Neanderthals in ancient mythology

Not so long ago, there was a very popular article promoting the idea that most of the medieval fairy tales date all the way to the Bronze age. This idea is plausible and hardly surprising. Some religious and mythological ideas must have survived for tens of thousands of years.

Venus figurines are good examples. The oldest one, the Venus of Hohle Fels dates to some 40.000 years BC. And yet, similar figurines survived all the way to the late Neolithic period and even Bronze age. The same goes for Paleolithic flutes. 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. These strange hybrids continued to appear throughout the world’s mythology and may have even been the prototypes for the first Zodiac.

These are just some examples. And they illustrate that we can be pretty sure that for the last 50.000 years, people shared more than just the basic survival skillset. It came with a whole set of traditions and religious beliefs.

In this case, we can ask ourselves – If we know that Paleolithic people coexisted with the Neanderthals for thousands of years, can we perhaps see some memories of them in our ancient mythology?

Namely, precisely in this period – around 40,000 BC, humans, and Neandertals had coexisted in Northern Europe. Until recently, scholars assumed that this period lasted for some 5.000 years, after which Neanderthals went extinct.

However, the recent archaeological findings of Neanderthals in Gibraltar have proved this theory wrong. In this part of the world, a small group of Neanderthals had survived all the way until 22,000 BC. This simply means that even though in very small numbers, Neanderthals lived amongst humans for at least 20,000 years! I guess 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?

Trolls and Neanderthals

In Norse mythology, Trolls were creatures who lived in isolated caves or mountains. They lived in small groups and avoided humans. Later myths describe them as dangerous to humans. Their descriptions vary. Sometimes they were ugly and not too intelligent. At other times they acted like humans looked quite normal.

Do some of the ancient myths preserve the memory of the Neanderthals?

Interestingly, a grotesque appearance of a troll matches very closely the appearance of a Neanderthal, as described by modern science:

“Neanderthals had a more robust build than humans, and distinctive cranium. Other features include shorter limbs, a wider, barrel-shaped rib cage, a reduced chin. They also had a large nose, much larger in both length and width, and started somewhat higher on the face.

Neanderthal, a modern reconstruction

Moreover, the body od Neanderthals was built to endure colder climate. 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 humans exterminated them in territorial warfare, or they simply had no resistance to African pathogens that came with modern humans.

The myth of Changelings

Another theory suggests that Neanderthals 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, we have to look back to the Norse mythology, and the story of Changelings.

According to Wikipedia:

“A changeling was a fairy child, left in place of a human child, stolen by the fairies. One belief is that trolls thought that it was more respectable to be raised by humans. Beauty in human children and young women, particularly blond hair, attracted the fairies.”

As for the more violent encounters between humans and trolls, one should not look further than the famous epic of Beowulf. Are these just pure mythological tales, or they date all the way to Paleolithic and human memory of Neanderthals?

Giants and neanderthals

The second suspect would be Giants. This is a much more common motif that appears in virtually all cultures. 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 relate to Neanderthals. Even the appearance of the Norseman in middle ages would be “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.

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”. The word for wilderness is “divljina” which would mean “the realm of the giants”. Numerous Slavic myths tell of the heroes who went on a quest to kill a giant. There is a similar analogy 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

Chronicle of the early Britons

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.

In brief, Brutus, the founder of Britain, asks the goddess Diana for advice on 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..."

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

“Corineus named that part of the island Cornwall. He chose it because therein dwelt the giants, which he loved to fight more than anything. Amongst those giants, there was a mighty Gawr Madoc. His was twelve cubits high and could pluck the larges oak from its roots, as easily as if he were plucking a sprig of hazel… Corineus challenged the giant to wrestle him. The giant hugged Corineus with all his strength, breaking three of his ribs… Corineus summoned his might and lifted him to shoulder height, throwing him over the cliff into the sea, dashing him into a thousand pieces. And from that day the place is called The Giant’s Leap, or Gawr Madoc’s Jump.”

The full text of the chronicle is here.

According to this chronicle, the events took place after the Troyan war, so roughly around the first millennium BC. It was highly unlikely that the Neanderthals were still present in Europe. However, the same chronicle, (as the all medieval chronicles), also mentions the flood, which could have only happened at the end of the Ice age. Could it be that some really ancient stories were incorporated in the stories of a later date?

Basajaun and neanderthals

Another great example is the Basajaun of Basque mythology. Their name means “wild lords” or “lords of the forest”. Thee myths see them as the first inhabitants of the Basque area, and perhaps the megalith builders. They knew the secrets of architecture, agriculture, ironwork, and sedentary life. Very similar to the Pan of the Greeks, (whose name also means “lord” in Slavic) they were protectors of the flocks. When the wolves were near, they shouted and whistled to warn the shepherds. Sometimes encounters with them were pleasant but sometimes they weren’t. In the end, they were in war with humans – and they lost.

Basajaun, Wikipedia commons

In Aragon, their name was Bosnerau, a 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 Neanderthal-like 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 refuge of the Neanderthals in Europe. When the glaciers had melted and Britain and Scandinavia separated from the rest of Europe, would it be unreasonable to imagine that a small group of Neanderthals survived for some time longer… and that this period of coexistence was never really forgotten?

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8 COMMENTS

  1. It’s been said that Cro-Magnons, the first Modern Europeans were about 5’9″ tall and robustly built, living on the flesh of large animals. When the Holocene began, vegetation flourished and many humans gathered more as they gradually cultivated crops. They also lived off smaller game as large game moved north with the steppe and tundra or died out. The nutritional value of their diets actually resulted in shorter heights — men averaged 5’2″ — slighter bodies, lighter skins because of lack of Vitamin D, and tooth decay from grinding grain in their mouths. The change in size may have been noticed, hence the giants ; and the days of gathering before actual farming may have given birth to The Garden of Eden concept.

    • I believe that all human folklore and fairytales are garbled recollections of our coexistence with Neanderthal and possibly other human species. Ancient stories and fantasy itself, though embellished by human creativity, do not come from no where. They are present in all human cultures, in our deepest memories. Yet there are so many stories of our mysterious contemporaries never told.

  2. I wonder if you might explore the sirtya, a people that the nenet say lived in Siberia well before they did. They seem to have ties to the myth of fairies, being beautiful and gifted artistically.

  3. […] I came across a blog post, Neanderthals in Ancient Mythology*, which makes the case that our cousins are the source of the idea of beings such as trolls. For […]

  4. Pleased to have read these comments, I have noticed the connection with stories of old gods in the mythology of Ireland and Grease and the history of Neandertal people. Just about to read Norse mythology where I expect to see the same connection.

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