Neanderthals, Scandinavian trolls, and troglodytes

Image: public domain
Jon Bauer, “The boy and the trolls” (1915).

Stanford University

Neanderthal humans (Homo neanderthalensis) are documented in European contexts for around 430,000 years, according to new studies. The accepted genomic contribution of Neanderthal DNA in modern Homo sapiens from Eurasia, including Scandinavian, Siberian, Asian population and the rest of Europe, with a range of around 2% – 4%, bear evidence to mating between the two human populations. 

Whether normative or occasional is less important, but episodic encounters of productive mating—estimates from at least a necessary 300 times—between the two human groups date to at least around 65,000 to 50,000 years ago in the Balkans and elsewhere, although some suggest earlier intermating also going back at least 100,000 years, possibly in North Africa. 

It is now fully supportable that Neanderthals had the ability to vocalize in speech and that Neanderthal DNA has contributed some significant advantages to modern humans, including resistance to cold climate, among other benefits. Neanderthal culture is no longer so simplistically derogated as previously.

In addition to modern growing scientific study of this interaction between modern humans and Neanderthals, there is also the much earlier but mostly undocumentable folkloric encounters of humans and what was considered nonhuman, even if legends suggest mating could produce offspring that would also be fertile. 

Some of the folklore beings that come up regularly in Northern European culture include trolls and the like, marginalized creatures with mostly negative personae in the long traditions. The big “what if?” question probed here that is greatly speculative but also has intriguing potential for actual human prehistory—mostly unwritten—is whether or not trolls, for example, are vestigial human memories of Neanderthals? 

Fictive or not, William Golding hypothesized Human-Neanderthal interaction in his 1955 novel The Inheritors. More to the topic here, Finnish paleontologist Björn Kurtén was one of the first to hint at this idea of Neanderthals as trolls in fictionalized narratives in the 1970 — 80s (e.g., Den svarta tigern, 1978). Another prescient Finn, Andreas Heinakroon, formerly of the Swedish Natural History Museum and trained in entomology, has also sagely popularized the possible troll-Neanderthal connection at least as early as 2012.

Additionally, there are also the longstanding Scandinavian folk traditions that trolls long antedated humans in the North as the “Old Ones” and that they are usually described as unattractive relative to humans; furthermore, they were not described as socially oriented but were presented as relatively elusive, possibly suggested as prescient about human perceptions. 

a sad troll

Image: public domain
Theodor Kittelsen, “The troll who wonders how old he is” (1911).

Trolls, however, are often difficult to define as mythical creatures with possible meanings shifting throughout Scandinavian literature, and they sometimes possess magical powers that cannot be explained by the late Sagas, since Icelandic literature preserves in writing what may not have been recorded in prior Old Norse oral tales. Trolls are sometimes enlarged into huge creatures when connected to the Old Jötunn or “Ancient Ice Giants” in Norway, whose rocky abodes were along the spine of the glacially hewn mountains of the same name, Jotunheimen.

Some of the commonalities between known Neanderthal features and habitats and the folklore around trolls include heavy, large-boned skeleta, thick-skinned for cold insulation, cave dwellers, pronounced brows, broad-based possibly large fleshy noses, living in remote or montane topography (“mountain trolls” or bjergtrolde in Danish) or loci not considered optimum by increasingly sedentary humans, as well as the general miasma that has unfortunately colored the tradition of both Neanderthals and trolls since modern humans exemplify the old adage that the “victors write the history.” 

The above physical characterizations of Neanderthals can be substantiated, whereas those of mythical trolls cannot be verified. Subtracting the caricatures of both Neanderthals and trolls that continue to permeate historic modern culture, there is no doubt that Neanderthals exist now only in relict DNA and that trolls are not observable beings either.

The word troll or tröll itself as mentioned shows up in Old Norse and may have antecedents in Proto-German as trullan. Linguistic connections are difficult to establish in Proto-Germanic languages prior to Old Norse, especially pre-Roman, but may offer some possibilities.

The meaning of the Greek word troglodyte, now glossed as “cave-men,” seems a fairly old one—compounded together from at least Aristotle (fourth century B.C.) in his De Partibus Animalium (circa 350 B.C.) but at first referencing “animals that dwell in holes” and then “cave-men” in other authors, according to the Greek lexicon. 

The original meme word or idea of troll as “cave dweller”—possibly from the same root as trōglodyte in Proto-Indo-European?—could even be a linguistic artifact of this possible memory, although Old Norse only has the written word troll from the medieval period onward, as mentioned above.

It had been long argued for at least a century that no known provable Neanderthal materials can be found in Scandinavia (although present in Germanic Schleswig-Holstein just south of Denmark), with ambiguous bone and stone artifacts lacking firm stratigraphic contexts, also problematically where Scandinavian troll folklore is strongest. 

