon titled Mad as a Mars Hare, Bugs Bunny is turned into a Neanderthal Rabbit after getting hit by a ray from a time-projector gun by Marvin the Martian.
  • "Quest for Fire (film)" (1981) features Neanderthals and a Cro-Magnon attempting to carry a vessel containing fire to the Neanderthal's tribe.
  • "Clan of the Cave Bear" film (1986) was adapted from the Auel's novel.
  • "Iceman" film (1984), from a screenplay written by John Drimmer, depicts a frozen Neanderthal coming to life again in the 1980s at an arctic research station.
  • In "Ghost Light" (1989), a serial in the television series Doctor Who, a Neanderthal called Nimrod is the butler of a Victorian household.
  • In Night at the Museum, four Neanderthals were put on display in the American Museum of Natural History. An ancient Egyptian tablet, the Tablet of Akhemrah, causes everything on display in the museum to come to life at night. The Neanderthals showed an interest in fire after it was shown to them by the night guard, Larry Daley.
  • In an episode of The real adventures of Johnny Quest the mythical yetis are stated to be a relict population of Neanderthals.
  • Generic "cavemen" have appeared in multiple episodes of the Dinosaurs TV series in the early 1990s, notably season 3 episodes, "The Discovery," and "Charlene and Her Amazing Humans."
  • A Neanderthal-like family was a frequent recurring sketch in the children's show, "You Can't Do That on Television." In keeping with the theme of that particular episode, the sketch often parodied modern issues with coarse, overbearing parents outside of a pre-historic cave setting.[2]
  • The GEICO Cavemen are trademarked characters of GEICO in a series of television advertisements for the auto insurance company GEICO that have aired from 2004 to present, featuring Neanderthal-like cavemen in a modern setting.
  • The 2013 animated film The Croods features the titular family as they embark on a journey to find a new home along with a Cro-Magnon boy who has mastered fire and other "technologies" they hadn't previously encountered.


  1. ^ "The Adventures of Cletus". 
  2. ^ [ FAQ "31. Which sets were used for YCDTOTV sketches?" - see "The cave" under Miscellaneous sets. Note: do not correct url formatting as per Wikipedia's Blacklist, June 2010]