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How smart were the Neanderthals really?

How smart were the Neanderthals really?

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This is the question that experts have been trying to answer for decades and recent research has added to the growing opinion that Neanderthals were much smarter than we had previously given them credit for. Now a new investigation in France , which is due to be published in the Quaternary Science Review, has offered further clues that suggest Neanderthals were far from the primitive sub-human brutes they were once believed to be.

An international team of scientists from France, the US and Spain, conducted analyses on stone tools and other materials, such as wood fragments, which were recovered from an archaeological site known as Abri du Maras, in the Middle Rhône Valley in southeastern France.

Their analyses revealed cut marks on bones of a wide variety of mammals, fragments of bird feathers and fish scales, and plant fragments, which offers a fascinating insight into the diet of the Neanderthals. It shows that they didn’t only specialise in large game hunting, but exploited a wide range of resources including large mammals, fish, ducks, raptors, rabbits, mushrooms, and plants.

The researchers also found Levalloise flakes, which are associated with Neanderthal stone tool technology, traces of twisted fibre, suggesting the manufacture of cordage or string, and six lithic points that appear to be related to complex projectile technology, a development usually only associated with early modern humans.

“This evidence shows a level of behavioural variability that is often denied to Neanderthals,” said the study author. It shows that far from being behaviourally inflexible, the Neanderthals used a range of tools and resources to ensure their survival for thousands of years.

While it is still unclear what caused the eventual extinction of Neanderthals, scientists are at least able to rule out what did not cause their decline. The suggestion that Neanderthals were overtaken by modern humans due to their limited set of tools, techniques and resources is now an out-of-date perspective with no evidence to support it.

    Humans Were Not Smarter Than Neanderthals, We Simply Outlasted Them

    By the standards of the Paleolithic age, members of Homo neanderthalensis were the height of sophistication.

    These ancient hominins ranged across Europe and parts of Asia for more than 300,000 years, producing tools, jewelry and impressive cave creations. They cared for their sick and elderly. They perhaps even performed a primitive kind of dentistry.

    But then Homo sapiens showed up, and the Neanderthals disappeared. So what happened?

    For decades, modern human scientists assumed there must have been something wrong with the Neanderthals - or something right with us - that led to their extinction.

    Maybe H. neanderthalensis had bad genes that made the species more vulnerable to disease. Maybe the climate changed quickly and they couldn't adapt.

    Maybe modern humans were smarter, more innovative, better at coming up with new ways to control territory and secure food. Acres of ancient archaeological sites have been excavated and libraries of academic journals filled by scientists seeking an explanation.

    "It's like everyone is searching for 'just so' stories about why one species led the other to extinction," said Oren Kolodny, an evolutionary biologist at Stanford University.

    But Kolodny wondered: What if there is no "just so" explanation?

    In a paper published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, Kolodny and his colleague Marc Feldman test a more basic hypothesis - that the extinction of the Neanderthals was simply a consequence of population dynamics and bad timing.

    In most cases, it turned out, this was enough to account for the disappearance of our hominin cousins.

    Neanderthals first emerged in Europe around 400,000 years ago. After evolving in Africa, anatomically modern humans arrived in Europe.

    There was a brief period of time, between about 51,000 and 39,000 years ago, when H. neanderthalensis and H. sapiens shared the landscape - maybe fighting, and definitely interbreeding. But at the end of that era only one species was left standing.

    The speed of replacement led scientists to assume that modern humans had some selective advantage - a trait that made them and their offspring more evolutionarily successful than their cousins.

    Initially, Kolodny was interested in calculating the size of that advantage. To do so, he had to establish what's known as the "null hypothesis."

    "It's the simplest model that we can build without assuming any hard-to-prove claims, like selection or environmental change," Kolodny explained. In other words, "What do I expect would have happened by default?"

    Using what researchers already know about ancient hominin population sizes, migration patterns, and the way ecology works, Kolodny and Feldman built a simple computer model that would simulate Neanderthal and Homo sapiens interactions in Paleolithic Europe.

