[FINISHED] Neanderthal, the exhibit

28 March 2018 - 7 January 2019
The exhibition is now over.

Discover the Neanderthal man, a major figure in the human adventure.

The exhibition is travelling

Neanderthal, the exhibit is travelling in different countries. Discover where you can visit it and how you can host it on the Neanderthal: the exhibit - Travelling exhibition page.

Within the span of a day

Carte de la présence de Néandertal.

Carte de la présence de Néandertal : de l’Eurasie continentale (de l’Angleterre à l’Ouzbékistan) au Proche-Orient


Where did Neanderthals live? What was their environment and habitat? Engage with their environment and their nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle.

350,000 years ago… in Eurasia

The archaeological discoveries of sites presenting Neanderthal remains and their dating have made it possible to define - based on current scientific knowledge -, the extended period of time and the territories, which were occupied by small groups of Neanderthals. 

In order to meet them you need to:

  • change the timescale and travel back to the Palaeolithic Period, between 350,000 and 30,000 years ago - the time when they gradually became extinct,
  • encompass a vast area: ranging from continental Eurasia (from England to Uzbekistan) to the Middle East.
Peinture d'un groupe d'hommes préhistoriques dans la neige fuyant devant un grand mammouth.

La fuite devant le mammouth, huile sur toile de Paul Jamin, 1885

© MNHN - J.-C. Domenech

At the heart of the Palaeo-environment

You are immersed in the heart of the Paleolithic environment. Fourteen stuffed animals - mostly from the collection of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle -, are placed on a podium. On a cyclorama in the background, a diorama represents an animated landscape in which the flora and fauna evolve according to the great climatic periods. The alternation between day and night governs the screening in an acoustic environment. The scenography highlights the essential relationship to changing nature, providing the resources that are necessary for survival.

Neanderthals in the collective imagination of the 19th century

Under the French Third Republic, renowned academic painters, such as Paul Jamin (1853-1903) and Fernand Cormon (1845-1924), stood out with their anthropological representations. Their paintings reflect a growing interest for science in a society that had become secular as well as the collective imagination, which contributed to building the figure of the Neanderthal as a savage living in a hostile environment.

La fuite devant le mammouth Escaping from the Mammoth is Paul Jamin’s first prehistoric painting. Beyond the quality of execution, his work was in line with the time’s prevailing scientific discourse. 
Following his death in 1903, Louis Capitan, the chair of the AnthropologySociety, paid tribute to his “patient and meticulous studies”. This painting is exhibited in the Musée de l’Homme’s permanent collection.

Reproduction d'animaux préhistoriques devant un paysage.

En arrière plan sur un cyclo, un diorama représente un paysage animé dont la faune et la flore se modifient selon les grandes phases climatiques.

© MNHN - J.-C. Domenech

Neanderthals lived in very varied latitudes and topographic contexts. They were present in all biotopes - the slopes of great plains but also sometimes, during periods with a temperate climate, high-altitude sites (up to 2,000 metres in the Caucasus). Whether living in the steppes during cold periods or in forests when the climate conditions were more temperate, they were able to adapt their subsistence behavior patterns.

Game was abundant, even during glacial periods. Based on the analysis of exhumed bones, archeo-zoologists were able to identify fauna that includes extinct animals such as mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses, hyenas, lions and cave bears and many other species  still extant: ibex, chamois, deer, reindeer, wolves, foxes, brown bears… as well as hares, ravens, and golden eagles.

Vue de l'exposition sur néandertal.

Pour comprendre le quotidien de Néandertal, un site archéologique à l'échelle 1, « La Folie » (Poitiers), est ici reconstitué.

© MNHN - J.-C. Domenech
Vue de l'exposition sur néandetal.

Le site de « La Folie » est un vestige de campement remarquable par sa mise en évidence de structures d'habitat, ce qui est rarissime, encore plus pour un site de plein air.

© MNHN - J.-C. Domenech
Toiles (peintures et dessins) dans l'exposition sur néandertal.

Ces toiles du XIXe siècle représentent tantôt un environnement idyllique tantôt une nature hostile reflétant les théories scientifiques parfois contradictoire.

