Neanderthal

Scientific name: Homo neanderthalensis Scientific classification:

Phylum: Chordata Class: Mammalia Order: Primates Family: Hominidae When did it become extinct? The most recent remains of Neanderthals have been dated at around 28,000 years old, and it is unlikely that they survived into more recent times. Where did it live? Neanderthals lived throughout Europe, into the Middle East and southern Siberia.

For a long time, the word Neanderthal was synonymous with lumbering cavemen, and following the first official discovery of a partial skeleton of a human in Germany, Victorian scientists had a field day in portraying this extinct human as a stooped, troll-like beast. True, the Neanderthals may have had quite a brutish appearance by our terms, what with their stout limbs, broad chests, projecting brows, and powerful jaws, but in recent times, our view of our long-dead relatives has changed, as more remains have come to light. These remains are not ridiculously common, but they do tell us a story of a species—another human species— with which we once shared the earth, and it has become clear that Neanderthals, far from

Neanderthal—The Neanderthals were the first Europeans. They had large brains and were powerfully built, yet they died out. Exactly what happened to them is one of the greatest mysteries in human evolution. (Phil Miller)

Neanderthal—The Neanderthals were the first Europeans. They had large brains and were powerfully built, yet they died out. Exactly what happened to them is one of the greatest mysteries in human evolution. (Phil Miller)

being the knuckle-dragging ogres of Victorian imagination, were actually a sophisticated and successful species.

We know from artifacts that have come to light that the Neanderthals made tools, and their ability in this regard was not far behind that of the Cro-Magnons (modern humans— our species—in Europe) who replaced them. Ancient unearthed tools thought to have been fashioned by Neanderthal hands provide us with an intriguing yet incomplete picture of how our relatives lived. How did they go about catching their food, for instance? Their teeth and jaws are typically those of a vegetarian-omnivore, but analysis of their bone chemistry has led some people to speculate that their diet was mainly meat, and if this came from living animals, how did they catch and subdue their prey? For a long time, scientists believed that the Neanderthals were only capable of wrestling with their prey and hacking it to death with stone hand axes or similar tools. However, recent finds paint a picture of a human that could fashion spears and other weapons to strike at prey from a distance. With this said, they probably had to close in for the killer blow, using their great strength to finish off the prey. The bones of Neanderthals that have been discovered over the past 150 years or so often show signs of injury, such as bone fractures and breaks, that may have been inflicted when these extinct humans were tackling and killing wild beasts.

Even more surprising is the fact that many of these bone breaks and fractures were healed, an observation that gives us a tantalizing glimpse of how these extinct humans interacted with one another. Injured Neanderthals must have been cared for by those around them, perhaps in a family group or even a tribe, because a solitary Neanderthal with a broken leg would not have survived long enough for the broken bones to heal. We can assume that Neanderthals cared for their sick, and perhaps even their elderly, as some bones are from individuals more than 50 years old, which was a grand old age many thousands of years ago. What other characteristics did they share with us? Did they have language? It is thought by some experts that Neanderthals could speak, as a hyoid bone—a small bone that is part of the speech apparatus—was found with a Neanderthal skeleton in Kebara Cave, Israel, in the 1980s, and what is preserved is similar to ours. However, this bone only gives us an idea of what sounds the Neanderthal could make as the bone works with the soft tissues of the larynx to produce the sounds we know as words. Without these soft tissues, it is impossible to know exactly what sounds the Neanderthals were capable of making, but it has been suggested that Neanderthal language was not as elaborate as our own.

Along with some form of vocal communication, the Neanderthals buried their dead. Some paleontologists have suggested that the Neanderthals adorned the bodies of their dead with flowers, but this theory is very controversial and is based on the discovery of one skeleton commonly known as the Shanidar burial. If it were true, such a ritual would indicate that these long-dead humans had a complex culture that possibly included religion and a concept of life after death.

So what happened to the Neanderthals? This is a big mystery, but numerous theories attempt to explain the disappearance of this other species of human. A popular one is that our ancestors, on their migration north from Africa, moved into the lands of the Neanderthals and eventually outcompeted them, even possibly going out of their way to eradicate them. A second popular theory is that modern humans and Neanderthals interbred to such an extent that the characteristics of Neanderthals were diluted so much that we cannot see them today. If this theory is correct, then modern humans, especially those of us with roots in northern and western Europe, still carry Neanderthal genes. It has even been suggested that ginger hair is a Neanderthal trait that has survived into the modern day, although this trait probably evolved independently in modern humans and Neanderthals.

These theories aside, we know that the Neanderthal world went through some major shifts as the ice sheets advanced and then retreated and the flora and fauna of the Neanderthal lands were massively influenced by these changes. Perhaps the Neanderthals succumbed to the combination of the relentless spread of our ancestors and a changing landscape and climate, but maybe, just maybe, the Neanderthals live on in us.

♦ Neanderthals evolved in Europe, and it is thought that their ancestors, an earlier form of Homo erectus, left Africa and dispersed over much of what we know as the Old World today.

♦ Neanderthals were often portrayed as an unsuccessful species that eventually succumbed to the more sophisticated Cro-Magnons, but in actual fact, this extinct species of human survived for at least 250,000 years and was well adapted to a very harsh environment. In comparison, our own species has only been around for a mere 120,000 years.

♦ Our knowledge of what prehistoric humans were capable of making is limited to objects made from material that can survive the ravages of time, for example, stone and bone. Much of the wear on Neanderthal stone tools comes from wood working, yet we have no idea what they were whittling as it has all rotted away, except for one solitary bowl (discovered in Abric Romani, Spain) and spears (from Schoeningen and Lehringen, Germany).

♦ A Neanderthal's brain was actually as large as ours, but the skull was a very different shape. The high forehead of a modern human skull accommodates the well-developed frontal lobes, which may be the seat of the higher mental processes that characterize modern humans. There is little in the artifactual record of Neanderthal behavior to suggest that they possessed symbolic thought, as we do.

Further Reading: Speth,J. D., and E.Tchemov. "The Role of Hunting and Scavenging in Neandertal Procurement Strategies." In Neandertals and Modem Humans in Western Asia, edited by T. Akazawa, K. Aoki, and O. Bar-Yosef, 223-29. New York: Plenum Press, 1998; Thieme, H. "Lower Paleolithic Hunting Spears from Germany." Nature 385 (1997): 807-10; Boeda, E., J. M. Geneste, C. Griggo, N. Mercier, S. Muhesen, J. L. Reyss, A. Taha, and H. Valladas. "A Levallois Point Embedded in the Vertebra of a Wild Ass (Equus africanus): Hafting, Projectiles and Mousterian Hunting Weapons." Antiquity 73 (1999): 394-402.

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  • RUSSOM
    How do scientists know that neanderthals were tackling their prey?
    8 years ago
  • tancredi
    How long were neanderthalls a successful species?
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  • KARIN
    How neanderthal disappeared?
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  • hilda
    Did the neandertal paint this picture?
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