    At the start of the simulation, Europe is inhabited by "bands" of Neanderthals that randomly move around and die out. Every so often, a band of modern humans migrates out of Africa and joins the European fray.

    Bands from each species have equal likelihoods of displacing the other - neither one had an advantage from a natural selection perspective.

    Kolodny knew that one species had to go extinct at the end of each simulation. It's a basic principle of ecology: Two species cannot occupy the same niche at the same time.

    Sometimes, species will accommodate competition by developing some kind of specialty - for example, in parts of Israel where two similar species of normally nocturnal mice are found, one species adjusts by becoming active during the day.

    But hominins are generalists, not specialists, and at the time of Neanderthals' extinction, archaeological evidence suggests their abilities and behavior were pretty similar to ours.

    Kolodny and Feldman ran their simulation hundreds of thousands of times, changing the values for a number of different variables to reflect the uncertainty that scientists have about this period of human history.

    But in the vast majority of cases, under a wide range of parameters, the simulation ended with Neanderthals dying out within 12,000 years.

    They just couldn't keep up with the slow trickle of human bands that flowed continuously north from Africa.

    This result suggests that the "null hypothesis" - based solely on what we know about basic ecology principles and the gradual human migration into the continent - is sufficient to explain why the Neanderthals disappeared.

    It doesn't necessarily prove that humans didn't have a selective advantage, or that climate change didn't influence the Neanderthals' fate, Kolodny cautioned.

    "But even if there were no selection and no climate change, the end result would have been the same. It's a subtle distinction but it's important."

    Wil Roebroeks of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands told the Associated Press that this study fits with other research that aims to understand the Neanderthals' demise without suggesting humans had an evolutionary leg up on our cousins.

    It's common to think of evolution as a series of battles between species. How can you not, with terms like "survival of the fittest" and "evolutionary arms race" sprinkled throughout biology textbooks?

    But in nature, creatures aren't making strategic decisions to win an evolutionary war. They're just trying to ensure their own existence.

    The fates of individuals and of species are determined by chance - the gradual accumulation of a fluke of genetics, a quirk of timing, a lucky draw of the evolutionary cards.

    In the case of our species, modern humans happened to have the deck stacked in their favor.

    Kolodny likened this perspective to that of a football fan who, after watching her favorite team win the Super Bowl, finds out that the game had been rigged from the outset.

    It doesn't mean that her team didn't play well, but it should change how she feels about the game.

    "It's not that Neanderthals were these brutish, wide-shouldered, sort of advanced apes that roamed the land until we came over and beat them," Kolodny said. "It's more that it was a companion hominin species that was very similar to us."

    Indeed, it's conceivable that their fate could have been ours.

    2017 © The Washington Post

    This article was originally published by The Washington Post.

    Neanderthals weren’t just smart – they might have taught humans a thing or two

    Tom Higham, Professor of Archaeological Science at the University of Oxford and author of The World Before Us, explains the important exchanges, both cultural and genetic, that between us and Neanderthals.

    Published: 19th April, 2021 at 00:00

    In little more than a decade our understanding of the recent period of human evolution has been revolutionised. New excavations and the application of exciting scientific methods are yielding extraordinary insights to our ancient past and overturning previously-held truths.

    We now know that as recently as 40,000 years ago there may have been six or more different lineages of humans on Earth including Neanderthals, Denisovans, the “Hobbits” of Flores (Homo floresiensis), Homo luzonensis on the island of Luzon in the Philippines, in addition to us (Homo sapiens).

    We also know that we carry a genetic legacy from the period during which we overlapped with these lost cousins. And this genetic inheritance might have been one key to how we managed ultimately to become so successful and spread so widely across the planet.

    Our species, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa from around 300,000 years ago. Prior to 2010 the prevailing thought among scientists was that these people had very little, if any, contact with other now-extinct human relatives (the most well-known being the Neanderthals) as they left Africa and expanded outwards into Eurasia. Precisely when this happened is not known.

