A Neanderthal man at the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann, Germany. If he’d have known he’d be on display, he might have taken a bath.

© Iain Masterton/incamerastock/Corbis

The way people talk about Neanderthals, you’d think they were just a bunch of grunting guys with bad posture who lived in homes made from animal jaws and never bothered with washcloths.

Well, our extinct relatives might not have stood up straight, but they did take baths, suggests new archaeological evidence that did not include the remains of bath gels or rubber duckies.

During a month-long excavation of a Spanish cave in August, scientists uncovered thousands of artifacts that lend insight into the domestic life of Neanderthals 60,000 years ago.

Among them: a concave hole in the ground surrounded by pieces of hearth, as well as stones with thermal fractures suggesting the limestones and speleothemes had been heated. And then likely tossed into the hole to warm the water, according to the Catalan Institute of Human Palaeoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES), which managed the excavation.

The hole, situated near the wall of a cave at the Abric Romani archaeological site in Spain’s Catalonia region, measures 40 centimeters by 30 centimeters by 10 centimeters (about 16 inches by 12 inches by 4 inches). That’s clearly not big enough for a leisurely full-body soak at the end of a long day of chasing mammoths, but it’s enough room to dip body parts bit by bit.

The 50-person excavation team was mostly composed of master’s candidates in archaeology and human evolution from the University Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona and Reus, Spain. Doctoral students from other parts of Spain participated as well, as did students from from France, Italy, Czech Republic, Venezuela and Chile.


The concave hole discovered in a cave at the Abric Romani archaeological site: Was this our predecessors’ idea of a bathtub?

Palmira Saladié/IPHES

Another section, they say, was likely a sleeping area due to its lower density of artifacts (clearly these Neanderthals were into the streamlined design principles of feng shui). Other sleeping areas from parts of the Abric Romani site dating back about 50,000 years were identified a few years prior.

The Abric Romani has proved a veritable gold mine for Neanderthal artifacts, including shaped wooden objects and flint tools indicative of woodworking, described by archaeologists more than 20 years ago.

Before removing artifacts from the cave in this latest excavation, the researchers photographed their findings right where they found them. The images will be made into a digital map of the Neanderthal dwelling that will go on display in the Neanderthal Museum of Catalonia so visitors can get a better sense of Homo neanderthalensis homes — and possibly get some design tips.

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Neanderthals may have enjoyed hot baths at home in their caves