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"Nyah, nyah, Neanderthal! Can't make fire, can't make spear!"

Far Side cartoon; Gary Larson

Basic Information

Neanderthal Man (also Neandertal) is a close relative of modern man, and what most of us picture when we hear "caveman". Scientists are not always in agreement about whether they constitute a distinct species (Homo neanderthalensis), or are merely a race of the human species (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis). Rather than entirely predating us, Neanderthals actually overlap mankind in some areas and times. They first appeared more than 300,000 years ago, and lasted right up until about 30,000 years ago. Recent research has shown they may have traded with, or possibly even interbred with more modern humans. There's also some possibility that mankind actually hunted or warred the Neanderthals into extinction.

As you know doubt have seen in countless b-movies and and insurance commercials, our Neanderthal cousins looked similar, but not exactly like us. Here's a list of the major physiological differences between our two species:

  • They have a thick brow-ridge, and a broad, low skull that gives that classic "cave man" look.
  • Neanderthal man is shorter and heavier than modern man. Perhaps a little over 5 feet tall, yet weighing more than modern humans. Their hips and pelvis are wider than ours. Their fingers and toes are broader and stockier than ours.
  • The bone structure suggests they may be more muscular, and thus stronger, than we are today.
  • They are probably better adapted to surviving the cold than we are. Short limbs and deep rib-cage means reduced surface area and more insulation over the vital organs. These traits in turn reduce the amount of body heat lost.
  • Their ear canals are smaller than ours, which likely means they have poorer balance. In general, more agile creatures have better developed ear canals. This suggests neanderthals might not have been as nimble as modern man.
  • The shape of the skull suggests surprisingly that their voices are higher pitch than ours.
  • Neanderthal man, for whatever reason, did not develop technologically at the rate modern man did. They appear to have never invented or used the shoe, the hat, the harpoon, and numerous other inventions that mankind picked up quickly. Body lice didn't evolve till homo sapiens hit the scene, suggesting that Neanderthals didn't start wearing clothes till after modern humans did. It may be that Neanders are more set in their ways, and less likely to pick up new ideas or technologies than humans are.
  • Their heel bones are longer, and their Achilles' Tendon less taut as a result, which means they wouldn't have the same "spring in their step" that we typically do. Therefore they must expend more energy and consume more oxygen to run. This makes hunting harder, especially against fast-moving prey and prey that takes a while to bleed out. Combined with their muscular structure, this suggests they were ambush predators.

Neanderthal man apparently didn't wander as much as more modern humans, and certainly didn't spread as far over the millenia. This could be hard-wired into their instinctive behavior, or could be a function of foot size compounded by the broader, low-to-the ground skeleton in general. Their body shape makes it take much more energy for them to travel long distances. These traits combined may explain why Neanderthal never really spread the way mankind did. Neanderthal skeletons have been found exclusively in Europe and the Middle East, whereas modern humans got their start in Africa and have spread out to all parts of the globe in far less time than Neanderthals existed for.

World population of hominids during the time of the neanderthal was far lower than it is now. It's estimated the total population of neanderthal world-wide may have been as little as 70,000 individuals.

See Also:


1. io9 dot com - Article about physiological differences between Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens
2. Wash Park Prophet - Article about cultural and technological differences between Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens
3. UCLA - Article about Neanderthal and Homo Sapien crossbreeding
4. American Museum of Natural History - Skeletal-anatomical comparison of Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens
5. BBC]] on Neanderthals
7. Anthro dot palomar dot edu - includes a map of their range

Game and Story Use

  • Cavemen are classic. They frequently end up in "Lost World" environments, especially in a Pulp genre setting.
    • GMs should know that pairing Cavemen and Dinosaurs together in the same setting is terribly unscientific. Still plenty fun in a kooky retro-pulp way, as long as you don't mind being off by millions of years.
  • There's a few games that make use Neanderthals in a significant way, most notably Og. Og is a humorous game where the PCs are cavemen with extremely limited vocabularies. "Go stick-kill big hair-thing."
  • Neanderthals are most likely ambush predators. So if the PCs run afoul of them, the attack will come suddenly and probably without warning. They can't keep up with homo sapiens in long chases, so they'll use stealth and animal cunning to close the gap.

Building This Character

Character Level

  • Any.


  • Strength and Endurance are the main traits for this species as a whole.
  • They are less nimble than homo sapiens, and should have correspondingly lower Dexterity, Agility or Movement Rate scores.
  • Intelligence could actually be fairly high. They didn't have great technology, but their brains were comparable to ours in size at least. You could surprise your fellow gamers by playing against type and making a witty neanderthal whose quite capable of complex abstract thought. If such characters were the norm, then the lack of technology could probably be explained away as a cultural taboo or feature. Smart but conservative, and thus slow to adapt.


Special Abilities

  • A resistance to Cold, including protection from Frostbite and Hypothermia, would be likely and fitting.
  • They may have extra hit points or a small measure of natural armor to represent the protective benefits of the extra muscle mass, shorter and stockier limbs, and thicker skulls and ribs.

Flaws and Hindrances

  • In a game where most characters are Homo sapiens, the lone Neanderthal would be an Outcast or Outsider. Some sort of penalty to Social Attributes might be in order.

Combat Role


  • A heavy, stone-tipped spear, probably better for thrusting than throwing
  • A sharpened rock for cutting, used much like and knife or axe
  • Possibly a fur or two for warmth or protection, but (as evidenced by the delayed evolution of body lice) clothing is totally optional to Neanderthals.
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