Neanderthal bones in Croatia

Note: This has been slightly updated after I ran it by Davorka, who caught a few errors.

Over the years we’ve had a number of posts about Neanderthals and their genetic legacy in “modern humans” (see here for a collection), many of them written by Matthew Cobb. Croatia—in particular a hill near the small town of Krapina—is famous for its large collection of Neanderthal skeletons and relics, first discovered during quarrying in 1899. Because there were so many bones, this site afforded a unique look into a population of Neanderthals that lived about 130,000 years ago.

I reported a few days ago on my visit to the Neanderthal Museum in Krapina, which has nice dioramas of Neanderthal life, a cool movie (which, I’m told, was as accurate as possible given what we know about the subspecies), and casts of the bones.

But the bones themselves, and the Neanderthal relics, are carefully sequestered at the Croatia Natural History Museum, where they’re curated by Dr. Davorka Radovčić. My hosts here arranged for me and two of them to visit the Museum. There Dr. Radovčić spent several hours showing us the bones and artifacts, and explaining what they meant and what mysteries still remain (there are many). This required special permission from the Museum, and the visit was one of the high spots of my trip to Croatia. How often do you get to be a few inches away from Neanderthal skulls and teeth, and to hold a spearpoint chipped by one of them so long ago?

You can read more about the Krapina website here. As that article says (I’ve tweaked the English a bit):

. . . a total of 876 single fossil Neanderthal fossil remains were found, placing Krapina in the world”s scientific heritage as the world”s richest Neanderthal finding site.

The Krapina proto-human, scientifically known as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis was discovered in 1899, at the time of geological and panteological explorations at the Hušnjak hill in Krapina started. The excavations lasted for six years, supervised by Professor Dragutin Gorjanović-Kramberger, a famous Croatian geologist, paleonthologist and paleoanthropologost. His works contributed significantly to the European and world science about the fossil man. The half-cave in Krapina was soon listed among the world”s science localities as a rich fossil finding site, where the largest and richest collection of the Neanderthal man had ever been found.

In the sandy deposits of the cave about nine hundred remains of fossilised human bones were found – the fossil remains belonged to several dozen different individuals, of different sex, from 2 to 40 years of age. Numerous fossil remnants of the cave bear, wolf, moose, large deer, warm climate rhinoceros, wild cattle and many other animals were also found. Over a thousand pieces of various stone tools and weapons from the Paleolithic era were found, all witnessing to the material culture of the Krapina proto-human. This rich locality is approximately 130.000 years old.

And the site is here (the dots are other Neanderthal sites):

I’m going to show some of the bones and stones we saw, and explain as best I can remember what they mean.

The collection is stored in several locked metal cabinets, each containing wooden drawers with foam inserts holding the relics. Each drawer is labeled with its contents: “teeth”, “mandibles”, “patellas” (kneecaps), and so on. Here’s Davorka removing a drawer:

The first thing we saw were the crania (skulls), some of which were very well preserved. Notice the labeling of the drawer in the second photo:

This is a particularly interesting skull for a reason I’ll explain in a minute. It’s very well preserved but also has a feature unique among Neanderthal skulls known to science:

Davorka explains some of the features of the skull that set it apart from modern H. sapiens sapiens, and also identify it as a female skull:

You can see the prominent brow ridges and the upper part of the skull, which bears the cool feature:

This skull, of a young adult female (probably in her 20s or early 30s; you can tell the sex from the way the skull is shaped), has a series of 40 horizontal incisions made in the forehead at or soon after death (they aren’t healed). Their purpose isn’t known, but it seems likely it was involved with some kind of postmortem ritual, perhaps indicating a respect for the dead or even something associated with an idea of the afterlife. We simply don’t know, as Davorka emphasized. Below are two photos of the incisions and a brief video of Davorka explaining them:


Davorka explains the cuts in this video: they weren’t made to butcher or scalp the woman:

Neanderthal DNA is extracted from the middle ear capsule, as it is tough and well insulated from the environment. I erred in an earlier post in saying that DNA has been extracted from Krapina Neanderthals; Davorka tells me that Svante Pääbo and his colleagues extracted it from another Croatian Neanderthal site called Vindija.

