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Neanderthals on Trial

Classroom Activity

To interpret a Neanderthal artifact found at a cave site in Slovenia.

Materials for each team
  • copy of "What Is This?" student handout (PDF or HTML)
  1. Tell students that there is still much to be learned about Neanderthal life. Increasing evidence points to the idea that Neanderthals may have been more sophisticated than previously thought.

  2. In this activity, students will be looking at and trying to determine the nature of an illustration of an artifact discovered in 1996 at a Neanderthal camp in Slovenia. The actual artifact was about 4.3 inches (11 centimeters) long.

  3. Organize students into groups and distribute a copy of the "What Is This?" student handout to each student. Have students read the information provided about Neanderthal life and brainstorm what they believe the artifact might be. Have students defend their reasoning.

  4. Once students are finished, have each group present its conclusions about the artifact to the class. Make a chart of students' ideas and then discuss other possibilities for what the artifact might be. After all ideas are presented, have each group decide whether it still supports its original conclusions, citing why or why not. What additional information would students need to help them identify the object?

  5. At the end of the activity, tell students that when this was originally found, some scientists believed it was a flute made by the Neanderthals. Most scientists now believe that the artifact is actually a bone that has been pierced by the canine teeth of a predator.

Activity Answer

Neanderthals were named after Neander Valley, the German valley in which their remains were first discovered. They have been classified both as part of the same species to which contemporary humans belong (Homo sapiens) and as a separate species only distantly related to modern humans.

Ideas about the nature of Neanderthals have often been at extremes, either that they were of limited intelligence, and not in any way related to contemporary humans, or that they were smart, and very much like contemporary humans. One of the challenges for anthropologists today is to try to understand the Neanderthals as they truly were.

In paleoanthropology, as in the other historical sciences, scientists create theories from fragmentary evidence; if those theories can't be disproved, they are considered valid interpretations of the past until further evidence invalidates them.

In the case of the item students were interpreting, some scientists believed the artifact was a flute, supporting the idea that Neanderthals exhibited artistic expression. Proponents of the flute theory used computer-assisted tomography to scan the bones in 2006. Their results indicated that at least three holes were created before carnivores chewed the bone. However, all Neanderthal finds to date suggest that Neanderthals neither had the bone-working technology to make such an item, nor any hint of artistic behavior that would be the source of such an instrument, evidence that refutes the flute theory. Some scientists theorize that the holes instead were made by a carnivore puncturing the bone with its canine teeth.

Links and Books


Shreeve, James. The Neandertal Enigma: Solving the Mystery of Modern Human Origins. New York: Willam Morrow & Co Inc., 1996.
Examines the scientific evidence and controversy surrouding the fate of Neanderthals.

Tattersall, Ian. The Last Neanderthal: The Rise, Success, and Mysterious Extinction of Our Closest Human Relatives. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.
Uses recent discoveries to explain why Neanderthals continue to be so perplexing a scientific mystery.

Trinkaus, Erik, and Pat Shipman. The Neanderthals: Changing the Image of Mankind. First edition. New York: Knopf, 1993.
Reveals how the personal philosophies of scientists and the cultural ethos in which they lived combined to determine their view of prehistoric humans.

Web Sites

NOVA Online—Neanderthals on Trial
On this Web site, read a NOVA producer's account of making a balanced film on a contentious issue, compare Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon skulls, learn how experts trace ancestry using a type of DNA only passed down along maternal lines, and get a taste of interpreting bones and artifacts.

Doubts Aired Over Neanderthal Bone "Flute"
Summarizes findings from two scientists who believe that the Neanderthal cave bear thigh bone is not a flute, but rather a bone that appears to have been punctured and gnawed by carnivores. Includes a response from musicologist Bob Fink.

Neanderthal Flute: Oldest Musical Instrument's Four Notes Matches Four of Do, Re, Mi Scale
Supports the theory that the Neanderthal cave bear thigh bone is a flute through detailed comparison of the location of the bone's holes to the notes that would be produced on a diatonic, or do-re-mi, scale.


The "What is This?" activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards:

Grades 5-8

Science as inquiry

Science Standard G:
History and Nature of Science

Nature of Science

  • It is part of scientific inquiry to evaluate the results of scientific investigations, experiments, observations, theoretical models, and the explanations proposed by other scientists. Evaluation includes reviewing the experimental procedures, examining the evidence, and identifying faulty reasoning, pointing out statements that go beyond the evidence, and suggesting alternative explanations for the same observations. Although scientists may disagree about explanations of phenomena, about interpretations of data, or about the value of rival theories, they do agree that questioning, response to criticism, and open communication are integral to the process of science. As scientific knowledge evolves, major disagreements are eventually resolved through such interactions between scientists.

Grades 9-12

Science as inquiry

Science Standard G:
History and Nature of Science

Nature of scientific knowledge

  • Scientific explanations must meet certain criteria. First and foremost, they must be consistent with experimental and observational evidence about nature, and must make accurate predictions, when appropriate, about systems being studied. They should also be logical, respect the rules of evidence, be open to criticism, report methods and procedures, and make knowledge public. Explanations on how the natural world changes based on myths, personal beliefs, religious values, mystical inspiration, superstition, or authority may be personally useful and socially relevant, but they are not scientific.

Teacher's Guide
Neanderthals on Trial

Video is not required for this activity