Who Were the Neanderthals?
We walk the prehistoric environments of Europe. We make our homes in caves or tents, often moving with herds and the season. We gather around the fires, telling stories, praying, and making tools. We hunt and gather, experimenting with the fear of the unknown in order to survive.
We will ultimately survive nearly 300,000 years on this Earth. We will encounter you, unsure of why you look different from us but act in similar manners. We may not be able to communicate with you in our language, and we may be hostile to one another. In other cases, we may work together to survive - seeking the same shelters or hunting the same herds. Thousands upon thousands of years from now, you will stand over our bones, staring at us as if we were just another animal.
But we are not. We are a part of you, of your history. We may even be part of your blood, though that has not yet been proven true. We will influence your ancestors, and watch them as they begin to dominate this vast terrain. One day, perhaps you will see that we are not so different. We live - loving, hurting, surviving, and dying together. We fear the unknown, the power of the elements and the vast uncertainty of life after this one. One day, perhaps you will stare at our skulls and know that although evolution would not permit our people to survive, we are more than dumb cave people.
We are Homo neanderthalensis: Neanderthals.
The Facts of Life
Neanderthals appeared in Europe around 200,000 years ago, co-inhabiting the planet with prehistoric humans until about 30,000 years ago.
The first Neanderthal remains were found in 1856 in the Neander Valley near Dusseldorf, Germany, which gave the bones the name "Neanderthal." Similar fossils have been found in Belgium, Yugoslavia, France, southwestern Asia (Israel and Iraq), and central Asia. It is likely that the Neanderthals developed wherever its ancestor, H. heidelbergensis, lived: mostly Africa. Neanderthals spread throughout Southwestern Asia, Central Asia, and Europe by the time of their extinction.
Neanderthals are similar to human beings (Homo sapiens) in structure and capabilities. However, they have much larger brains than human beings, with a cranial capacity greater than 1450 cc, which extended their range of capabilities far beyond humans of the time. Interpretation of fossils has also indicted that Neanderthals' bodies were used very strenuously - perhaps hiking long distances, lifting heavy materials or animal carcasses, and being capable of wrestling with the giants beasts of the time.
In 1997, DNA was extracted from an 1856 specimen of Homo neanderthalensis. This DNA came from the mitochondria of the individual, rather than the nuclear DNA that is generally used. However, since the only source of change in mitochondrial DNA ("mtDNA") is random mutation, which occurs at a fairly constant rate of 2% every 1 million years, scientists believe this type of DNA to be a reliable source for study.
Studies of this DNA have shown that there are approximately 25 differences between modern humans and Neanderthals, suggesting that the two species separated on the human family tree about 600,00 years ago. This is consistent with other fossil evidence that points to H. heidelbergensis as our common ancestor with Neanderthals, meaning that we co-existed with them for quite a long time.
However, theories about human and Neanderthal DNA mixing through interbreeding are still debated. There is increasing evidence that we likely interbred with Neanderthals, as shown in the TED video featured to your right. Yet this debate remains at the forefront of news about Neanderthals, as seen in this TIME magazine article. Another interesting article can be found from NPR regarding 2010 discoveries in the DNA of Neanderthals.
Neanderthals lived during a time period known as the "Middle Paleolithic," which is also known as the "Middle Stone Age."
The Middle Paleolithic is characterized by varied environments, from richer resources and tundra-like conditions in Europe to the savanna and semi-arid deserts of Africa. Food often varied with the environment. In Europe, evidence suggests that Neanderthals hunted reindeer, bison, wild oxen, horses, mammoths, rhinos, deer, bear, wolves, foxes, birds, and fish. In Africa, they hunted antelope, eland, and buffalo while collecting shellfish at the Klasies River in South Africa.
Two tool assemblages characterize the Middle Paleolithic. First, the Mousterian tools found in Europe and the Near East are large core tools and smaller tools formed by flaking the rock (hitting two rocks together to shape the tool). These tools are believed to have been used for scraping hides (to make clothing), working wood, and could be attached to shafts of wood to form spears and other weapons. Second, the Post-Acheulian tools in Africa were struck off prepared cores, knocking off flakes of predetermined and standard sizes to form the tools. There are various types of tools, most of which have been found around the Klasies River and southern coast of Africa. The oldest of these tools may date to 120,000 years ago, when it is believed that some smaller bands of Neanderthals, as well as bands of modern humans, inhabited the region.
Neanderthals made their homes in caves and rock shelters, though this may be overrepresented as permanent structures like caves are more likely to survive the test of time than open shelters such as tents (which may now lie hidden beneath the city streets and farmlands of Europe). There is evidence that Neanderthals returned to these sites year after year - possibly moving due to seasonal changes or herd migrations. Neanderthals seem to have made extensive use of fire, as layers of thick ash and evidence of hearths are typically found in rock shelters.
Beyond the basics, there is some evidence that Neanderthals had the finer things in life of the time: religion and its accompanying rituals. Evidence of deliberate burials has been found at several sites, include a 16-year-old boy buried at Le Moustier with fashioned stone axes near his hands, five children and two adults interred together in a plot at La Ferrassie, and pollen in and around a man's body at the Shanidar cave in Iraq (which suggests the use of flowers in the burial). Additionally, a stone-lined pit with the stacked skulls of seven cave bears was found at Drachenloch in the Swiss Alps. Given that cave bears were nearly nine feet tall, it is believed that the skulls may be part of a religious honoring or appeasing of the cave bears' spirits.
What happened to them?
There are three primary theories as to why Neanderthals disappeared from the fossil record.
First, some believe that Neanderthals and humans interbred over time, leading to the eventual disappearance of Neanderthals. While this is one of the more probable theories, there is very little evidence to support "hybrids" of the two species and no known artifacts support co-habitation. The debate over this theory continues today.
Second, others believe that modern humans may have killed off Neanderthals in a paleolithic genocide. Againt, there is little to no evidence to support this theory, as no "murdered" Neanderthal has been found to date. Also, the advanced physical strength of Neanderthals, as compared to the more gracile humans of the time, would suggest that any genocide would have been short-lived.
Finally, it is generally believed that as the climate changed and modern humans became more populous, moving into regions occupied by the Neanderthals, that competition for resources would have driven the Neanderthals to extinction. Much like what occurs with other species who are forcibly pushed from their homes or face new threats from invading species, Neanderthals' food supply, homes, and other resources would have been in-demand by the intruding modern humans, pushing Neanderthals into Western Europe. With smaller populations, less efficiency as hunters and gatherers, the need for more calories per day than modern humans, and perhaps a non-confrontational attitude (as there is little evidence of any confrontation between the two), it is most plausible that Neanderthals simply "disappeared" over time.
This third theory is substantially backed by fossil evidence. Most findings indicate that humans slowly pushed Neanderthals into the Iberian peninsula (where Spain is currently located), as this is where the most recent Neanderthal fossils have been found. It is likely that such Neanderthals were like "refugee" populations, retreating from the increased competition over resources until, eventually, there was nowhere to go and they died out.
Questions & Answers
There is always the comparison of "Modern" Humans and Neanderthals. But would there as great of a difference in say, height between the two at the time? Many statements talk about how muscular they were, but are "Modern" humans not evolving towards being faster and stronger? Could the small gift of DNA Modern humans carry from Neanderthals, be a special extra boost or push up the evolutionary ladder which saved us from extinction as well?
That’s an interesting question, and one I don’t have a particular answer for. It would take some serious DNA studies to discuss whether height or whether Neanderthal DNA in modern humans gives us any evolutionary advantage. The discussions on “muscular” Neanderthals are more geared towards pointing out that, physically, they were much more like the great apes - their physical strength was far greater than other humans of the same time. Whether this strength has, through DNA, played a part in our modern evolution is difficult to determine - firstly because we are not always able to point out exactly what parts of DNA come from Neanderthals, but also because over the millennia since Neanderthals, our genes have mutated independently.Helpful 5