    I believe that there were several out of Africa movements, broadly between 160,000 and 60,000 years ago, but the most important for our story were the more recent. In some archaeological sites in Europe there is a gap between the latest Neanderthal archaeological layers and the start of subsequent layers containing evidence for early Homo sapiens. This suggested that perhaps in these regions the two groups might not have even met one another.

    Read more about Neanderthals:

    In 2010, however, scientists in Leipzig, Germany, announced that they had sequenced the majority of the Neanderthal genome. Analysis showed that human beings do inherit a small amount of Neanderthal DNA and that there had, in fact, been interbreeding between our two groups.

    This came as a great surprise to many at the time. The suggestion was made that the two groups may have met briefly, possibly somewhere in the Near East, with humans subsequently carrying low but similar levels of Neanderthal genetic ancestry to all parts of the world.

    A few years later, in 2014, my research group at the University of Oxford discovered that, in Europe, Neanderthals and Homo sapiens had actually overlapped with one another for a considerable time: up to 5,000 years, before Neanderthals disappeared about 40,000 years ago. The disappearance of Neanderthals was therefore a longer and more drawn-out process than previously thought.

    45,000 to 40,000 years ago, it seems, we were contemporaries and had ample time to meet and interact. New evidence I describe in my book The World Before Us suggests an even wider overlap, both in Europe and in other parts of Eurasia.

    Given this co-existence and the genetic exchange that occurred, could there also have been cultural exchange between the two groups? Many palaeoanthropologists thought for decades that if there was cultural exchange it was likely to be one way: from the supposedly superior Homo sapiens to the less capable Neanderthals.

    Recent work on the Neanderthals and their world has shown that, far from the backward cave dwellers widely popularised in the 19-20 th Century, they were a capable, often sophisticated group of hunter gatherers present for more than 250,000 years, surviving through periods of often significant variability in climate. Evidence is emerging that prior to the arrival of modern humans they were doing certain things that were considered previously to be the exclusive domain of us – Homo sapiens.

    Fascinating new evidence, for example, now suggests that Neanderthals might have been the first cave painters of Europe. We can date small concretions of calcium carbonate that have slowly grown over painted surfaces using traces of radioactive isotopes of uranium. Extremely old ages have been obtained, showing that some of the painted caves in Spain are more than 65,000 years old.

    This is a time when Neanderthals were the sole occupants of Europe. Archaeologists assumed for decades that all early art drawn on cave walls was produced by modern humans. These new results challenge that view.

    Similarly, we are also beginning to recognise evidence for Neanderthals behaving in other ways that we often term ‘behaviourally modern’ perhaps wearing ornaments made from eagle talons, decorating themselves with feathers, using mineral colourants and preparing skins probably for clothing using deliberately selected bone implements.

    I wonder whether we ought to look at the overlap period evident in the archaeological record as one where there might have been an exchange of ideas, creativity and technology between the two groups as they met and interacted, rather that this being one way as previously thought.

    Increasingly, we see evidence for periodic contact between these various groups, and for interbreeding between humans and others. Recent work that we published in April 2021 has shown that the genomes of the earliest modern humans in Eurasia often contain long chunks of Neanderthal DNA. This indicates that interbreeding between the two groups occurred sometimes only a few generations before that person lived, since the DNA has not been subsequently broken up into smaller blocks with succeeding modern human-only generations (this process is called ‘recombination’). It is an extraordinary thought that 20 per cent or more of the entire Neanderthal nuclear genome can be mapped from across the genomes of living people.

    Evidence is building that shows that the genetic variants we have inherited from these ancient liaisons – from Neanderthals but also from another group in eastern Eurasia called the Denisovans – have important implications for us today. These range from the positive (without Denisovan DNA Tibetans would not be able to live at altitude and New Guineans would not have the same levels of resistance to certain tropical diseases) to the less positive (genetic variants coding for type II diabetes, lupus and smoking addiction come from Neanderthals).

