What was Neanderthal clothing like?

Neanderthals lived in Europe from ~400,000 years ago to ~28,000 years ago. During this time period the continent went through numerous ice ages. The Neanderthals’ body evolved to deal with this new tough environment, as did their technology. One important adaptation was the use of clothes. So what

Neanderthals lived in Europe from ~400,000 years ago to ~28,000 years ago. During this time period the continent went through numerous ice ages. The Neanderthals’ body evolved to deal with this new tough environment, as did their technology. One important adaptation was the use of clothes. So what was Neanderthal clothing like? How did it help them survive the ice age?

Sunghir is a 22,00 year old site where someone was buried in clothes made from thousands of beads, along with huge mammoth ivory spears

Beads threaded into clothes is one of the few ways archaeologists can “see” clothes

Unfortunately clothes aren’t made from stone, bone or some other material which lasts for hundreds of thousands of years. This means we can’t study the clothes directly. Instead, scientists have to try and infer what they wore by looking at modern hunter-gatherers.

Whilst these people are obviously not neanderthals they can show what factors influence clothing choices when it is your very life – not just your style – on the line. So Nathan Wales, of the University of Connecticut, poured over comprehensive data collected by the famous anthropologist Lewis Binford to try and investigate this issue. His investigation revealed there was a fairly strong correlation between the temperature your environment and the percentage of the body clothes covered.  Additionally, he also found that temperature influenced whether a specific part of the body was covered. Hats, it turns out, are only really used when it gets really cold.

This means that we can use the detailed environmental data we have for the European climate predict how much of their body neanderthal clothing covered. Additionally, we can also predict precisely what the neanderthals were covering as well. Did they wear hats? I’m just dying to know.

The relationship between clothing and temperature

However, before we can make such predictions we have to take into account the fact that the neanderthals had developed many adaptations for life at northern latitudes. They were short and squat, reducing their surface area so that it would loose less heat. They also had more muscle mass, which insulates better than fat. These adaptations mean we can’t take data for modern humans – who lack many of these changes – and use it to make predictions for neanderthals. Instead we have to first apply a correction factor to take into account how much better neanderthals were at retaining heat.

Luckily for Wales much research has been done into neanderthal energetics since it is a key area of research for scientists trying to work out why the neanderthals went extinct. Many of their adaptations would’ve required more energy to function. This would’ve put gracile humans at an advantage, particularly during warmer phases where neanderthals cold adaptations would be giving them no benefit. As such it was relatively easy for Wales to search through the existing literature on the subject and identify that neanderthals’ adaptations would have meant they could survive in temperatures 4 degrees c colder than modern humans.

So after correcting his models by 4 degrees, Wales calculated how much of their body neanderthals would have covered with clothing. The results of this model indicate that neanderthals would’ve had to have covered >80% of their body during the coldest periods, but only ~40% during milder times and for those living in downright pleasant environments – such as along the Mediterranean – they would’ve only had to have covered ~20% of their body. When plotted over Europe, the results look like this.

neanderthal clothing

The annotation of this picture is pretty self-explanatory, so I’ll just add that “mousterian” refers to the toolkit produced by neanderthals.

He then ran his predictions of whether neanderthals would’ve covered their feet, hands and heads. These results indicate that neanderthals would more than likely have covered their hands in most of the environments they encountered, but would only have covered their heads in the coldest places. Finally, they would’ve likely have covered their feet most of the time.  Finally, just to be sure of all of these predictions he ran his models for modern hunter-gatherers to see if they were reliable. He found that the resulting predictions were only ~10% off which is not bad at all. So these results are indeed reliable.

Although this certainly is interesting, revealing a lot about neanderthal clothing, can we get more specific about what they wore? Archaeology may finally be have use here, showing that neanderthals did not produce complex technology needed to sew or stitch clothes together to create well fitting garments. Further, anatomical evidence suggests that neanderthals were not wearing high quality shoes which provided them with grip or traction. Instead it would seem that they wrapped their feet in skins or made other simple shoes.

In short, neanderthals covered most of their body in cold environments, less so during the warm. They often wore gloves and shoes, but only wore hats during the coldest times. However, these clothes were likely just simple furs or skins, tied or just draped over their body. They lacked the technology to produce tight fitting tailored clothes, like the kind modern humans wore.

Wales N (2012). Modeling Neanderthal clothing using ethnographic analogues. Journal of human evolution PMID: 23084621

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50 thoughts on “What was Neanderthal clothing like?”

  1. eyeonicr says:

    So after correcting his models by 4 degrees

    What does that entail? Just shifting the curve 4 points to the left?

