Edge scraper, a tool for working with skins, found in Veldwezelt-Hezerwater and between 33,000 and 250,000 years old (2 cm long) | Tongeren, Gallo-Roman Museum, V05/12

Economy & Technology
c. 500,000 - 33,000 years ago
Read aloud

Neanderthals in the Valley of the Meuse

The Earliest Traces of Human Habitation

For thousands of years we, modern humans or homo sapiens, were not the only human species on earth. We shared the world with the Neanderthals. In Veldwezelt in Limburg, on the bank of the Hezewater, Neanderthals built temporary shelters. They are among the oldest discovered human settlements in the region now called Flanders.

Read aloud

The Neanderthals evolved some 400,000 years ago from another human species, homo heidelbergensisso-called after the German city of Heidelberg, where the first discovery of this species was made. . The habitat of the Neanderthals extended across Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. They were very similar in appearance to modern man. However, there were differences. For example, they had rather heavier arched eyebrows and usually a somewhat greater skull capacity. They were very muscular and on average 1.65 m tall.

Neanderthals were hunters and led a nomadic existence. In Veldwezelt archaeologists uncovered four temporary camps and a spot used to extract flint. The traces are between 133,000 and 58,000 years old. In and around the camp sites archaeologists also found 2,500 tools, made of local flint. In addition they found bones and teeth of prehistoric animals, such as the mammoth, the woolly rhinoceros and the wild horse.

Tongeren, Gallo-Roman Museum, GRM 19169

Flint hand axe, probably made by a Heidelberg man (10.3 cm long, 5.6 cm wide, 2.6 cm thick).

Read aloud

The Earliest Traces of Human Habitation

Both the Neanderthals and modern humans are descended from an older human species, homo heidelbergensis. In Kesselt (near Veldwezelt in Limburg) archaeologists found a flint hand axe and a few other tools which were probably made between 400,000 and 500,000 years ago by this common ancestor.

The Neanderthals left multiple traces in this region. They also made flint tools. The locations where these were found are concentrated around the lower reaches of the Meuse in present-day Limburg. That is no coincidence: a lot of flint occurs naturally in that area. No bones or other fossil remains of Heidelberg men or Neanderthals were found. However, through the shape and age of the tools, archaeologists are agreed that they were made by these human species. They were able to deduce the dating from the way the tools were made and the geological layer in which they were found.

Approximately 38,000 years ago the Neanderthals vanished for good from the face of the earth. In that period increasing numbers of animal species, which they hunted, died out. Still, the Neanderthal survives in a modest way: research has shown that modern humans share between 1% and 4% of their DNA with Neanderthals. During their contacts, therefore, between 250,000 and 33,000 years ago, there was interbreeding between homo sapiens and Neanderthals.

Focal points


Tongeren, Gallo-Roman Museum, HW 272

A mammoth tooth, found in a Neanderthal camp in Veldwezelt.

Read aloud

Landscape and Climate Change in Prehistory

The climate in which the Neanderthals lived, was largely cold to very cold. Between the so-called Ice Agesan ice age is a period in which the climate on earth was much colder than today and large parts of the planet were covered in ice. there were sometimes periods with a more or less moderate or warm climate. Those changes had a great impact on the landscape, plants and animals. This means that Neanderthals needed to adapt well to differing living conditions.

During the Ice Ages the level of the North Sea was considerably lower then and the Channel had not yet formed. Instead a lush valley extended from the continent to present-day Great Britain. The valley was criss-crossed by rivers, Neanderthals hunted there too. That is shown by the discovery of a skull fragment and a large number of tools fifteen kilometres off the coast of present-day Zeeland (The Netherlands).

In those cold periods few trees grew in the Northern hemisphere, but there were tall grasses and herbs. Reindeer, wild horses, woolly rhinoceroses, bison and mammoths grazed. For Neanderthals those animals were the main food source. They followed the migration of the herds. When the temperature rose in the course of the centuries, the landscape gradually changed. That happened, for example, after the last Ice Age, some 12,000 years ago. Extensive coniferous forests appeared. The first modern humans hunted red deer, aurochs, roe deer and wild boar.

Reconstructie van een neanderthaler in het Gallo-Romeins Museum in Tongeren.

Wikimedia Commons

Reconstruction of a Neanderthal man in the Gallo-Roman Museum in Tongeren.

Read aloud

Early Technology

The main traces of prehistoric human beings are the stone tools that they made. That is because stone does not decay, unlike human or animal bones, or other organic materials such as wood. Flint was often the material of choice. That stone had the advantage of being very hard, but also easy to work with. By carefully knapping off flakes with another stone, razor-sharp cutting edges were created.

A very common tool of homo heidelbergensis was the hand axe. Hand axes had a teardrop shape and were worked front and back, creating a sharp edge. They were made so as to sit comfortably in the hand. They were often used for skinning and butchering prey animals. But they were also handy for working wood.

In the course of prehistory, man made increasingly complex tools, which required more processing skills. On the basis of the technique used archaeologists can estimate quite precisely how old an object is. The Neanderthals developed the complex Levallois techniquenamed after the place near Paris where archaeologists first identified the technique. . With this technique a core stone was first prepared, after which flakes were knapped off with a few well-aimed blows. The flint chippings had very sharp edges and could be further worked into knives, scraperstools for scraping hides clean, but also for shaving wood, antlers and bone. or spear heads. Thanks to this the Neanderthals were able to produce lighter tools than the heavy hand axes used by homo heidelbergensis.

De archeologische site Veldwezelt-Hezerwater
Brussels, Vlaams Agentschap Onroerend Erfgoed.

The Veldwezelt-Hezerwater archaeological site has been organised to receive visitors.

Levallois kern
Tongeren, Gallo-Roman Museum, VH 02 GRA21 6396

A worked flint, roughly 140,000 years old, made using the Levallois technique, which required much planning and skill. It was found during excavations close to the Hezerwater in Veldwezelt. Neanderthals visited the valley because there were many clusters of flint lying on the surface.

Mammoet van Lier
Lier, Stadsmuseum, Jeroen Broeckx

During the Ice Ages the Low Countries were populated by, for example, mammoths. The mammoth in the Stadsmuseum in Lier is a 3D print of an actual mammoth skeleton, dug up in Lier and on view in the Museum of Natural Sciences in Brussels.

Kaart van Doggerland
Leiden, Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Olav Odé.

Map of Doggerland, a drowned landscape between present-day England and mainland Europe. In periods with a low sea level, for example, during each Ice Age, this area was a part of the dried-out bottom of the Southern North Sea.

Discover more on this topic

Eerste mensen
Het verhaal van Vlaanderen – De Prehistorie

Bron: VRT archief, De Mensen – 1 jan 2023

Het verhaal van Vlaanderen – De Prehistorie

Bron: VRT archief, De Mensen – 1 jan 2023

Overleven – De nieuwe Neanderthaler

Rechten: VRT-archief, Canvas en de Vlaamse Gemeenschap – 26 okt 2003

Mens ontmoet Neanderthaler
Het verhaal van Vlaanderen – De Prehistorie

Bron: VRT archief, De Mensen – 1 jan 2023


Bron: VRT archief, Max Planck instituut – 3 maa 221

Overleven – De nieuwe Neanderthaler

Bron: VRT-archief, Canvas en de Vlaamse Gemeenschap – 26 okt 2003


Amkreutz Luc & Van Der Vaart-Verschoof Sasja
Verdwenen wereld in de Noordzee

Sidestone Press, 2021

Arsuaga Juan Luis
Het halssieraad van de Neanderthaler: op zoek naar de eerste denkers

Wereldbibliotheek, 2004

Auffermann Bärbel & Orschiedt Jörg
Neanderthalers in Europa

Davidsfonds, 2003

Böhme Madelaine, Braun Rüdiger & Breier Florian
Hoe we mensen werden: een geheel nieuwe kijk op de oorsprong van de mensheid

Spectrum, 2020

Bojs Karin
Mijn Europese familie: de laatste 54.000 jaar

Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep, 2017

Boussemaere Pieter
De langste reis. Op zoek naar het ontstaan van de mens

Davidsfonds, 2012

Chavez-Saens Alejandro, Baars Marian & Beuk Paul
Cool! Neanderthalers in het Maasdal

Natuurhistorisch Museum Maastricht, 2014

Condemi Silvana & Savatier François
Wie vermoordde de neanderthaler?

EPO, 2020

Desilva Jeremy & Wevers Arthur
De eerste stappen: hoe rechtop lopen ons mens maakte

Harper-Collins, 2020

Dusseldorp Gerrit & Raczynski-Henk Yannick
De eerste mensen in de Lage Landen

Van Gorcum, 2022

Ervynck Anton
De oudste ronde van Vlaanderen. Een archeologisch parcours

Davidsfonds Uitgeverij, 2011

Kerner Jennifer, Cirotteau Thomas & Pincas Eric
Mevrouw Sapiens: de vrouw in de prehistorie

Noordboek, 2022

Lee Sang-Hee & Yoon Shin-Young
Toen wij nog Neanderthalers waren en andere verhalen over de menselijke evolutie

Karakter, 2020

Puttevils Tim, Vanmontfort Bart & Van Nieuwenhuyse Karel
Ons verste verleden: historisch denken over de prehistorische mens in de oude wereld

Universitaire Pers Leuven, 2020

Stringer Chris
Overlevers. Hoe het komt dat wij de enige mensachtige op aarde zijn

Nieuw Amsterdam, 2012


Bracke Dirk

Davidsfonds, 2018. (12+)

Cameron Claire
De laatste neanderthaler

Cargo, 2017

De Bode Ann
Mijn familie: een reis door de tijd

De Eenhoorn, 2009. (3+)

Dielemans Linda
Het lied van de vreemdeling

Leopold, 2020. (12+)

Dielemans Linda
Onder de golven: het verhaal van Doggerland

Fontaine, 2021

Kustermans Paul
Feun en de vloek van de sjamaan

Manteau, 2005. (en 3 andere delen van de Feun-reeks)

Matsuura Anne-Margreet & Rhemrev Edwin
Nikki en de Neanderthalers

Kluitman, 2018. (9+)

Roudier Emmanuel

Uitgeverij Daedalus, 2015. (driedelige stripreeks)

Nu kijken

‘Van vuursteenknol tot vuistbijl’
Minicollege over Doggerland, de verdwenen wereld in de Noordzee
‘Hoe de Neanderthaler op mysterieuze wijze van de aarde verdween’

uit het wetenschappelijke programma ‘De kennis van nu’ (NTR)

Bijkomend luister/kijk materiaal