    It is becoming increasingly apparent that ‘hybridisation’ between different human groups may have been crucial as our ancestors moved into new and challenging environments. Through hybridisation we were able to gain some rapid genetic benefits from human lineages that had been occupying these regions for millennia before. These benefits, along with other behavioural and technological adaptations that we see in the archaeological record, helped Homo sapiens to become a highly successful ‘invasive species’, moving into all parts of the planet and adapting to life there.

    Why, then, did Neanderthals and other groups eventually disappear from the archaeological record? There are intriguing clues from demography mined from high coverage genetic analysis of human bones. DNA analysis of some late Neanderthals shows that they have long tracts of ‘homozygosity’, when one inherits two alleles on a gene locus that are identical in both parents suggesting that those parents must have been closely related.

    This, and other evidence from population genetics and archaeology, supports the idea that Neanderthals were probably living in small groups and in low numbers generally. It is quite likely that no more than 5,000 Neanderthals might have lived across Eurasia at any one time. This might have been a key difference compared with Homo sapiens.

    A slow trickle of newly arriving modern humans, without any substantial cognitive or behavioural advantage, might have been all that was required on the part of humans to consign Neanderthals to oblivion. Gradually we will also learn the fate of the other members of the wider human family that once lived on Earth and what role we had in their demise.

    We have always thought of ourselves as unique. It turns out that in evolutionary time this uniqueness did not exist until yesterday.

    Gap Between Neanderthals and Us Narrows, But Does Not Close

    Were the Neanderthals evolutionary also-rans—or just like modern humans?

    Neanderthals have traditionally been viewed as human evolution's also-rans. Yes, they had brains as big as ours, made fairly complex stone tools, and flourished across a huge expanse of Eurasia for nearly 300,000 years. But they vanished, while our ancestors not only survived but also took over the planet.

    This discrepancy has led scientists for decades to try to pinpoint what specific inadequacy led to the Neanderthal's demise—or, put the other way around, what special property it is that makes us fully human and them not quite . enough. Was it complex language that they lacked? Hunting prowess? The capacity to innovate?

    In a recent paper in the journal PLOS One, Paola Villa of the University of Colorado Museum in Boulder and Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University in the Netherlands review the archaeological evidence for these and other often-touted Neanderthal inferiorities. In every case, they find no evidence to support the contention that Neanderthals were any different than the modern human beings living in Africa and the Middle East at the same time. In Villa and Roebroeks' view, the Neanderthals never really went extinct at all. They are us—or at least they live on in the genomes of modern humans living outside Africa today. (See "Why Am I Neanderthal?")

    Is this the last word on a debate that has gone on for decades? Unlikely. We asked paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London for his take. Long a leading authority on Neanderthals and the origins of modern humans, Stringer's most recent book is Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth.

    Twenty years ago or so, the story of modern human origins seemed pretty simple: Homo sapiens arose in Africa and replaced everybody everywhere else including the Neanderthals, who went extinct. Can you briefly say what's changed to complicate that picture now?

    My version is that we had our origins in Africa maybe 150,000-200,000 years ago we came out of Africa about 60,000 years ago and replaced all the other groups living outside of Africa. Twenty years ago I would have said the interbreeding between us and them was insignificant. That was certainly wrong. We know now that there was interbreeding going on, at least on a small scale, not only between us and the Neanderthals, but also between us and the Denisovans, another form of archaic human known from DNA from a cave in Siberia. (Read "The Case of the Missing Ancestor" in National Geographic magazine.)

    Paolo Villa and Wil Roebroeks argue that the Neanderthals weren't so much replaced as absorbed into the larger modern human population. Would you agree?

    We know that the Neanderthals disappeared soon after modern humans came into western Europe over 40,000 years ago. We don't know exactly when the Denisovans disappeared, but after 40,000 years ago, only modern human fossils are known from eastern Asia. There was also a population of a very small human-like species on the island of Flores in Indonesia—often called "hobbits." It had been thought they were around until about 17,000 years ago, but unpublished evidence suggests they could have disappeared earlier, in which case the spread of modern humans might correlate with their demise.

