An artist's depiction of a Neanderthal family.
Few extinct creatures have permeated popular culture as thoroughly as Neanderthals, whose name has become synonymous with primitive behavior. But they may actually have been the most advanced group of primates besides modern humans, and despite their stocky bodies and thick skulls, may have possessed intelligence almost on par with ours.
Neanderthals, like modern humans, belong to the group of primates that scientists classify as the genus Homo. They lived in Europe, the Middle East and parts of western Asia from about 500,000 years ago to as recently as 30,000 years ago, said Will Harcourt-Smith, a paleoanthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History. Anatomically, Neanderthals were shorter than modern humans, with thicker bones, more steeply-sloped foreheads and heavier brow ridges. Essentially, they looked like cartoon cavemen .
They're the quintessential caveman. They're what we see with the Geico caveman, Harcourt-Smith told Life's Little Mysteries. They were the first fossil member of our lineage to be found. We used to think we were descended from them, but we now think that they're another lineage that died out."
Like two branches growing from the same tree, Neanderthals and modern humans both descended from a single ancestral species . This ancestral species split into two groups about a million years ago, Harcourt-Smith said. Evidence shows that one group migrated from Africa to Europe just as an ice age began. In Europe, over time, they evolved adaptations to living in a freezing environment, and became what we now call Homo neanderthalis. Neanderthal's large noses and bulky physique were adaptations to the cold.
Discoveries from Neanderthal living sites show they displayed rudiments of some of the same behaviors that made modern humans so successful complex tool use, abstract thought, and speech. They buried their dead, and may have even manufactured primitive art objects, Harcourt-Smith said.
I think they would have been pretty smart. They are making very good stone tools, and adapting to a very harsh environment. And rudiments of symbolic thought? Why not? They're getting close to modern humans, but they're just not quite there, Harcourt-Smith said.
Unfortunately for the Neanderthals, an even more intelligent and adaptable species arrived in Europe around 30,000 years ago. These newcomers were the descendents of the group that had remained in Africa after the Neaderthals left, and the ancestors of modern humans. Evidence shows that they used their superior intellect to out-compete Neanderthals for the Ice Age's scant resources, and eventually drove them to extinction.