Learning from Neanderthals

Anthropology Professor Bruce Hardy uses experimental archaeology to offer a window into the world of Neanderthals and update old stereotypes about them.


Bruce Hardy has picked up a number of unusual skills during his career in anthropology — and he has Neanderthals to thank.

The J. Kenneth Smail Professor of Anthropology can make stone tools by hand that are sharper than surgical steel. He’s created string and rope from plant fibers. He’s even made and thrown giant wooden spears — though, admittedly, not very well.

All of this is the result of his work in experimental archaeology, a way of testing hypotheses by recreating tasks as they would have been undertaken by ancient cultures. For his students who get to watch him — and sometimes join in — it can be an impactful way to learn that maybe Neanderthals weren’t as cognitively limited as they’re sometimes made out to be.

“This stuff is very remote, and it can be very unreal. The idea that Neanderthals were making stone tools 100,000 years ago, that doesn’t compute. Anything that I can do that connects them physically to what’s happening back then makes it more meaningful,” Hardy said. “Experimental archaeology is a great way to do that.”

Which is why Hardy found himself out on the South Quad several times in the fall with a bucket of flint and a first-aid kit. Anthropology students gathered around as he demonstrated a process known as flintknapping, an ancient method of making stone tools. 

Bruce Hardy demonstrates flintknapping to students in the fall.
Bruce Hardy demonstrates flintknapping to students in the fall.

Narrating as he worked, Hardy struck a large piece of flint with another rock — known as a hammerstone — fracturing the flint and resulting in a shard that feathered out to a thin, sharp edge. That small flake would be perfect for an arrowhead or a knife, he said as he used it to cut a piece of rope.

“Try that at home with your kitchen knife and see how it does,” Hardy said before hitting the larger stone some more, slowly shaping it into a form that might eventually be made into a hand axe.

“It’s not an easy thing. It takes a lot of know-how,” he said, explaining that it shows Neanderthals and even earlier human ancestors had much greater skill than they are popularly given credit for.

When the first Neanderthal skeleton was discovered in 1856, it had a thick skull and hunched posture that helped earn it the name Homo stupidus from German naturalist Ernst Haeckel. That reputation of being brutish knuckle-draggers is one Neanderthals have had trouble shaking ever since.

But demonstrations like this that take place most semesters — and other experimental archaeology at Kenyon that Hardy has undertaken with students — suggest that they weren’t so inferior, despite the fact that they went extinct some 40,000 years ago.

Flintknapping is too dangerous for untrained students to try themselves, Hardy said, but he has recruited them to assist with other hands-on projects. This included making string from natural materials after the discovery of fragments of undyed, twisted fibers — known as cordage — on ancient tools.

“After that, we started making cordage and using it, burying it, various sorts of things like that [to weather it],” he said.

Those homemade samples — sometimes chopped up by his homemade stone tools — became helpful as a point of comparison with residual fragments of ancient string later found intact in southeast France.

“I could take [the ancient cord] and compare it directly back to stuff that we had used and made ourselves,” Hardy said. “And that was part of what we published.”

The implications of being able to make something as seemingly simple as twisted, plied string is significant, as it requires a complex understanding of plants and certain mathematical concepts. It also makes it possible to create bags, nets, structures, even watercraft, according to a 2020 paper that Hardy and others published in the peer-reviewed journal Scientific Reports. 

This all points to a basic conclusion in the paper: “The idea that Neanderthals were cognitively inferior to modern humans is becoming increasingly untenable.”

Other attempts to make this point have been less conclusive — but no less fun. As experts debated whether some 300,000-year-old hunting spears found preserved among horse remains in Germany were used for throwing or thrusting, Hardy worked with students to recreate the items and test them out. (The original experiments took place about a decade ago, but, like the work with string, continue on an ongoing basis.) 

“We decided to make a bunch of them and try to throw them and test their flight capabilities. Could these be effective long-distance hunting weapons?” Hardy asked. “What we discovered was that Kenyon students are really bad at throwing spears.”

Grace Sparks ’26, an anthropology major from San Antonio, was in Hardy’s Introduction to Biological Anthropology (ANTH111) class last semester when he demonstrated flintknapping for the group.

“It was really, really cool,” she said. “Getting to see the firsthand experience of how people probably did it thousands of years ago, and with that intense meticulous description, it was really helpful to build a picture.”

And it was a great example, she continued, of what can happen in the intimate academic setting that Kenyon provides.

“We were all just huddled around and asking questions, and he was answering while flintknapping,” she said. “It made me feel grateful that I, as a student, am able to be in a small-group setting and participate with something like that.”

A native of Alabama, Hardy first learned how to flintknap in 1986 at the Koobi Fora Field School in northern Kenya, when he was a college student himself.

“I thought it was just really cool and amazing,” he said. “I’ve stayed with it, but I don’t do it very often. I do it usually for demonstrations for students. It’s still fun. It’s frustrating, though, because it doesn’t ever want to do exactly what I want it to do.”

Hardy said he hopes students find a connection to the past through his demonstrations as well as an increased appreciation for the skill of our forebears.

“Short of being able to give them an actual archaeological experience, the experimental archaeology lets them get into, in this case, the Neanderthal world,” he said. “It gives them a window into what it would be like to very briefly live like a Neanderthal.”