But new research shows that while Neanderthals also existed in Russia at the 52° latitude north, Scandinavia itself up to at least 55 ° latitude north—and possibly farther north—could have supported Neanderthal populations through some interglacial periods until glacial  periods (from the warmer Eemian interglacial periods 130,000-115,000 B.P. to the colder Early Weichsellian glacial period, 115,000 – 11,700 B.P.) where the more hospitable Eemian needs further research and where the colder Weichsellian would have been problematic through much of continental Europe. 

Furthermore, Neanderthal Mousterian Culture has now been evidenced closer around 65° latitude north at Byzovaya, just under the Arctic Circle in Russia, circa 28,500 B.P. by a Russo-French CNRS [French National Center for Scientific Research] research team. Other new research, including the Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenbchaften project (coordinated through the Role of Culture in Early Expansions of Humans project at Tübingen University, Germany) on “Northern Neanderthals—A systematic assessment of pre-modern human colonization of South Scandinavia” continues this line of argument “at the extreme periphery of the Neanderthal range.” 

Certainly, the 36,000-year B.P. Kostenki Russian skeleton of an early modern human shows that Homo sapiens survived the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) at its Ice Age peak 26,500 years B.P., and while it’s more difficult to date the last Neanderthal, the Gibraltar Gorham’s Cave, Neanderthals can be approximated to around 28,000 years B.P., and Neanderthals are postulated to have continued to around 24, 000 B.P. 

In other words, even after humans migrated southward because of inhospitable Ice Age climates, so apparently did the last Neanderthals in the Upper Paleolithic Period, and increasingly limited contact could have continued.

a model of a man showing what Neanderthals may have looked like

Image: Stefan Scheer/Wikipedia
A Neanderthal man could be mistaken for a troll.

Why the Scandinavian traditions preserved troll folklore best is a conundrum if actual archaeological Neanderthal presence is so elusive in Scandinavia. But even if verifiable Neanderthal artifacts are either ambiguous or conspicuous by their absence from Scandinavia, genomics may tell a different story. 

The human leukocyte antigen (HLA) Class 1 genes that are strongly associated with Neanderthals and are distinctly related to resistance to pathogens show at least for Neanderthal HLA-A-C haplotypes a much higher density around 3% in Scandinavia than the rest of continental Europe (with a higher percentage only in Northern Ireland and Scotland). Given the late medieval phenomenon of Danelaw and Viking Expansion (ca. ninth–11th century) when Scandinavian DNA permeated Eastern Britain and adjacent areas, this may make more sense than the dearth of Neanderthal artifacts in Scandinavia. 

Perhaps it is also helpful to remember that Glacial Ice Ages scraped clean much of continental Europe, so that the surviving archaeological Upper Paleolithic contexts from Aurignacian (about 40,000 B.P. to 28,000 B.P.), Solutrian (about 22,000 B.P. to 7,000 B.P.), and Magdalanian (about 17,000 B.P.  to 12,000 B.P.) periods and related artifact and cave art contexts from Chauvet, Lascaux, Altamira and other cave sites are found mostly fairly deep (or protected) below the glacially altered surface even to the south in France and Spain. 

Note that 10 – 15 meters of new subsequent loess is also estimated to have been deposited, for example, in loci in northern France from the last glaciation. How much more so might this be expected then in the more heavily glaciated North, where ice sheets were so much deeper and heavier and even more landscape altering? But even an earlier folkloric tradition that returns to its original northern roots when modern humans return cannot be dismissed outright. Thus, the possible hypothetical connection between Neanderthals as “trolls” or troglodytes remains sufficiently inviting.

Perhaps an equally germane query is whether any human folklore traditions rendering relict Neanderthals as trolls can survive this long around 28,000 years? Arguments from silence notwithstanding, it remains to be seen whether such a connection has more than literary merit, but all good questions are worth asking if they lead to more definitive answers.

This article originally appeared in the July 23, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Patrick Hunt

Award-winning archaeologist, author, and National Geographic grantee Patrick Hunt earned his Ph.D. in Archaeology from the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, and has taught at Stanford University for nearly 30 years. Patrick directed the Stanford Alpine Archaeology Project from 1994 to 2012, and has continued project-related fieldwork in the region in the years since. His Alps research has been sponsored by the National Geographic Society, and he frequently lectures for National Geographic on Hannibal and the European mummy nicknamed Ötzi the Iceman. He is also a National Lecturer for the Archaeological Institute of America, as well as an elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Explorers Club. He is the author of 21 published books, including the best-sellers Ten Discoveries That Rewrote History and Hannibal. He has a lifelong love of the Alps, having lived there for several months each year since 1994.