© MNHN - J.-C. Domenech
Diorama représentant une plaine et des montagnes enneigées.

Diorama représentant l’environnement des Néandertaliens

© La Méduse

Within the span of a lifetime

Morceau supérieur du crâne d'un Homme de Néandertal.

Le crâne de Neander, prêté exceptionnellement par le Musée de Bonn

© J. Vogel - LVR LandesMuseum Bonn

This is how long it takes to investigate the morphological and behavioural features of the Neanderthal man whose portrait is refined and humanised from one sequence to the other.

Neandertals: from head to toe

In 1829, the skull of a child was discovered in Engis, Belgium and in 1848, a complete skull was found at Forbes’ Quarry (Gibraltar)… Despite the specific anatomical features observed, nobody ventured to say that they belonged to another human species. These discoveries went unnoticed. It is not until August 1856 that Neanderthals began to attract attention. Quarry workers in the Neander Valley, east of Düsseldorf, discovered bones and a skull fragment. They handed them over to the local school teacher, a natural history enthusiast. 

Eight Neanderthal skulls are gathered, among which for the first time the skull cap from the Neander Valley, exceptionally lent by the Bonn Museum / Koenig Museum.  While the skulls were the first evidence of the existence of humans differing from Homo sapiens, more or less complete skeletons also came to refine the Neanderthal portrait. Today, we know Neanderthals from head to toe, as demonstrated by the cast of the so-called Rozel footprints, named after the site in Cotentin, where they were found in 2012. Every piece has a double history - that of its discovery and that of its interpretation. Who found it and how was it discovered? Who was entrusted with the task of studying it, and what conclusions were reached? Captions and photographs recreate the context of the discovery of these seminal pieces in the history of science. 

Buste d'un homme de néandertal.

Sculpture de N. Montecucco, 1909

© Museo di Antropologia criminale « Cesare Lombroso », Université de Turin Italie / Goffi Roberto

This discovery was at odds with the prevailing scientific theories. In its classifying mission, Western science had placed Homo sapiens at the top of the scale of descent, in which species succeeded one another in a linear way. The culmination of this evolution was Homo sapiens, or modern humans. At the time, such a differently shaped skull could not be that of another Homo species, but rather that of a pathological sapiens. Neanderthals long suffered from the hierarchy then in effect, despite the major discoveries at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century: the sites of Spy in 1886, Krapina in 1899, Le Moustier in 1907, La Chapelle-aux-Saints in 1908, La Ferrassie in 1909 and La Quina in 1911…

The exhibition room of representations

Alongside original fossils, eleven 19th century busts exemplify the first three-dimensional representations of Neanderthals. This audacious exercise, undertaken for museographic and scientific popularization purposes, often involved the collaboration between a scientist and an artist. Amongst these busts, there is a series realised by the sculptor Louis Mascré, upon the request of Aimé Rutot, curator at the Royal Belgium Institute of Natural Sciences. Very unrealistic, these representations both reflect the vision prevailing at the time and responded to the general public’s curiosity, fuelled by the recent discoveries reported in the press.

Fossiles dans l'exposition sur néandertal.

Les fossiles originaux de Néandertal sont rassemblés. Certains dont la calotte crânienne, ont rarement été exposés, tandis que d'autres, n'ont été prêtés qu'une seule fois.

© MNHN - J.-C. Domenech
Vue de l'exposition sur néandertal.

D'après son endocrâne, Néandertal était doté d'un gros cerveau, parfois d'une taille supérieure au nôtre.

© MNHN - J.-C. Domenech
Bustes dans l'exposition sur néandertal.

Les fossiles originaux de Néandertal font face aux reconstitutions réalisées par des artistes depuis la découverte en 1856 d'une partie de son squelette dans la grotte de Feldhofer (Allemagne).

© MNHN - J.-C. Domenech
Vue de l'exposition sur néandertal.

Néandertal se paraît-il ? Probablement, car des coquillages, des dents d'animaux perforées, avec gorge de suspension, des plumes et des serres de rapaces ont été retrouvés sur des sites d'habitat.

© MNHN - J.-C. Domenech
Vue de l'exposition sur néandertal.

