The five: surprising talents of the Neanderthals
We also know about their genetic make-up, as several Neanderthal genomes have now been reconstructed from ancient DNA obtained from their fossils. Neanderthals were humans like us, but they were a distinct species called Homo neanderthalensis. Together with an Asian people known as Denisovans, Neanderthals are our closest ancient human relatives.
Scientific evidence suggests our two species shared a common ancestor. Current evidence from both fossils and DNA suggests that Neanderthal and modern human lineages separated at least , years ago. Some genetic calibrations place their divergence at about , years ago. Both dating issues and fossil anatomy mean that scientists are currently uncertain whether the last common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans was Homo heidelbergensis , Homo antecessor or another species.
Neanderthals lived alongside early modern humans for at least part of their existence. The Neanderthals have a long evolutionary history. The earliest known examples of Neanderthal-like fossils are around , years old. The best-known Neanderthals lived between about , and 40, years ago, after which all physical evidence of them vanishes. Known as Tabun 1, this Neanderthal specimen is around , years old.
Neanderthals evolved in Europe and Asia while modern humans - our species, Homo sapiens - were evolving in Africa. Judging from fossil evidence from Sima de los Huesos in northern Spain and Swanscombe in Kent, the Neanderthal lineage was already well-established in Europe by , years ago. The species ranged widely in Eurasia, from Portugal and Wales in the west across to the Altai Mountains of Siberia in the east. Neanderthal populations were adaptable, living in cold steppe environments in England and Siberia about 60, years ago, and in warm temperate woodlands in Spain and Italy about , years ago.
Neanderthals had a long, low skull compared to the more globular skull of modern humans with a characteristic prominent brow ridge above their eyes. Their face was also distinctive. The central part of the face protruded forward and was dominated by a very big, wide nose. Some scientists think this feature may have been an adaptation to living in colder, drier environments.
The large internal volume of the nose would have acted to moisten and warm the air they breathed. Their front teeth were large, and scratch-marks show they were regularly used like a third hand when preparing food and other materials. Unlike modern humans, Neanderthals didn't have much of a chin.
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Side views of an approximately 50,year-old Neanderthal skull from La Ferrassie, France, next to an approximately 20,year-old Homo sapiens fossil from Abri Pataud, France. The modern human has a more rounded skull and lacks the prominent brow ridge present in the Neanderthal. Neanderthals had strong, muscular bodies, and wide hips and shoulders. Adults grew to about 1. Early Neanderthals were taller on average than later Neanderthals, but their weight was about the same. Model of a Homo neanderthalensis skeleton front and back views. Neanderthals had stocky physiques with short lower legs and lower arms.
Their short, stocky physiques were suited to cold environments.
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The bulky trunk, in addition to their short lower leg and lower arm bones, gave Neanderthals proportions that would have minimised the skin's surface area, presumably to conserve heat under the predominantly colder conditions of the last , years. Some researchers argue that this physique also gave the Neanderthals greater power in their arms and legs for close-range ambushes during hunting.
Despite their reputation as being primitive 'cavemen', Neanderthals were actually very intelligent and accomplished humans. These were no 'ape-men'. So it's unfair to them that the word Neanderthal is used as an insult today. The brain size of late Neanderthals ranged from at least 1,cm 3 to 1,cm 3. This is larger than the modern average, but in proportion to their body size. Homo sapiens skulls from around 30, years ago also had larger brains on average than people today.
Neanderthals were skilled tool makers, as evidenced by excavated objects such as spears and flint handaxes. Around , years ago Neanderthals developed an innovative stone technology known as the Levallois technique. This involved making pre-shaped stone cores that could be finessed into a finished tool at a later time.
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It meant Neanderthals were free to travel away from sources of raw material and yet be able to make tools when needed. We know from injuries found on their prey - such as mammoths, bison and reindeer - that Neanderthals were proficient hunters, intelligent and able to communicate. Healed and unhealed bone damage found on Neanderthals themselves suggest they killed large animals at close range - a risky strategy that would have required considerable skill, strength and bravery. Neanderthals also developed the ability to make fire from at least , years ago.
They needed it to live in their very challenging environments. Because many Neanderthal fossils and artefacts have been found in caves, the species became synonymous with the idea of cavemen. But many early modern humans also lived in caves - some of the most famous examples being the original Cro-Magnon Man, found in France, and Cheddar Man , who was found in Gough's Cave and lived in Somerset around 10, years ago.
Archaeological evidence shows that some Neanderthals looked after their sick and buried their dead, which suggests they were social and even compassionate beings. Cast of a Neanderthal burial in Kebara Cave, Israel, from around 60, years ago. The position of the upper limbs suggests the body was deposited in the grave before rigor mortis set in. The head is absent.
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Some scientists believe it was removed after burial, but we don't know why. Prof Stringer says, 'So far, in my opinion, we don't have representational art from Neanderthal sites. But they did exhibit a degree of symbolism - they made jewellery. Some of this jewellery was apparently fashioned from eagle talons.
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The oldest examples are about , years old. A study published in Science in found evidence that some Palaeolithic artwork in Spain was made by Neanderthals, as they dated to a time long before modern humans were in the region. Created using red pigment, the Spanish cave paintings included hand stencils and geometric shapes. The Spanish cave art indicates that Neanderthals were in fact capable of symbolic or artistic expression.
Prof Stringer adds, 'They further narrow any perceived behavioural gap between the Neanderthals and us. However, there are still no clear examples of Neanderthals creating representational art copied from real sources such as animals or people. The typical image of Neanderthals is of highly carnivorous, ice-age hunters and scavengers who ate large mammals. However, food remains preserved in the calculus hardened tartar around their teeth show that the Neanderthal diet also included various plants, either collected directly or from eating the stomach contents of their plant-eating prey.
Neanderthals also ate fungi. In Gibraltar, they consumed mussels, young seals and perhaps also dolphin, though that meat may have been sourced from scavenged carcasses. Part of a seal jaw found in Vanguard cave in Gibraltar. Researchers found evidence - such as cutmarks from tools - that Neanderthals processed marine animals for food. Although Neanderthals were able to use fire, whether they regularly cooked their food is unclear.
It's very difficult to determine whether Neanderthals had spoken language as the tissue associated with the voice box doesn't preserve.
However, they did have a similar vocal anatomy and their ear bones suggest they had a similar range of hearing to us. The complexity of their social lives also suggests they must have been able to talk to each other, although their language may have been simpler than ours. The most recent fossil and archaeological evidence of Neanderthals is from about 40, years ago in Europe. After that point they appear to have gone physically extinct, although part of them lives on in the DNA of humans alive today.
The extinction of Homo neanderthalensis is a well-known fact, but why did this species disappear after having survived for more than , years? We don't yet know.