We now know that Neanderthals interbred with “modern” humans (H. sapiens sapiens), and that the average non-African human carries about 3% of their genome from Neanderthals, including genes now used in the immune response. Although the offspring in at least one direction of the cross must have been fertile—for that’s the only way Neanderthal DNA could get into H. sapiens sapiens—we don’t know if offspring from both directions of the cross were fertile. For example, we haven’t found mitochondrial DNA from Neanderthals in modern humans. That could reflect either accidental loss of mitochondria, selection against mitochondrial DNA that did infiltrate modern human populations, or the sterility of offspring between Neanderthals mothers and H. sapiens sapiens fathers.

The middle ear capsule is at the upper left here, just above the red lettering that reads “88.11”. That’s the precious bit for paleogeneticists:

Mandibles! The teeth are relatively larger than ours, and the jaw has more space to accommodate all the molars, so the “wisdom teeth” are not crowded as they are in modern humans.

Two lower jaws (mandibles); note the rotation of one tooth in the left row of teeth:

The “rotated” tooth between the two white-ish ones. I can’t remember what the significance of this was, but I wrote to Davorka who said that some feel it’s due to genetic relationship and possibly inbreeding:

The scientists who worked on this concluded that they rotate due to “biological origin, an inherited condition common in the Krapina people. . . The sample is too small to for the observation to have significance, but we believe a hypothesis of biological relationship among the individuals found in Krapina levels 3 and 5 can be proposed to explain our results. Such a hypothesis is supported by the unusual superior deflection of the internasal suture in the only three Krapina specimens to preserve the suture” (Rougier et al. 2006; you can see the whole article in the book New insights on the Krapina Neandertals, pp. 43).

The jaw of a young (probably 6-7 year-old) Neanderthal, showing the deciduous teeth (“milk teeth”) and the three adult teeth that haven’t yet erupted. Neanderthals didn’t live very long: a 40-year-old individual was old:

Unfortunately, some of the mandibles were cleaned, removing the precious calculus (hardened plaque that the dentist scrapes off of your teeth at cleaning time). Davorka explains in the video how that cleaning caused the loss of precious biological information. Note the “retromolar space” giving ample room for all the molars.

Teeth, including a “shovel shaped” incisor, different from the shovel-shaped incisors found in Asian specimens of modern H. sapiens.

A well preserved molar:

A shovel-shaped incisor.

The wear patterns of these front teeth indicate that the Neanderthals held items in their teeth while processing them, like holding a skin in your mouth while scraping it with your hand. The position of the wear marks also shows that about 80% of Neanderthals were right-handed, scraping with their right arms while holding the item in the left side of their mouth. Isn’t that cool? In fact, this is about the same proportion of right-handers in Croatia today:

Arm bones. A drawer full of humerus (upper arm) bones:

This is an ulna (one of the two lower arm bones) that has been chopped off and then healed, indicating that the individual lost part of his or her arm. Then it healed after the injury, so the individual survived missing a hand:

A drawer full of kneecaps. They are lighter than kneecaps that are “fossilized”, as the sandstone has probably leached out many of the bone constituents:

A smashed leg bone (tibia), either trod on soon after death or smashed during death, perhaps during hunting or warfare. (Neanderthal bones show much less frequency of “warfare” damage than do the bones of earlier hominins like australopithecines. They seem to have been a peaceful subspecies.)

This Neanderthal shows a healed bash in the head (the dent in the center, which didn’t penetrate the skull), along with lines surrounding the wound. Life was tough for these hominins!

Here Davorka explains that we’re not sure what the lines are: they could have been deliberately incised (trephination) to relieve pressure on the wound coming from pus, or perhaps the lines  could be just a taphonomic (preservation) artifact.

Neanderthals were largely carnivores, though we know they also used medicinal plants. They ate bears, beavers, and even rhinos. Here’s an adult rhino that I believe was killed by the Krapina Neanderthals. They would of course have had to hunt in groups, and it must have been very dangerous to spear a bear or a rhino to death.

They apparently killed birds, too, as bits of bird skeletons, with some of the parts modified, are found in association with the Neanderthal bones. Here are some talons and foot bones from the white-tailed eagle, Haliaeetus albicilla, a species that is still around.

There are cut marks in the talons and foot bones to which they were attached, suggesting that Neanderthals were using the talons and bones as jewelry. This is supported by recent findings of gut “fiber” tied around part of a talon. Here are a foot bone and a talon that have been modified by having grooves cut in them.

