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Neanderthals: Facts About Our Extinct Human Relatives

an illustration of a Neanderthal family
Modern North Africans carry genetic traces from Neanderthals, suggesting their ancestors, too, interbred with humanity's closest known extinct relatives, report scientists online Oct. 17, 2012, in the journal PLoS One.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Neanderthals (or Neandertals) are our closest extinct human relatives. There is some debate as to whether they were a distinct species of the Homo genus (Homo neanderthalensis) or a subspecies of Homo sapiens. Our well-known, but often misunderstood, fossil kin lived in Eurasia 200,000 to 30,000 years ago, in the Pleistocene Epoch.

Neanderthals’ appearance was similar to ours, though they were shorter and stockier with angled cheekbones, prominent brow ridges, and wide noses. Though sometimes thought of as dumb brutes, scientists have discovered that they used tools, buried their dead and controlled fire, among other intelligent behaviors. It is theorized that for a time, Neanderthals, humans and probably other Homo species shared the Earth.

Discovery

In 1856, a group of quarrymen discovered remnants of a skeleton in the Neander Valley near Dusseldorf, Germany (hence their name). In a limestone cave, they found 16 pieces of bone, including a skull. Thinking the bones belonged to a bear, the quarrymen gave them to local teacher Johan Karl Fuhlrott. From him, the bones found their way to scientists, and it was eventually determined that they were ancient human relatives. The publication and popularization of Charles Darwin’s "The Origin of the Species" in 1859 helped inform the discovery. Since that day in the Neander Valley, more than 400 Neanderthal bones have been found.

The original cave men

Neanderthals lived during the Ice Age. They often took shelter from the ice, snow, and otherwise unpleasant weather in Eurasia’s plentiful limestone caves. Many of their fossils have been found in caves, leading to the popular idea of them as “cave men.”

Like humans, Neanderthals originated in Africa but migrated to Eurasia long before humans did. Neanderthals lived across Eurasia, as far north and west as the Britain, through part of the Middle East, to Uzbekistan. Popular estimates put the peak Neanderthal population around 70,000, though some scientists put the number drastically lower, at around 3,500 females.

artist depiction of a neanderthal
While humans may have interbred with Neanderthals long ago, the pairing probably only rarely produced offspring.
Credit: Mauro Cutrona

Their short, stocky stature was an evolutionary adaptation for cold weather, since it consolidated heat. According to the Smithsonian Institution, the wide nose helped humidify and warm cold air, though this assertion is debated. The American Museum of Natural History states that other differences from humans are a flaring, funnel-shaped chest, a flaring pelvis, and robust fingers and toes. Their brains, however, grew at a similar rate to humans’ and were about the same size or larger. Approximately 1 percent of Neanderthals had red hair, light skin, and maybe even freckles.

For a long time, scientists and anthropologists theorized that Neanderthals grew up faster than humans, reaching maturity sooner and dying younger, as chimps do. In 2008, however, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published evidence that humans and Neanderthals matured at the same rate.

Social structure

Neanderthals lived in nuclear families. Discoveries of elderly or deformed Neanderthal skeletons suggest that they took care of their sick and those who could not care for themselves. Neanderthals typically lived to be about 30 years old, though some lived longer. It is accepted that Neanderthals buried their dead, though whether or not they left carved bone shards as grave goods is more controversial.

It is not known if they had language, though the large size and complex nature of their brains make it a likely possibility.

Neanderthals used stone tools similar to and no more sophisticated than the ones used by early humans, including blades and scrapers made from stone flakes. As time went on, they created tools of greater complexity, utilizing materials like bones and antlers. Evan Hadingham of PBS’s NOVA even reports that Neanderthals used a type of glue, and later pitch, to attach stone tips to wooden shafts, creating formidable hunting spears.

Neanderthals had some control of fire, and it is even theorized that they built boats and sailed on the Mediterranean.

Neanderthals were primarily carnivorous, and the harsh climate caused them to resort occasionally to cannibalism. Recently, however, scientists have found that Neanderthals actually ate cooked vegetables fairly regularly.

 

Human-Neanderthal interbreeding

Probably the most debated aspect of Neanderthal life in recent years is whether or not they interbred with humans. The answer remains ambiguous, with scholarly opinions ranging from belief that they definitely interbred to belief that the two groups didn’t exist on earth at the same time.

Neanderthal expert Erik Trinhaus has long promoted the interbreeding hypothesis, but the theory really caught fire when a 2010 study published in Science magazine determined that Neanderthal DNA is 99.7 percent identical to modern human DNA (a chimp’s is 99.8 percent identical). Researchers of the Neanderthal Genome Projectfound that 2.5 percent of an average non-African human’s genome is made up of Neanderthal DNA. The average modern African has no Neanderthal DNA. This information could support the interbreeding hypothesis because it suggests that humans and Neanderthals only bred once humans had moved out of Africa, into Eurasia. They could have interbred as recently as 37,000 years ago.

A 2012 study led by Dr. Rachel Wood, however, cast doubt on that theory. Researchers re-examined bones from southern Spain that were used in earlier studies with new radiocarbon dating techniques. They discovered that the Neanderthal bones were more than 50,000 years old. Humans aren’t believed to have settled in the area until 42,000 years ago, meaning that it may be unlikely that they lived together and interbred.

If humans and Neanderthals didn’t interbreed, the similar genomes of humans and Neanderthals could be the result of both groups having a common African ancestor.

Extinction

No one knows exactly why Neanderthals went extinct and why humans survived. Some scholars theorize that gradual or dramatic climate change led them to their demise, while others blame dietary deficiencies. Some theorize that humans killed the Neanderthals. Until recently the hypothesis that Neanderthals didn’t go extinct but simply interbred with humans until they were absorbed into our species was popular.

Comparison between Neanderthal and modern human skeletons. Photo: K. Mowbray, Reconstruction: G. Sawyer and B. Maley, Copyright: Ian Tattersall

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