Certains fossiles présentent des pathologies spécifiques, comme l'arthrite, l'arthrose ou encore des cancers.

© MNHN - J.-C. Domenech
Squellette dans l'exposition sur néandertal.

Le squelette de l'individu de la Ferrassie 1. Le Grand abri de la ferrassie est célèbre pour les 8 sépultures, considérées à l'époque de leur découverte comme preuves absolues que les néandertaliens enterraient leurs morts.

© MNHN - J.-C. Domenech

Neanderthals: an athlete's physique and a good head

How can one recognise Neanderthals?

You can recognise Neanderthals by a morphology differing from ours, as evidenced by the skulls and bones exhumed since the 19th century, which have been measured, compared, X-rayed, scanned and analysed. The characteristics of the skull: large with a sloping forehead, a supra-orbital ridge forming a visor above the eyes, a large face, small chin and a very specific braincase shape that is flat and elongated at the back like a rugby ball.

Those features are not very pronounced amongst Neanderthal children whose morphology was closer to that of Homo sapiens. The stature of Neanderthals: smaller than Sapiens (between 1.52 m and 1.56 m for women and between 1.64 m and 1.68 m for men), they were robustly built. They were stocky, with short bow-legs, a large barrel-shaped rib cage, strong bones, broad hips and shoulders and long, thick arms, enabling ease of movement. Their robust bones were enveloped in a strong muscle structure. It is estimated that Neanderthals weighed on average 72 kg, varying from 60 to 85 kg. Palaeogenetics has made it possible to complete this portrait: genes seem to indicate light skin colour and, for certain Neanderthals, brown eyes and red or chestnut hair.

What do we know about Neanderthals’ intelligence?

The Neanderthal braincase contained a brain that was bigger than ours, reaching up to 1750 cm3. The brain does not fossilise. However, current imaging techniques have enabled us - by virtually casting the inner surface of the skull without altering the fossil’s integrity -, to observe the prints on the outer surface of the brain and thereby study the shape of the lobes. There is no evidence suggesting that Neanderthals were less intelligent than us. Their cognitive abilities enabled them to adapt and survive for almost 350,000 years.

Within the lifespan of a species

Outils en pierres dans l'exposition sur néandertal.

Pendant les plus de 300 000 ans de son existence, l'Homme de Néandertal a produit des cultures lithiques très diverses, au même titre que ses contemporains.

© MNHN - J.-C. Domenech

With a species lifespan reaching almost 350,000 years, Neanderthals were not the only ones on earth… Neanderthals coexisted with Homo Sapiens, but what was the nature of their encounter? Why did Neanderthals go extinct?

When Neanderthals got closer to Homo sapiens

A large, stratigraphic showcase displays more than thirty flint tools, illustrating the wide variety of Western European Neanderthal tool cultures, in the space and time of the Middle Palaeolithic. Neanderthals lived in small groups dispersed over a vast territory. They did not, during 350,000 years, produce the same tools everywhere.
Their cultural traditions, influenced by the availability and quality of materials, bear various names: the Mousterian (the most significant culture in time and space), the Keilmessergruppen (in Central Europe), etc. Towards the end of the Neanderthal period, there was a great variety of tool cultures, as if this world was ”breaking up”. The Mousterian culture is associated with Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens in the Middle East, where the two populations buried their dead in the same way. This convergence is illustrated by the cast of one of the oldest graves, discovered at the Qafzeh site in Israel.

When Neanderthals inhabited Eurasia, they were not alone: Homo sapiens were present in eastern regions and other species populated the planet. In 2003, the bones of a “small woman” were found in a cave on the island of Flores, Indonesia. This new, specific, insular species named Homo floresiensis, descended from Homo erectus, whose remaining members were probably still present in Southeast Asia.
In 2010, seeking to determine what species a small finger bone fragment discovered in the Denisova Cave (Siberia) belonged to, geneticists identified another Homo species that roamed across the Altai mountains, 55,000 years ago. The cast of a tooth that was found in the Denisova Cave and the dermoplastic reconstruction of the Flores woman, realised by Elizabeth Daynès, reflect this plural humanity, whose members have gone extinct, with the exception of Homo sapiens, who alone colonised the entire planet.