This is a toe bone to which the talon was attached. See the cut groove at the lower end?

Modified eagle talons:

Davorka is pointing to the human-cut groove:

Here’s a paper (click on screenshot to read) in which Davorka and her co-authors suggest the use of talons as jewelry:

A bowl full of Neanderthal tools:

I got to hold a beautiful 130,000 year old Neanderthal spear point, chipped out of flint:

I previously described the tool below as a “scraper”, but I remembered wrong. As Davorka tells me, it’s not a tool, but something even more interesting. It’s a piece of “mudstone” that was probably picked up and brought to the Krapina site because it is a curiosity: it has “ichnofossils” in it (traces of living organisms, like worms, that have modified the sediments). Of course the Neanderthals didn’t know what these were, but might have been so impressed by the unusual patterns of this rock that they decided to keep it.

And Davorka and I after our visit. It truly was one of the great experiences of my life, and I’m immensely grateful to Davorka for her instruction and kindness, and to my hosts, Igor, Damjan, Darko, and Pavel, for arranging this visit. (We all went to lunch after this, but more on that in another post.)




  1. Mark Reaume
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 9:44 am | Permalink


  2. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Sub before reading

    • Mark R.
      Posted October 18, 2018 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

      late sub.

  3. Raul
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    What a wonderful post! Thanks for sharing your Neanderthal experience. It’s probably the closest I’ll ever be to Neanderthal remains.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted October 18, 2018 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

      I concur. A wonderful post! Most enjoyable.

    • Mark R.
      Posted October 19, 2018 at 12:53 pm | Permalink


  4. Randy Bessinger
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 9:56 am | Permalink


  5. Nicholas K.
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    Fantastic photos. A very nice read.

  6. GBJames
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    If you look closely at the brow ridges you can see the vermiculate pattern on the bone that is, if memory serves, characteristic of Neanderthals. I remember one of my old professors, Neal Tappen, going on about this many years ago. I don’t remember any reasonable hypothesis to explain it.

    • Nicholas K.
      Posted October 18, 2018 at 10:02 am | Permalink

      Especially since no muscles attached to the brow ridge (supraobrital torus).

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 18, 2018 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      It was probably for moving eyebrows around quizzically. Being quizzical is what probably killed the Neanderthals as well as cats. 😀

      • GBJames
        Posted October 18, 2018 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

        Wait… if it killed them as well as cats they would still be around!

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted October 18, 2018 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

        The Neanderthal facial clay reconstructions do indeed look puzzled & somewhat grumpy while others look puzzled & stoned. A reconstruction of a laughing/grinning Neanderthal is required with his colleagues looking on ‘quizzically’ – lets see ’em with the wide range of expression that we exhibit.

        At the mo they look like Golems [NOT the LOTR Gollem] with bad hair – I expect modellers steer away from making them more human-like or refined of feature. Perhaps they were mad for ‘hairdos’ & silly fur hats. We needs to know!

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted October 18, 2018 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, if I were doing Neanderthal reconstruction I’d have one guy making a joke and all his pals around him laughing.

          • GBJames
            Posted October 18, 2018 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

            Did you hear the one about the “Modern” who couldn’t kill a mammoth?

          • Michael Fisher
            Posted October 18, 2018 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

            Some Laurel & Hardy slapstick – whacking a youngster around the back of the head with mammoth innards & looking innocently away at a passing reindeer.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted October 18, 2018 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

              Ha ha or mooning each other.

            • Merilee
              Posted October 18, 2018 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

              The Three Stooges might even do it better.

              • Michael Fisher
                Posted October 18, 2018 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

                slapfish coming up

              • Merilee
                Posted October 18, 2018 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

                I’d never seen that one😊
                And then there’s this:

  7. Giancarlo
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Thank you for the wonderful, educational post. I very much needed it to recover from the barbarism exposed by the previous one.

  8. Curt Nelson
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Wow, what an interesting post! How fortunate you are to get such a tour.

  9. Posted October 18, 2018 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Fascinating! Thank you for giving us a virtual visit.

  10. Posted October 18, 2018 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    What a magnificent collection, and in remarkable condition. This must have been a memorable visit.

    Were there any relics, hyoid bones for example, that might cast light on whether Neanderthals had speech capacity like ours?