    I think I see where this is leading.

    The common factor in all three disappearances is the arrival of modern humans. Villa and Roebroeks have been as fair as possible to the Neanderthals, and they've come to the conclusion that there were no strong behavioral differences between them and modern humans. But that isn't necessarily the whole story.

    Well, even small differences in behavior could have been significant under the stressful conditions that prevailed much of the time for Neanderthals. For instance, we know that modern people had eyed sewing needles in Europe 35,000 years ago. If you have something like that, you can make tailored clothing, or a tent covered with sewn hides, and you get better insulation. You can keep your babies warm more reliably, which is absolutely critical for the survival of the next generation. I'm sure the Neanderthals had some kind of clothing—it would have been essential in Ice Age Europe. But having a sewing needle could make a big difference.

    Neither the Neanderthals nor the moderns in Africa had representational art before 60,000 years ago, so if we take that as the basis of comparison, there's no difference. But look at the statuettes from [the early Upper Paleolithic] in Germany beginning 40,000 years ago. You've got humans, animals, mythological creatures that combine human and animal parts.

    So this would argue for a symbolic way of thinking that would express some behavioral advantage?

    It suggests a really complex way of thinking. Neanderthals were certainly intelligent, and technologically they were very well equipped. They could make resins for mounting points on handles, they buried their dead—they have that level of complexity. But representational art suggests for some people a whole spiritual and religious dimension.

    Then there's music. There is one flute that some researchers say is associated with Neanderthals from a site in Slovenia, but it's very disputed a number of people who studied it think it's a natural object with some holes in it made by bear teeth. But when you get to the sites in Germany, there are undoubted, complete flutes made from the wing bones of vultures and from mammoth ivory, several of them 35,000-40,000 years old.

    But when comparing Neanderthals to the modern humans around at the same time as they were, Villa and Roebroeks don't see any difference in symbolic behavior.

    To be fair, yes, we don't find flutes in Africa 60,000 years ago—and representational art, you can't find that either. I can see where they're coming from. And I agree with them that there is no one thing that led to our success and the Neanderthal's demise. In my earlier books, I took the view that there was a major behavioral gap between the Neanderthals and us. Recent evidence has considerably narrowed that gap—but I don't think it has completely closed.

    So why did they go extinct, if they were very much like us?

    Neanderthals disappeared at different times in different parts of Eurasia. The reasons why they disappeared from Britain could differ from the reasons why they disappeared in Gibraltar or the Middle East. People were looking for a single cause. It's got to be more complicated.

    You mentioned that conditions were very stressful for Neanderthals through much of their time. What role did climate play in their disappearance?

    We know that the climate was extremely unstable from about 70,000 years ago to about 12,000 years ago. Every few thousand years, the climate switched, often very rapidly. In northern Europe and Asia, at times it could change in less than ten years from being almost as warm as the present day, to being so cold there would be icebergs floating in the Mediterranean Sea. Imagine in the lifetime of a Neanderthal in Europe, or a Denisovan over in Siberia, suddenly everything you're familiar with, all the animals and plants—they're all gone. Lots of those populations of humans are going to die out they can't adapt to such rapidly changing conditions.

    Wouldn't that apply to modern humans as well?

    Modern humans suffered too. They also seem to disappear if it's extremely cold. But their overall population history is quite different.

    The genetic evidence suggests that half a million years ago, the Neanderthals, Denisovans, and modern humans had the same effective population size: They were all a single population, which I think of as belonging to the species Homo heidelbergensis. Through time, it split into three distinct populations: In western Europe and Asia it became the Neanderthals, in east Asia the Denisovans, and in Africa it became us, Homo sapiens.

    The genetic data suggests that the Neanderthal and Denisovan population numbers sank steadily until they go extinct some 50,000 years ago. There was never a long-enough period of stability for them to build their numbers up to a large size. Whereas in Africa, the modern humans' numbers are maintained, even for a while increasing. If temperatures drop 5-10 degrees in Africa, you're not going to die there may be changes in rainfall and desert and forest and so forth, but that temperature drop probably won't kill you.

    In Britain, or Siberia, these populations were constantly under pressure. When it was really cold, they were surviving in pockets in the south—in the Iberian Peninsula, the Italian peninsula, the Balkans, maybe in India and Southeast Asia. All the area to the north would empty of people. Then when it warms up, people would start to expand north and grow their numbers. But often they only had 3,000 years before the temperature dropped all the way back again. So I think it is the climate that was shutting down the diversity of those populations they couldn't maintain large numbers because of the climate wearing them down.

    So it wasn't that the Neanderthals and Denisovans were cognitively disadvantaged. They just had a harder row to hoe.

    Keeping your numbers low is bad news for cultural diversity as well. Think about modern populations today: There are so many of us, we are so well networked and have so many ways of storing information, that when something innovative appears, it takes root and gets built upon. But go back 50,000 or 100,000 years and it simply wasn't like that. You have small groups of people at times isolated from each other. That was certainly true of the Neanderthals. They lived in small groups and were not well networked. Under those circumstances, when your population crashes, you can lose cultural information. (See "Neanderthals Lived in Small, Isolated Populations, Gene Analysis Shows.")

    Imagine a tribe of 30 Neanderthals, and there are two or three people who are specialists in making fire. Imagine a disease hits, or there's an accident, and those three firemakers die. Now no one in the group knows how to make fire. So until the group can reconnect to another Neanderthal group, they've lost that knowledge. We see this in the modern hunter-gatherer groups who at times lose the knowledge of making fire at will, or the knowledge of making boats. As Villa and Roebroeks are arguing, it's not necessarily that the Neanderthals were stupid. They had the dice weighted against them.

    What do you think happened when Neanderthals and modern humans met?

    My model is that modern humans came out of Africa 60,000 years ago and moved very quickly into the territory of the Neanderthals, later into the territory of the Denisovans, and soon after that into the territory of the "hobbits." Within 20,000 years, as far as we can tell, those other populations have gone, all of them. Modern humans moving into those areas would be hitting the same environment, gathering the same plants, wanting to live in the best sites. There would have been economic competition.

    But the genetic evidence clearly shows that these groups were interbreeding with each other. Doesn't that suggest they weren't outcompeted as much as assimilated?

    Obviously there was some interbreeding, or we wouldn't have that ancient DNA showing up in people outside Africa today. But the amount is quite low, [at] about 2 percent of Neanderthal DNA and about 4 to 5 percent Denisovan DNA in people living today in Australia, New Guinea, and nearby. But that amount could have come from just a few interbreeding events. It doesn't have to be widespread interbreeding over the whole range you can argue that there's no evidence of any interbreeding in western Europe at all.

    What do you think accounts for our unending fascination with Neanderthals?

    It's this whole question of having a population of humans that are in some ways like us, and yet so different—and the fact that they died out and we're still here. And of course the fascination of the last five years is that they didn't go 100 percent extinct, because we've all got a little bit of them inside us.

    You've been immersed in the study of Neanderthals your entire career. If you were able to go back and meet one, what would you most like to ask him?

    I'd ask him to tell me a story, and I'd see how complex that story was. Because obviously, one of the unknowns is how similar their minds were to ours. Villa and Roebroeks aren't alone in saying there's no evidence that their minds were any different from ours. But I'm not sure. I'm sure they had speech and language, but I'm guessing it was much more a language for the here and now, a more practical language for survival. I doubt they would have expressed complicated things like, "Well, what if I did this differently, what then would happen?" The kind of hypothetical reasoning that leads to modern inventions. Maybe Neanderthals didn't have so much of that.