Reconstitution d'une femme dans l'exposition néandertal.

En Chine et en Asie du Sud-Est, d'après les dernières recherches, 3 voire 4 espèces humaines étaient contemporaines de Néandertal.

© MNHN - J.-C. Domenech
Néandertal et sapiens

Illustration de Benoît Clarys représentant la rencontre entre Néandertal et sapiens - Nouvelle rencontre (2014). Aquarelle et crayon, réalisé pour la Cité de la Préhistoire, Grand site d’Aven D’Orgnac.

© B. Clarys

The evidence of an encounter

Based on current scientific knowledge, Neanderthals and Sapiens seem to have coexisted in the Balkans, in Central and Eastern Europe during several millennia. This was enough time to foster and maintain all sorts of interactions. The progress made in palaeogenetics in the past decade has enabled scientists to shed new light on the evolution of Neanderthals and their relationship with other human lineages.

The tricky sequencing of ancient Neanderthal DNA shows that contemporary European and Asian populations share between 1 to 4 % of their genome with Neanderthals, which is not the case of Africans. If interbreeding did occur, then what is a human species? Are Neanderthals and modern humans two different species? These questions fuel the debate between scientists.

Biface taillé.


© MNHN - J.-C. Domenech

From tools to culture

Tens of thousands of stone tools attributed to Neanderthals have been exhumed. Their analysis is central to prehistory. Their characteristics have enabled the differentiation of Neanderthal cultural systems corresponding to given geographic areas and periods. These tool cultures were named after the sites where they were first identified. The “Mousterian” refers to a major culture from the Middle Paleolithic. The name originates from the Peyzac-le-Moustier site in Dordogne, which was excavated in  1863, revealing many lithic tools.

Did Neanderthals really disappear?

After a 350,000-year recorded presence, Neanderthals disappeared from the geologic record approximately 30,000 years ago. Ingenious hunters, they survived significant climate variations. Thus, how can we explain their disappearance? Is it due to an environmental change and to subsistence problems? Did it result from competition between them and Homo sapiens? Does this demonstrate their inferiority? Was it caused by diseases and viruses carried by the invaders? Should we look for the causes of Neanderthal extinction even before the arrival of modern humans as attributable to a slow demographic decline? Today, it is no longer a question of finding one single reason - several phenomena are put forward to explain the extinction of Neanderthals.

Different hypotheses are displayed on the walls of a cylindrical space. Interactive interfaces, located in 5 alcoves, enable visitors to choose among a dozen propositions and to listen to scientists’ views: Philippe Charlier (forensic scientist) - Pierre-Henri Gouyon (biologist) - Jean-Jacques Hublin (paleoanthropologist) - Céline Bon (geneticist) - Évelyne Heyer (geneticist) - Jean-Jacques Bahain (geologist) - Pascal Depaepe and Marylène Patou-Mathis (scientific curators of the exhibition).

Ossements humains retrouvés dans la Qafzeh.

Sépulture de Qafzeh (Israël). Datés entre -96 000 et -80 000 ans, ces restes confirment la contemporanéité au Proche-Orient de Néandertal et de l'Homme moderne ainsi que leur non-filiation.

© MNHN - J.-C. Domenech
Moulage en plâtre des des muscles de la tête et du cou de l'Homo neandertalensis.

Reconstitution des muscles de la tête et du cou de l'Homo neandertalensis de la Chapelle-aux-Saints en Corrèze datant de 1921. Il aurait été le modèle du sculpteur Rodin pour son « Penseur ».

© MNHN - J.-C. Domenech

Dans 5 alcôves, des interfaces interactives permettent d'écouter l'avis des chercheurs sur les différentes hypothèses de la disparition de Néandertal.

© MNHN - J.-C. Domenech

Epilogue: a significant Neanderthal presence

Visitors have gradually got to know Neanderthals better. From primitive creatures, they have become humans endowed with reason, beings whose singularity is embodied by the visual artist Elizabeth Daynès’ reconstruction work. An original work entitled Kinga - a Neanderthal Woman -, finely combines the outcome of current scientific findings, the quality of execution and the artist’s interpretation of the unknown, which no skeleton can unveil: the expression and the gaze.

