Who were the Neanderthals?

Neanderthals were our closest relatives, we share 99.7% of their DNA. They lived 200,000 to 30,000 years ago, when they eventually became extinct.

Neanderthals are our closest extinct human relatives, we share 99.7% of their DNA. They lived in Eurasia 200,000 to 30,000 years ago, when they eventually became extinct.

Neanderthal’s have previously been thought of as brutish cavemen with low-intelligence, however, scientific research has shown a more accurate picture. Evidence has shown that they used tools, controlled fire, deliberately buried their dead and occasionally marked their graves with offerings, such as flowers – no other primates or other earlier human species had demonstrated this behaviour.

The first Neanderthal fossil was discovered in 1829, however, it was not recognised as a human ancestor until future discoveries. In 1856, a group of men working in a quarry in the Neander Valley near Dusseldorf Germany, discovered remnants of a skeleton, and these got passed onto scientists who had never seen a specimen like it before. They found 16 bones, including an oval shaped skull with a low, receding forehead and distinct brow ridges.

There is some debate as to whether they should be classified as Homo neanderthalansis or Homo sapiens neanderthalensis – a subspecies of Homo sapiens.

Compared to modern humans, their bodies were shorter and stockier than ours, and their facial features were distinctively different, such as their angled cheek bones, wide noses, and prominent brow ridges. Their short and stocky build was an evolutionary adaption for cold temperatures, and it is suggested that their wide nose helped humidify and warm cold air. However, their brains grew at a similar rate to modern humans, and were about the same size or larger. It was originally thought that Neanderthals grew up faster than modern humans, reaching adulthood sooner and dying younger, similar to chimpanzees.

Christoph Zollikofer of the University of Zurich in Switzerland said:

""It's the old saying, 'live fast, die young’. It was thought that this was the primitive way, and that modern humans were further evolved into a slow life history, living a longer lifespan. Our major conclusion is there was no real difference between Neanderthal and modern human life history — they were equally slow."

Neanderthals lived for hundreds of thousands of years in extremely harsh conditions. Compared to early humans living in Africa who had access to edible plant foods, Neanderthals were living in extreme cold climates, forcing them to hunt for meat as a food option. Scientists have uncovered sharp wooden spears and large numbers of big game remains that were hunted by Neanderthals. Although research has shown Neanderthal’s diet consisted of lots of meat, scientists have also found plaque on the remains of their molar teeth containing starch grains, which suggests that they ate plants.

Fossil evidence suggests that Neanderthals evolved in Europe, separately to modern humans in Africa. Like modern humans, Neanderthals originated in Africa but migrated to Eurasia long before humans did.

One of the most commonly debated aspect of Neanderthal life is whether or not they interbred with modern humans. There are a range of conflicting opinions on this topic, some believe that they definitely interbred whilst others don’t believe that they even existed at the same time. However, a study in 2010 shows that modern humans share 99.7% of their DNA with Neanderthals. The Neanderthal Genome Project found that 1-3% of the average non-African human’s genome is made up of Neanderthal DNA. The average modern African has no Neanderthal DNA. This suggests that the first opportunity for interbreeding was after modern human had left Africa.

It also not known for sure why Neanderthals became extinct, there are several theories surrounding this. They disappeared around the same time that modern humans arrived in Europe, which leads many to suspect the two events are closely related, and that modern humans contributed to their extinction, either by outcompeting them for resources or through direct conflict. Another theory is that Neanderthal reproductive success and survival rates were poor compared to humans. Others believe that the extinction of Neanderthals is a result of abrupt climate changes.