    I might also ask the Neanderthal if he had ever seen those funny people with those high foreheads and dark skin—our modern human ancestors—and if he had, what did he think? Would he fancy one as a partner?

    The Neandertals are not mysterious, but rather incredibly intriguing. We view them as the fully human ancestors of some modern humans, probably some Europeans and western Asians. They were a post-Flood, Ice Age people, specializing in hunting the large, grazing animals that were abundant towards the end of the Ice Age.

    Scientists discover Neanderthals are “like us” wearing jewelry, playing musical instruments, etc. – probably because they were human as the Bible suggests.

    New research overturns decades of media propaganda about Neanderthals - instead of being primitive brutes, Neanderthal children acted just like us.

    The Neandertals are not mysterious, but rather incredibly intriguing. We view them as the fully human ancestors of some modern humans, probably some Europeans and western Asians. They were a post-Flood, Ice Age people, specializing in hunting the large, grazing animals that were abundant towards the end of the Ice Age.

    Scientists discover Neanderthals are “like us” wearing jewelry, playing musical instruments, etc. – probably because they were human as the Bible suggests.

    New research overturns decades of media propaganda about Neanderthals - instead of being primitive brutes, Neanderthal children acted just like us.

    6 They Were Almost Called Homo Stupidus

    The first Neanderthal fossil (that was recognized to be an early human) was discovered in the Neander Thal (&ldquoNeander Valley&rdquo) in Germany in 1856. Neander Thal was named after Joachim Neumann, a 17th-century German minister who often roamed the valley. Neumann also wrote hymns, which he published under the pseudonym &ldquoNeander,&rdquo the Greek translation of Neumann (as in &ldquonew man&rdquo).

    &ldquoNeander&rdquo and &ldquothal&rdquo were soon slurred together to create the name &ldquoNeanderthal.&rdquo In 1904, the &ldquoh&rdquo was removed from &ldquothal&rdquo because German does not have a &ldquoth&rdquo sound. However, some languages stuck with the &ldquoth,&rdquo creating a variant spelling of the name.

    In 1864, William King suggested that the new human species be named Homo neanderthalensis, after the Neander Valley in which the fossil was found. Two years later, Ernst Haeckel suggested that we call the new human species Homo stupidus (&ldquothe stupid man&rdquo). Fortunately for the Neanderthals, King&rsquos name was chosen because he proposed it first.

    It is no surprise that Ernst suggested the name Homo stupidus for Neanderthals. We had poor knowledge of Neanderthals at the time&mdashand probably still do now. Most people thought they were dumb creatures that couldn&rsquot draw or use tools. [5]

    However, we now know Neanderthals could draw and use tools. They were also effective hunters, cared for their sick and elderly, and probably spoke some language. Neanderthals were just like Homo sapiens in many ways.


    Research on Neanderthal genetics and its relation to that of modern humans moved rapidly during the early 21st century, especially following the publication of the complete Neanderthal nuclear genetic sequence in 2010. Comparisons of modern human and ancient Neanderthal DNA suggested that some Neanderthals may have had pale skin and red hair. Genetic evidence taken from sites with the remains of multiple individuals pointed to Neanderthals living in small isolated close-knit extended families. In these family groups, the males were closely related, which suggests that these groups were possibly patrilocal that is, females settled with the males’ relatives.

    Ancient DNA recovered from Denisova Cave (Aju-Tasch) in the Altai Mountains of Siberia revealed a population distinct from Neanderthals and modern humans. Provocatively, even older Neanderthal DNA was also recovered from the site, which suggests that Neanderthals expanded eastward into Siberia. The Neanderthals and the “ Denisovans” are more closely related to each other than either group is to modern humans. However, Denisovan genomic material is particularly well represented (approximately 5 percent) in samples taken from modern human populations from Oceania, including Papua New Guinea and Australia. Neanderthal DNA occurs at higher frequencies in Eurasia. Indeed, Neanderthal DNA makes up 1–4 percent of the gene pool of Eurasian populations. Among those populations, Neanderthals contributed more DNA to East Asians than to Europeans.

    The oldest fossil evidence placing Neanderthals and modern humans in the same location is a human skull dated to 55,000 years ago that was discovered in a cave in western Galilee, Israel. Neanderthals were known to have inhabited the southern Levant during that time, and the discovery suggests that Neanderthals and modern humans may have first encountered one another then.

    Modern humans from Eurasia and Neanderthals apparently mated on subsequent occasions. Mating may have occurred both before and after some of the ancestors of Europeans and East Asians separated from one another. One example of Neanderthal–modern human hybridization may involve the earliest known modern human in Europe, whose remains were found at Peștera cu Oase, Romania. The remains, dated to 34,000–36,000 years ago, have craniofacial similarities to both modern humans and Neanderthals. Clues found in genetic material suggested that one of the individual’s great-great-grandparents could be characterized as Neanderthal-like, although the genes of this individual were not typical of human populations living today.

    Some of the genes shared by Neanderthals and modern humans are involved in immune response. A region of the human X chromosome known as dys44 (part of the dystrophin gene) also occurred in Neanderthals, and it is present in 9 percent of all modern human populations outside Africa. This region also contains the haplotype—that is, a set of alleles occurring on a single chromosome that tend to be inherited together—called B006, which was traced to interbreeding of Neanderthals with modern humans between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago. Other genes inherited from Neanderthals may relate to skin complexion, particularly in East Asians. Deleterious genes also may have been introduced, such as those increasing the risk of acquiring type 2 diabetes under a typical Western dietary regimen.

    How different could they be?

    Neanderthals looked different, behaved differently, even spoke differently. To start with, the differences in build between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals were drastic. You might think of all early humans as looking like cavemen, but Neanderthals weren't that far off. They were shorter and stockier than Homo sapiens. As Discover Magazine explains, they were thicker. Body, muscles, bones, everything. Homo sapiens were taller and thinner because they were built to run — chasing down food and escaping from trouble. Neanderthals simply gave both predators and prey a serious beat-down. They were built to hide in the bushes and ambush their food. It sounds insane, but Smithsonian reports that they regularly took down woolly rhinos at close quarters with spears, hunting in groups, not individually.

    You'd recognize a Neanderthal distinct features right away. Their noses were broad, with flared nostrils, which some scientists believe was beneficial since they tended to live in colder climates — Think northern Europe, as compared to northern Africa. Along with the nose, they had weak chins and huge brow ridges. You're not swiping right if you see a Neanderthal on Tinder, that's for sure.

    Body Size and Brain Shape

    So we know Neanderthals had similar-sized, if not bigger, brains. But their brains could have been organized or proportioned differently, resulting in important cognitive differences. Because Neanderthals had more massive bodies, they may have needed more brain volume for basic somatic maintenance — leaving less brain matter for other functions.

    Some scientists also suggest that Neanderthals had relatively better vision. In a 2013 study , researchers estimated visual cortex volume based on the size of orbits, or the holes in skulls for eyes. Neanderthals had bigger orbits, implying larger visual cortices and better vision, which may have been an adaptation for higher latitudes, with less light (although it’s questionable whether orbital size is a reliable indicator of visual cortex volume in humans).

    And what did Homo sapiens do with our extra brain space? Some researchers have argued modern humans had larger cerebellums , making us better at information processing. Others have suggested we prioritized smell: Modern human brains had relatively large olfaction regions according to a 2011 study in Nature Communications , which compared the internal base of skulls. The authors propose that heightened sense of smell would have been beneficial for subconsciously identifying safe foods or detecting social information (like who is kin, angry or a suitable mate).

    I know you’re thinking, “I’d take vision over smell any day.” That’s my reaction too. What matters here is this: We don’t know if this difference played any role in the success of modern humans and the extinction of Neanderthals. But identifying any such differences — in brains, bodies or culture — gives us a starting point for understanding what gave our species an evolutionary edge.