    1. Adam Benton says:

      I believe so

  2. Jason J. says:

    I’m a little puzzled here. If Neanderthal footprints are found in caves–cold, wet clay & mud, which would mean they were barefooted in the “cold slop,” why would science suggest that they wore shoes/clothing at all? As for the theorized “squated” nature of their torso evolving for the cold, didn’t ALL other “pre-humans”, even those in the warm climate of africa, also have triangular shaped/squated ribcages? Moreso, and recently discovered, with the genome base pairs of Neanderthal resembling a greater relation to chimp than Sapien, why would they still be considered hairless like us? (www.genome.ucsc.edu) Should there be a peer-reviewed paper written by now evaluating this?
    Sincerely, Jason (common sence deepthroat) J.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Science suggests that Neanderthals wore clothes because, as discussed above, there is evidence for it. The fact that Neanderthals went barefoot in some circumstances doesn’t indicate they had no clothes at all. I’m not wearing shoes at the moment, doesn’t mean I’m naked. Further, the circumstances in which they went barefoot aren’t quite as harsh as you suggest. Neanderthals lit and heated their caves with fire and torches, so they were quite amicable surroundings. The fact they went barefoot around a fire hardly proves they had no clothes, or even that they had no shoes.

      Both humans and Neanderthals are descended from an earlier hominin, known as Homo heidelbergensis. Their ribcage is quite similar to ours as, like us, they appear to have been a species adapted for warmer climates. As such the Neanderthal ribcage is a new development and one that must be examined.

      Finally, the genetic differences between humans and Neanderthals are very small; particularly when compared with chimps. Drawing significant comparisons – including body hair – between the two is unjustified.

    2. Anonymous says:

      i think because they actually were like monkeys

  3. Dwarf Elder says:

    If you live in an environment where the temperature often drops down to 50 below zero, even with physical adaptation your skin will turn to ice. Showing neanderthals exposing their arms and legs and wearing primitive skins seems to be a silly preconceived notion. They must
    have been able to sew fully insulated, waterproof suits similar to the Inuit. Anything less would mean death to a Hominid. How well do tiny bone needles stay preserved over the eons? Reason suggests Neanderthals could sew – possibly even boats to cross rivers. Neanderthals were likely the most advanced people on earth until the hybrid Cro-Magnon man replaced them. They were the “Dwarves of the North” who mixed with Homo Sapiens in the Levant and created Homo Sapiens Sapiens – AKA modern man.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      As the chart of Mousterian sites included in the post shows Neanderthals retreated to Western Europe and around the Black Sea during the glacial periods. There the temperature rarely dropped below -8. Whilst obviously not idea, it’s far from the Arctic conditions you posit.

      1. Jason J says:

        If they wore clothing, then why all of the footprints in cold sloppy mud? I’m still waiting on UCSC to provide the chromosomal count to prove reproduction with sapien. If they had 46 then yes, if they didn’t then no. Just the footprints alone is more contradictory evidence to your claim, right?

    2. Adam Benton says:

      The evidence we do have for interbreeding suggests it occurred on a very small scale, perhaps a dozen or so instances. People have this romanticised vision of humans and Neanderthals combining into one species but this simply did not happen.

  4. Dwarf Elder says:

    These Inuit kids are adapted to cold, heavily insulated, yet even they could easily freeze to death on a bad day. The ice ages had the worst days EVER. Replace their faces with “handsome” bearded Dwarves and a clear picture of Neanderthal attire becomes apparent.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Neanderthals were maybe a head smaller than your average human. Hardly child sized.

    1. Jason J says:

      That study speculates without analysis. It says so at the bottom.

  5. Dwarf Elder says:

    Neanderthals appear to be a dwarfed Heidelberg man -which was a troll – like 6-7 foot tall giant in fairer climates, but due to cold weather adaptation dwarfed down like the viking inhabitants of Greenland before they perished. Had they not been exposed to extreme cold they would not have dwarfed in the first place and would have remained giant Heidelberg mammoth hunters. The Inuit picture is to display cold weather clothing essential to surviving extreme ice age conditions which many ancients would have been trapped in and forced to adapt to.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Except, as I said before, they weren’t living in environments as extreme as the Arctic.

      And I wound’t describe heidelbergensis as particularly troll like either.

  6. Dwarf Elder says:

    A heavily built 7ft tall man like this would scare the s#!t out of anyone!

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Except they weren’t that heavily build. Heidelbergensis was notable for having a rather gracile build. Nor were they particularly tall, with the average being around the same height as us.

  7. Dwarf Elder says:

    Most of the Heidelberg skeletons found so far come from mountainous Spain, not the big game hunters of the Eurasian steppe or the 7 to 8 ft tall giants found in South Africa. Their height varied as much as modern humans but to say they were gracile – compared to Neanderthals sure but to modern humans no way! Look at the nutcracker like jaw on this beastman”s skull.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      So why is heidelbergensis a troll whilst Neanderthals are handsome dwarves?

  8. Dwarf Elder says:

    by the way I”m from “across the pond” so I’ll have to remember to put an F or a C when talking global mean temperatures.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Which still doesn’t make your temperatures consistent with those Neanderthals would’ve actually experienced.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      No. Based on current evidence it seems Neanderthal clothing wasn’t as good as that of contemporary humans, but still far from rags or anything Flinstones-esque

  9. Dwarf Elder says:

    Question: If Arctic sea ice extends as far south as Spain and the ocean drops 400 ft, would there not be arctic like conditions across much of the northern Hemisphere a good part of the year? And what was your climate model based on?

    1. Adam Benton says: