Neanderthals in ancient mythology

Not so long ago there was a very popular article circulating on the internet, promoting the idea that most of the medieval fairy tales can be traced all the way to the Bronze age, if not even further than that. This idea is very plausible and hardly surprising – we know for sure that some religious and mythological ideas have survived for tens of thousands of years, all the way from the Paleolithic period.

A good example for this claim are the Venus figurines. The oldest one, the Venus of Hohle Fels is dated to some 40.000 years BC, and yet, this type of figurines continued to be produced al the way to the late Neolithic period, and even Bronze age. The same goes for Paleolithic flutes, where again in the case of Hohle Fels, we see the oldest example of the Pentatonic scale (!) Let’s not forget also a lion-man of the Hohlenstein-Stadel (40.000 BC) and bull-headed figure of the Chauvet cave, strange hybrids that continued to appear throughout the world’s mythology and may have even been the prototypes for the first Zodiac. These are just some of the examples, but they are good enough to illustrate that we can be pretty sure that it was not only the basic technology that was transmitted from generation to generation for the last 50.000 years,  but also the whole set of traditions and religious beliefs.

In this case, we can ask ourselves the following question – If we know that Paleolithic people coexisted with the Neanderthals for thousands of years, can we expect to see some memories of this period in the ancient mythology?

Namely, it is well known that precisely in this period – some 40.000 years BC, humans and Neandertals had coexisted in Northern Europe. Until recently, it was believed that this period lasted for some 5.000 years after which Neanderthals went extinct. However, the recent archaeological findings of Neanderthals in Gibraltar have shown that in this part of the world, a small group had survived all the way until 22.000 BC. This simply means that even though they remained in very small numbers, Neanderthals lived amongst humans for at least 20.000 years! I guess that it would be only natural that living with other, different humanoid beings for such a long period would leave a huge imprint in human consciousness, resulting in stories and myths of which some may have even survived to our days.

I believe that this is really the case and that there are many examples, but I will use only two.

The first one would be the Trolls from Norse mythology. According to the highlighted Wikipedia article:

“In Old Norse sources, beings described as trolls dwell in isolated rocks, mountains, or caves, live together in small family units, and are rarely helpful to human beings. Later, in Scandinavian folklore, trolls became beings in their own right, where they live far from human habitation, are not Christianized, and are considered dangerous to human beings. Depending on the region from which accounts of trolls stem, their appearance varies greatly; trolls may be ugly and slow-witted, or look and behave exactly like human beings, with no particularly grotesque characteristic about them.”


Trolls, Wikipedia commons

It is interesting to note that the grotesque appearance of a troll matches very closely the appearance of a Nenaderthal, as described by the modern science:

“Neanderthal anatomy differed from modern humans in that they had a more robust build and distinctive morphological features, especially on the cranium, which gradually accumulated more derived aspects as it was described by Marcellin Boule, particularly in certain isolated geographic regions. These include shorter limb proportions, a wider, barrel-shaped rib cage, a reduced chin, and a large nose, which was much larger in both length and width, and started somewhat higher on the face, than in modern humans.


Neanderthal, a modern reconstruction, compare with the illustration of Trolls above

Moreover, it is believed that Neanderthals body was built to endure colder climate, and this is why their last stand was in Northern Europe, not far from the region where the myths of Trolls originated. As for their extinction, one theory states that they were either exterminated by humans in the territorial warfare or simply had no resistance to African pathogens that came with modern humans. The other suggests that they had disappeared in the process of interbreeding with modern humans. The truth is probably somewhere in between, but in the case of the second theory, it is interesting to have another look at the Norse mythology and the story of Changelings.

According to Wikipedia, “A changeling child was believed to be a fairy child that had been left in place of a human child stolen by the fairies.”

And a little bit further: “One belief is that trolls thought that it was more respectable to be raised by humans and that they wanted to give their own children a human upbringing. Some people believed that trolls would take unbaptized children. Once children had been baptized and therefore become part of the Church, the trolls could not take them. Beauty in human children and young women, particularly blond hair, was said to attract the fairies.”

As for the more violent encounters between humans and trolls, one should not look further than the famous epic of Beowulf.

In short, are these just pure mythological tales, or they can be traced all the way to Paleolithic, and human memory of Neanderthals? As we see in the above example, new layers could have been added in later times, like the motif of baptism and Christianity, but could the essence of this story be much older?

The second suspect would be Giants. This is a much more common motif that appears in virtually all cultures and it is beyond the reach of this short article to illustrate all interesting examples. It is also likely that not all of the Giant myths can be related to Neanderthals, as even the appearance of the Norseman in middle ages would be considered “gigantic” to other nations, but it is also a fact that the Norse themselves had myths of the giants, the so-called Jötunn, who are closely related to Trolls.

Anyhow, it is a fact the Neanderthals were not so much taller than humans, but they were indeed way stronger and of more robust body shape. The enormous height may have been a more recent contribution to the story, long after they went extinct.

