The Evolving Father

How fatherhood differs across cultures and through time

Mysteries of a Neandertal Father

What science suggests about these extinct cousins.

An image from the Neandertal Museum
Neandertals lived in parts of Eurasia between around 200,000 to 25,000 years ago. They have left bones, tools, and mystery, as we wonder how similar their lives were to our own. Here, we ask: what might a Neandertal father have been like? Piecing together bits of evidence from these extinct cousins of ours, how familiar might those Neandertal dads have looked? The following scenario is consistent with the latest research in Neandertal bones, archaeology, and genetics, but of course stretches the limits of available data too.

Imagine a Neandertal man picking up his spear. He checks to ensure the stone tip is hafted. He leaves the warmth of a fire with others—other men, but also some women and children, who might help in that day’s hunt for food. They find some berries and roots. They find some tracks. Eventually, they’re on a daytime prowl, pursuing a wooly rhinoceros.

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The father gets close to his quarry. He stabs. He’s knocked down by the angered and weakened rhino. He stabs again. He’s knocked down again, taking a sharp blow to his arm, one that will mark his bones eternally. With others’ help, they eventually pull down their target. They have a bonanza. The father has succeeded in his aim; one of his jobs is to help provision his family.

Chunks of the meat are cooked back at the camp. The group enjoys their fill. The man sits by his partner and near his kids. He shares the moment with other kin; there are 10 of them living together. Satisfied, and the fire waning, he will fall asleep near his partner and kids. He wakes occasionally, hears his infant son nuzzle for milk, and both his son and he himself fall back asleep.

That night marks this father’s last. The next day brings his death. It’s a cruel end, a grim day, but one foreshadowing the eventual demise of his entire kind. A Neandertal father lives in a dangerous world. There are threats. Large animals loom on the landscape, even if they’d prefer some other quarry. But other Neandertals, who also possess spears and sharpened stones, are threats too. For that next day a murder takes place. Another Neandertal group catches the father off guard, and kills him. They butcher him, eating his flesh, as those other Neandertals seek their own sustenance through this occasional resort to cannibalism.

In this world, a Neandertal father lives in a long-term, mostly monogamous relationship (marked with any equivalent of a marital ceremony?), and knows and cares for his kids. He helps in protection and provisioning, and has an emotional presence, often with his partner and their children in camp and while foraging. He helps unceremoniously bury his family, which happens all too often. Sometimes, he watches his kids grow, and his sons become fathers themselves. There are pleasures and challenges, even if those are not recorded in a Neandertal father’s remains. If we could shake any more details free from him, what more would we wonder about a Neandertal father?

For a good, current overview of Neandertals and other hominin cousins of ours, check out Ian Tattersall’s (2012) Masters of the Planet.

Peter B. Gray, Ph.D., is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is the coauthor of Fatherhood.

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