In conversation with... Susan Peeters, Erasmus University Rotterdam

The interview was conducted by Melanie Wunsch, Head of Exhibition at Neanderthal Museum, May 2024

Susan Peeters lives in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and is a PhD researcher within the Erasmus School of Philosophy (Erasmus University, Rotterdam). She holds a master’s degree in Biological Psychology and in Behavioral Biology. A first paper, “Neanderthals as familiar strangers and the human spark: How the ‘golden years’ of Neanderthal research reopen the question of human uniqueness”, setting the stage for the current project, was published in 2020 (Peeters & Zwart 2020).

What is your professional background?

My background is quite diverse, and revolves around the human-animal divide.

I started out studying psychology, but decided to study non-human primates during my masters. Wanting to become a next Jane Goodall I continued with a master in behavioural biology. However, while I was working with primates, I became even more fascinated by how primatology is often more about ourselves and where to draw the line of humanity, as about primates themselves.

So, I took another turn, to history and philosophy of science, focussing on the role of non-human primates as a model for human nature. The wish to continue with this line of research was in the back of my mind for several years, while I worked on projects concerning ethical and philosophical issues in biological research, and went abroad for a while. Until I got the chance to do a PhD.

Portrait of Susan Peeters.
Susan Peeters. Photo: private
Life-size reconstruction of a Neanderthal man
Reconstruction of Mr N. Photo: Neanderthal Museum

What is your research about?

For this project my focus has shifted from primatology to palaeoanthropology. It’s about the changing image of Neanderthals and how this reveals what we apparently consider as ‘us’, and challenges us to reconsider this.

Our image of Neanderthals is changing rapidly, from animal-like brutish creatures they went to being ‘people like us’. But even though they are increasingly regarded as human, a lot of research still tends to focus on differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’, on detecting some decisive difference that confirms our exceptionality.

I am interested in Neanderthals as ‘familiar strangers’, between the ‘clearly us’ on the one side, and the ‘definitely not us’ on the other side. To me Neanderthal research functions as a case study, a vantage point to recognize, and reconsider, the anthropocentric logic of ‘us’ versus ‘other’ at work when it comes to understanding ourselves as human.

Not focusing on where to draw the line, questioning whether or not Neanderthals are ‘really’ human, but why this persistent line-drawing, this quest for a signifying difference, separating us from them.

I want to explore the intersection of belonging to the genus Homo, the life sciences, and of being human, the humanities, exposing implicit assumptions underlying our ideas and ideals of humanness. Not only in current scientific Neanderthal research, but also how this is addressed and experienced in fiction and museums. As my research is part of an interdisciplinary project that includes the Human Origin Group at Leiden University, and the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann, Germany, there are unique opportunities for collaboration, involving a citizen panel, workshops and exhibitions.

We will be unable to understand Neanderthals in terms of their humanity, as long as our conceptualisation of humanity is grounded in the desire to find a defining difference between us and them.

How can your research influence our shared understanding of Neanderthals & ourselves?

We will be unable to understand Neanderthals in terms of their humanity, as long as our conceptualisation of humanity is grounded in the desire to find a defining difference between us and them.

By reconsidering our self-definition, that depends on the disqualification of those deemed non-human or not fully human, we can recognize Neanderthals as both alike and different at the same time, as independent others, with their own ends and needs, without highlighting every allegedly unique human feature. This would also mean thinking of ourselves as not so isolated and special, but connected and interdependent, allowing us to become open to more inclusive visions of the past, and what it means to be human.

Cover of the New York Times Magazine in 2017 - Neanderthals were people too
Cover of the New York Times Magazine in 2017: Neanderthals were people, too
A researcher's bookshelf
A researcher's bookshelf. Photo: private

Why is it important to question our human self-understanding from time to time?

First of all, what it is to be considered truly human has, historically, never included the entire human species. Deciding what is human is not a neutral scientific matter and it is important to acknowledge and address the normative assumptions it includes.

Furthermore, in the face of the current global ecological crisis, it is ever more urgent to rethink who we are and our place in nature, as our self-narrative not only aims to explain, but also to justify who we are. As long as the dominant model of humanity in western culture, based on exclusion of the inferior other, remains intact, human-centredness and domination seem inevitable, self-evident and natural.

Rethinking our self-narrative will help overcome the attitude of domination which resulted in massive ecological destruction.

Why does your research focus on the comparison of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens specifically? Why not i.e. Australopithecus or other hominin species?

Neanderthals are our closest relatives and the best-known and longest known hominin species, other than ourselves. And they coexisted with modern humans quite recently. Scientists, as well as novelists and the general public, are fascinated by the idea that our ancestors once stood face to face with these familiar strangers. Also, Neanderthals are now generally included as ‘fundamentally human’, something that happened to the Cro-Magnon before them, who were seen as a kind of animal earlier. When we merely keep expanding the circle of humanity, without challenging the yardstick of inclusion, then similar discussions will follow for other species, as the quest for this signifying difference, setting us apart, will continue. The Neanderthal controversy is only the beginning.

If you could travel back in time to the Ice Age, what would you like to see or experience?

Difficult question! As I don’t like the cold very much, I would like to travel back to a not too icy environment. And to a time and place when both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens were around.  Assuming that I would blend in and speak the language, I would probably just sit around as a participant observer, listening to the stories that are told around the fire, and watching what everyone is doing, paying extra attention to the women and children, as they are still underrepresented in our view of the past.  


Susan Peeters
Erasmus School of Philosophy, Erasmus University Rotterdam

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