    Those teeth remind me—I am due for a visit to the dentist.

  11. Posted October 18, 2018 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Wow. Just wow. In the last ten years or so I have grown incredibly fond of my past ancestors. The idea of the unknown. The idea that these people were starting to make out what existence was and that they were aware of it.

    I have a particular fondness for the Africans who made it to Australia. That generational journey along the ocean. To see what no one had seen before with such primitive capabilities. No hardship I endure seems to compare.

    • rickflick
      Posted October 18, 2018 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

      Careful now. If you have any children and grand children and so on, they might begin to be incredibly fond of you…because you are – the unknown. Now, you wouldn’t want that to happen would you? I mean, you don’t want your distant future descendants worshiping you because you lived in the same era as Elvis Presley and early space flight do you?
      Well, I suppose, come to think of it, it wouldn’t be so bad if they did.

  12. Debbie Coplan
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much! Wow—

  13. mikeyc
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Mike Cracraft
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    This was a fantastic post. For more details of how DNA shows our antiquity I would suggest David Reich’s “Who We Are and How We Got Here.”
    He worked closely with Svante Pääbo in his lab.

    • GBJames
      Posted October 18, 2018 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      That’s an excellent book.

  15. BJ
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Such a great post! Thanks for sharing this.

  16. Merilee
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 11:27 am | Permalink


  17. Posted October 18, 2018 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    A wonderful post! The first specimens recognized as a new kind of human of course were found in the Neander valley in Germany, and that led to the name Neanderthal man. This was in the mid-1800’s. If these fossils were found a bit earlier, we might be calling this subspecies ‘Krapina man’.

  18. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Neanderthals? You sure? From the looks of that diorama the other day, these could be be my in-laws.

  19. darrelle
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    I think you’ve outdone yourself on this article Jerry, and that’s saying something. I really appreciate you taking the time to put this together. Absolutely fascinating. Holding 130,000 year old H. sapiens neanderthalensis relics in your hand? That’s a true “religious” experience.

    Also, I could listen to Dr. Radovčić talk about Neanderthal’s all day long.

    • Glenda Palmer
      Posted October 18, 2018 at 1:31 pm | Permalink


      In addition I might add that I am a member of the Society for Learning in Retirement, a group in my city, and am taking my first class in Anthropology. This wonderful post could not be more timely as we just finished a full two hours on the topic of Neanderthals. I will be forwarding this to eight more classmates.

      • GBJames
        Posted October 18, 2018 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

        Cool. That’s the good part of Anthropology!

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted October 18, 2018 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

          The bad part is the occasional pickled monkey you come across in an anthropology lab. 😉

          • GBJames
            Posted October 18, 2018 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

            No! Pickled monkeys are fine. It is the woo-ish folderol from some of the cultural folk who are the problem.

            Of course, one might argue that they are the pickled monkeys, I suppose. 😉

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted October 18, 2018 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

              I never really liked cultural anthropology. Too much dealing with alive people – yech. I liked physical – old dead things. That’s the good stuff!

            • darrelle
              Posted October 19, 2018 at 6:27 am | Permalink


              Pickled Monkeys is the perfect term for that.

      • darrelle
        Posted October 19, 2018 at 6:29 am | Permalink

        That sounds great. Can’t think of a better way to spend some retirement time than going back to school and taking courses on interesting topics you never managed to earlier in life.

  20. Michael Fisher
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    The good prof. & her dedicated team have painstakingly worked for years on the Krapina fossils – they could have saved a lot of their interpretation time by going to this elegant & artistic site: THE WICKEDNESS OF THE PRE-FLOOD WORLD
    Below is my screenshot sample of part of a page – note the photo of the cranial scrapes fossil. Obviously cannibalism – hence Noah! Case closed.

    • Merilee
      Posted October 18, 2018 at 3:59 pm | Permalink


  21. Posted October 18, 2018 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant! Thank you for this post.

  22. Michael Fisher
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    This KRAPINA 3. CUT MARKS & RITUAL BEHAVIOUR? is an interesting 2006, 6-page paper on the cranial cut marks to specimen Krapina 3 [the one Jerry & Davorka are talking about above] & below is a picture from the paper of the 35 marks – the pic can be embiggened:
    We are looking down on the skull with the brow ridge to the left. The pink line is the plane of symmetry of us primates [the line you’d cut to get mirror left & right halves].

