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May 23, 2021 67 min

In the summer of 1856, workers quarrying limestone in a valley outside Düsseldorf, Germany, found an odd looking skull. It was elongated and almost chinless.

William King, a British geologist, suspected that this was not merely the remains of an atypical human, but belonged to a typical member of an alternate humanity. He named the species Homo neanderthalensis: Neanderthal man.

Guided by racism and phrenology, he deemed the species brutish, with a “moral ‘darkness.’” It was a label that stuck.

Recently, however, after we’d snickered over their skulls for so long, it became clear we had made presumptions. Neanderthals weren’t the slow-witted louts we’d imagined them to be.

This story was written by Jon Mooallem and recorded by Audm. To hear more audio stories from publications like The New York Times, download Audm for iPhone or Android.

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