This encounter is combined with a “concept store” illustrating the presence of Neanderthals in our daily lives: film posters, by-products arranged on a table (figurines, mugs, caps, perfume bottles…), video clips and film extracts displayed on three screens and comic books available for consultation on three book-rests.

Vue de l'exposition sur néandertal.

Un « concept store » à la fin de l'exposition illustre la présence de Néandertal dans notre quotidien.

© MNHN - J.-C. Domenech

Partners and credits

Insitutional partner

Néandertal L'Expo was designed by the Musée de l'Homme - Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle in partnership with the Institut national de recherches archéologiques préventives.

Promotional partners

L’exposition Néandertal L'Expo et son site internet sont le fruit de la collaboration du personnel du Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, de son site du Musée de l’Homme et de collaborateurs extérieurs.


Bruno David, Président du Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle
Pierre Dubreuil, Directeur Général Délégué du Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle
André Delpuech, directeur du Musée de l’Homme
Lola Treguer, directrice adjointe du Musée de l’Homme

Marylène Patou-Mathis, préhistorienne - archéozoologue et directrice de recherche au CNRS rattachée au département « Homme et environnement » du MNHN (Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle)
Pascal Depaepe, préhistorien - archéologue paléolithicien -directeur régional Hauts-de-France à l’Institut national de recherches archéologiques préventives (Inrap)

Virginio Gaudenzi, responsable des expositions
Kinga Grege, chef de projet et conception muséographique
Valérie Kozlowski, chef de projet
Judith Naslednikov, chargée de production et de coordination générale
Alexis Amen, conception et coordination multimédia
Roxane Gautherin, assistante de conception/production
Bruno Caze, régisseur des oeuvres

Juan Luis Arsuaga, paléoanthropologue, Université Complutensede Madrid
Jean-Marc Blais, directeur du Musée canadien de l’Histoire, Gatineau (Québec, Canada)
Laurence Bourguignon, archéologue, Inrap
Noël Coye, conservateur du patrimoine
Jean-Paul Demoule, professeur de protohistoire, Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne
Francesco d’Errico, chercheur préhistorien, CNRS, Bordeaux
Christophe Falguères, directeur de l’unité de recherche Histoire Naturelle de l’Homme Préhistorique, MNHN
Dominique Garcia, Président de l’Inrap
Évelyne Heyer, directrice adjointe de l’unité de recherche Éco-anthropologie et ethnobiologie, MNHN
Arnaud Hurel, historien de la Préhistoire, MNHN
Bruno Maureille, paléoanthropologue, CNRS, Université de Bordeaux
Catherine Schwab, conservateur des collections paléolithiques et mésolithiques au MAN
Wiktor Stoczkowski, EHESS/Collège de France
Ian Tattersall, paléoanthropologue, American Museum of Natural History (NY, USA)
Denis Vialou, professeur émérite, MNHN

Jean-Jacques Bahain, préhistorien, MNHN
Louis-Jean Boë, linguiste, CNRS
Céline Bon, généticienne, MNHN
Laurent Crépin, archéozoologue MNHN
Dominique Grimaud-Hervé, paléoanthropologue, MNHN
Vincent Lebreton, palynologue MNHN
Marie-Hélène Moncel, préhistorienne, MNHN
Roland Nespoulet, préhistorien, MNHN
Marco Peresani, préhistorien, Université de Ferrare, Italie
Erik Trinkaus, paléoanthropologue, Washington University de Saint-Louis
Christine Verna, paléoanthropologue, MNHN
Jean-Luc Voisin, paléoanthropologue, MNHN


Agence NC : Nathalie Crinière, Tomoko Nishiki

Agence C-ALBUM : Agathe Hondré, Jean-Baptiste Taisne

Éric Duranteau, François Austerlitz, Matthieu Blaise
Fleur de Papier
La Méduse

Émeline Parent, responsable des publics, de la billetterie et de l’accueil

André Martinez, responsable de la sécurité du palais de Chaillot

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