The other matching fact is that Giants, just like the Trolls, and what we know of the last Neanderthals, usually lived in remote places and caves. In Slavic languages, the word for giant is “div” and wilderness is “divljina” which would mean “the realm of the giants”. Numerous Slavic myths tell of the heroes who went on a quest in a wilderness or a cave to kill a giant. The similar analogy can be made between the word “jungle” and “giant” or “gin” from Arabic sources.

We should not forget that even the Bible mentions the giants interbreeding with humans in the book of Genesis:

“There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.” Genesis 6:4

However, the most interesting example for me comes from the Chronicle of the early Britons, written in the 12th century. It was when I was reading this particular text that I first got the idea that giants could be related to Neanderthals, because of the way that they were described in this text.

In brief, Brutus, the founder of Britain, is asking the goddess Diana for advice which land to settle with his warriors. She appears in a dream and tells him the following:

““beneath the setting of the sun, beyond the land of Gaul, there lies an island in the sea in which giants once lived. It is empty now.

Go there, for it is set aside for you and your descendants. And it shall be for your children like a second Troy, and kings shall be born of your line unto whom the whole earth shall pay homage!”

However, upon their arrival to Britain, they realize that very small groups of giants are still scattered in caves around the island. One night their camp gets attacked by them. After that, one of the most prized warriors, Corineus decides to take the part of the island where they were present in the largest number – modern Cornwall. This is the account of that episode:

“And Corineus called that part [of the island] which fell to him, Cornwall, for he was granted first choice before any other. And he chose that part of the land because therein dwelt the greatest number of giants, which he loved to fight more than any other thing. And amongst the giants of Cornwall there dwelt one who was mighty. He was called Gawr Madoc. His height was twelve cubits, and his power and strength were so great that he could pluck from its roots beneath his feet the largest oak in the forest, as easily – or so it was said – as if he were plucking a sprig of hazel.

And behold, as Brutus, upon a feast day, was doing battle at that place where he first landed on this island, Gawr Madoc came with eleven [other] giants and inflicted great slaughter upon the Britons. But then  the Britons rallied [together] and fought heroically against them, slaying every one of them except Gawr Madoc, for Brutus had ordained him to be saved alive because he wished to see Corineus fight him.

And Corineus was overjoyed when he saw this great one approaching, and casting off his
armour he challenged the giant to wrestle him. And they drew close to one another, face to face. And each took hold of the other amid such grunts and groans that they who watched nearby were troubled by their breath. And the giant straightway hugged Corineus with all his strength, breaking three of his ribs, two on the left side, and one on the right. And Corineus was filled with wrath.

He summoned his might and lifted the giant to shoulder height, and ran with him to the highest point of the cliff’s edge, throwing him over the cliff into the sea, dashing him into a thousand pieces. And the waves were stained with his blood long after. And from that day to this, the place is called The Giant’s Leap, or Gawr Madoc’s Jump.”

Full text of the chronicle is here.

I must mention that according to this chronicle the events described took place after the Troyan war, which would date them roughly to the first millennium BC, when it was highly unlikely that the Neanderthals were still present in Europe. However, the same chronicle, as well as virtually all medieval chronicles (and the Bible), mentions also the flood, which could have only happened at the end of the Ice age. Could it be that some of the other ancient stories were also remembered and incorporated in the stories of the later date?

Another great example are the Basajaun of Basque mythology, whose name means “wild lords” or “lords of the forest”. They were considered as the original inhabitants of this area, megalith builders, and possessors of the secrets of architecture, agriculture, ironwork and sedentary life. Very similar to the Pan of the Greeks, (whose name also means “lord” if translated in Slavic) they were also protectors of the flocks of sheep. When a storm or the wolves approached, they shouted and whistled on the mountain to warn the shepherds. Sometimes encounters with them were pleasant and sometimes not, but in the end they were in war with humans, a war which they lost.


Basajaun, Wikipedia commons

In Aragon they were also known as Bosnerau, an name that sounds similar to Bosnia (Bosna), a word that hasn’t been etymologically explained so far. One of the current theories is relating it to the Thracian tribe of Besi, who in turn may have gotten their name from Bes – a very similar creature of the Slavic mythology. See my article Bes, Egyptian god that is not Egyptian. The name of the Slavic demon, Bes, means “angry”, “wild”, and the translation of “wild-ling” would be more than appropriate.

In any case, we saw that Gibraltar was the last known refuge of the Neanderthals in Europe. However, once the glaciers had melted and Britain and Scandinavia became isolated from the rest of the Europe, would it be unreasonable to imagine that small groups of Neanderthals could manage to survive for some time longer, and that such a long period of coexistence with them was never really forgotten?

This is really just wild-guessing, but in my opinion an interesting topic to think about. Feel free to express your opinion in the comments.


Mên-an-Tol stones, Cornwall, England