    Note that the cuts are tiny – only 5mm long on average. Also we are only seeing the marks where bone still exists – I suppose there may have been 50-60 lines in total running like a fence from brow to the rear of the skull.

    I think they ‘reburied’ their dead after a period to allow all the flesh to decompose & fall away – beetles? Someone held the bare skull in their lap & made the markings with a sharp edge before presumably stacking the bones away in a pit, in the cave, safe from animals. I assume rocks or soil were laid over the bones.

    After writing all that – I have no clue what the marks represent. The orientation along the hair parting [if they had a parting!] must be significant.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted October 18, 2018 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      I think a replica skull should be made & then someone should attempt to make the marks. I think it will take two people – one to hold the skull in their lap [brow ridge in the belly] & the cutter faces the holder kneeling down & makes the marks left to right starting near the brow & working back towards the cutter. If the shellac is removed maybe it’s possible to determine if it’s one tool & if all the cuts are L to R [or R to L].

  23. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    Great post, so wonderful!
    “we haven’t found mitochondrial DNA from Neanderthals in modern humans. That could reflect either accidental loss of mitochondria, selection against mitochondrial DNA that did infiltrate modern human populations, or the sterility of offspring between Neanderthals mothers and H. sapiens sapiens fathers.” A fourth possibility is that Neanderthal women were not interested in these comparably ‘whimpy’ moderns. And a ‘modern’ male would have some insurmountable difficulty to rape a strong Neanderthal female. From the bone prominences to which muscles attach, we can be fairly sure that a Neanderthal woman was -without exception- much stronger than a modern male.

    • Posted October 31, 2018 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

      They were stronger, but eventually lost the competition. I am surprised that Neanderthal mitochondrial genes have not survived; I’d expect any surviving genes from a defeated population to originate from the mother because victors often kill males and capture females.

  24. rickflick
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    It’s inspiring to think about the lives of the Neanderthals and our more immediate ancestors. They must have lived fast, intense and short lives. Can you imagine a group heading out on a hunt, hearts pounding with fear and determination. Cool.

  25. John Switzer
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this post. Made my day.

  26. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting post! Spawns lots of questions for now or the future – it would be nice to see the result on putative trepanation when it gets published. And what references do we have to the differing frequencies of fossil “warfare” damage between hominins?

    I like how the chopped off and healed radius becomes “click bait” interpreted as “[most threatening animal we can think of] bear did it” in the diorama of a previous article!

    Davorka tells me that Svante Pääbo and his colleagues extracted it from another Croatian Neanderthal site called Vindija.

    I was wondering about that, the Vindija sample is the one that I immediately think of as Neanderthal example. But of course there are more than a handful now, so it becomes practically impossible to keep up.

  27. Diana MacPherson
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if neanderthals didn’t have so much evidence of violence because there was less competition of stuff where they had migrated out of Africa.

    • GBJames
      Posted October 18, 2018 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      Sampling error, more likely.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted October 18, 2018 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

        Yeah I wondered that too.

    • grasshopper
      Posted October 18, 2018 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

      The ‘Out of Africa’ theory competes with the ‘Out of Paprika’ theory which says modern man dispersed from Hungary in search of spices.

  28. Christopher Ellis
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    Lucky you! When I tried to go there, I arrived from Splot at Zsgreb, to be told that the road was out.
    But I have been to La Ferrassie.

  29. Posted October 18, 2018 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  30. grasshopper
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Did I spot Lucy’s other kneecap in that drawer of patellas?

  31. Hempenstein
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    There must be hypotheses / theories on how various ice ages separated different Homo groups for tens of thousands of years, leading to the sub-speciation that resulted in sapiens and neandertalensis, but I never hear them. Or am I out on a limb here?

  32. FB
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful post!

  33. Diane G
    Posted October 19, 2018 at 3:34 am | Permalink

    Wow, so fascinating! Thanks for this thorough and thoroughly engrossing post. Also, thanks to the many commenters whose hypotheses and further info made it even more so.

    • Mark R.
      Posted October 19, 2018 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      Agree! I didn’t get to reading all the comments until this morning, and they enriched the post considerably…plus humor.

  34. Michael Fisher
    Posted October 19, 2018 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Jerry has updated the OP with small changes after consulting with Davorka

%d bloggers like this: