The Neanderthals: The History Of The Mysterious Ancient Archaic Humans

The Neanderthals are one of the great mysteries of the human past. After almost a century and a half of discovery, analysis, and debate, they remain an enigma. They are very close to us in many respects, but yet very distant.

Neanderthals are an extinct species or subspecies of archaic humans who lived in Eurasia until about 40,000 years ago
Neanderthals are an extinct species or subspecies of archaic humans who lived until about 40,000 years ago

The Neanderthals are the last of our fossil ancestors to walk the earth and are probably not true ancestors but actually evolutionary cousins who shared the planet with modern humans for more than 100,000 years. They seem to have been an alternative form of humankind - a variant of ourselves who possessed most of our traits but differed from us in some significant ways. Around 40,000 years ago they vanished rather suddenly, and under suspicious circumstances.

Neanderthal Origins

In order to understand how the Neanderthals fit into the story of human evolution, we must travel back to between 6 and 10 million years ago. It is at this time that the earliest forms of humans (australopithecines) emerged in Africa, apparently in response to the shrinkage of tropical forests and the corresponding growth of open landscapes. The earliest humans developed a trait that not only set them apart from their ancestral apes but from most other mammals: the ability to walk upright on two legs. It is still not clear what advantages australopithecines had, but by freeing the forelimbs for the making and using of tools, it set the stage for the next critical evolutionary step.

Slightly more than 2 million years ago the earliest members of the genus Homo appeared; they were the first humans to exhibit a pronounced increase in brain size and the first to manufacture stone tools. Once again, the causes of these developments remain unclear, but their consequences were dramatic; within a relatively brief period of time, the toolmakers had expanded out of Africa across the southern half of Eurasia. Early Homo remains from Indonesia and southern China have recently been dated to between 1.7 and 2 million years ago.

By one million years ago populations of Homo had begun to move northward into cooler landscapes, as revealed by recent discoveries from Spain and the southern slope of the Caucasus Mountains. These were the first early humans to invade regions as far north as the city of Madrid; by half a million years ago, they had reached central Europe. As in the case of the expansion across northern landscapes is associated with evolutionary change. During this period we see further increases in brain size that mark the gradual emergence of our own species Homo sapiens. It is from the archaic forms of Homo sapiens that both the Neanderthals and ourselves evolved.

The first human population to spread into northern Eurasia faced several new challenges to survival that seem to have been overcome through various behavioral and technological means (which may be related to the increases in brain size). Unfortunately, human skeletal remains and archeological sites from this time range are rare, and there is limited information available for reconstructing their way of life. Control of fire was probably essential for coping with colder temperatures of northern latitudes, and the oldest convincing traces of hearths have been found at sites in north China and central Europe dated to 500,000-350,000 years ago. The reduced abundance of edible plant foods must have required a greater reliance on animal foods, although microscopic analysis of the teeth in a 500,000-year-old jaw from Germany revealed the severe wear of heavy plant food consumption. Evidence of big game hunting is scarce; most meat may have been scavenged from carcasses scattered across the landscape.

Within this broader picture of northern adaptation, the Neanderthals emerged as distinct human form roughly 200,000 years ago in Europe. As in the case of the appearance of the earliest Homo sapiens, the transition was a gradual one, and many of the characteristic Neanderthal traits evolved over a long period of time. The Neanderthals (who are classified scientifically as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis)represented a significant advance over their predecessors in their ability to cope with northern environments. This is strikingly evident in the distribution of their remains in space and time. The Neanderthals were the first humans to occupy Europe during periods of intense glacial cold; earlier human populations seemed to have abandoned higher latitudes during glacial periods. They were also the first humans to colonize the drier and colder landscapes of eastern Europe. In fact, many anthropologists have suggested that the distinctive feature of Neanderthals - such as their short limbs and barrel-shaped chests - evolved as special adaptations to the cold, although it is now clear that they were present during warm periods as well. The feature that was probably most important in their conquest of new environments was their enlarged brain, which gave them the insight and imagination to devise new means of coping with the daily challenges of these environments.

Examples of Neanderthal tools
Examples of Neanderthal tools

Ironically, the origins of our own immediate ancestors (early Homo sapiens) remains less clear than those of our Neanderthal cousins. The lineages appear to have split at some point before 200,000 years ago, and the two forms of humankind shared the planet until roughly 40,000 years ago when the Neanderthals vanished. While the Neanderthals occupied Europe throughout this period, our own ancestors resided in Africa. The Near East became a 'crossroads' inhabited at various times by both groups, although it is not certain that the two populations ever actually co-existed together for any length of time.

Anatomy of a Neanderthal: Brains and Muscle

Unlike earlier human forms, the Neanderthals are represented by a relative abundance of skeletal remains. This is chiefly a function of their comparatively recent age; erosion and weathering destroys most remains and sites that contain them - including caves - in a few hundred thousand years. Anthropologists have thus acquired a wealth of bones and teeth, which they have subjected to exhaustive studies. As a result, we know a great deal about the anatomy and appearance of our late cousins, who possessed a remarkable combination of brains and muscles.

We know that the Neanderthals were highly robust and muscular, a trait that they had shared with their more primitive predecessors. They were not especially tall (adult males seem to have averages about 1.60 meters in height), but they possessed large joints, and thick leg bones, and many parts of the skeleton exhibit the deep marks of powerful muscle attachments. The bones of their children show that the robust skeleton began to develop at an early age, apparently to endure a life of heavy physical demands; most adult skeletons also reveal signs of disease and injury.

The head that rested on this muscular frame was even more striking in contrast to ourselves and unique among human forms. The heavy brow-ridges and flattened top were also traits inherited from their predecessors and ones that have contributed significantly to their primitive and brutish image. But the Neanderthals combined these traits with an exceptionally large brain that exceeds even our own in total volume. While modern human brains average roughly 1,400 cubic centimeters, our sample of fossil Neanderthal skulls indicates an average brain volume of over 1,500 cubic centimeters. The elongated shape of the skull has encouraged past speculation that the Neanderthal brain was organized differently from our own, and without comparable development of areas of higher thought. Today most anthropologists recognize that there is an insufficient basis for such conclusions and that we must turn to other sources of information for an understanding of the Neanderthal mind.

The Neanderthal face also reflected some unique features that must have appeared odd, perhaps repulsive, to the modern humans who eventually met up with them. It possessed inflated cheeks and a remarkably prominent nose but lacked a chin. The front teeth were excessively large and, along with the cheek teeth, were placed so far forward relative to the rest of the face that a gap existed between the last molar and the back of the jaw. Studies of the teeth reveal extreme wear, including microscopic scratches that seem to have been caused by the regular practice of cutting of materials such as animal hide held firmly in the grip of the jaw.

The Economic and Social Order

Evidence that Neanderthal daily life may have been more stressful and dangerous than that of their modern human contemporaries leads us to wonder how much it differed from the latter. Did the Neanderthals rely more heavily on brute strength and endurance than on careful planning and technology? Anthropologists are sharply divided over this issue, either believing that the Neanderthal economy was fundamentally different from that of the modern human population who succeeded them, or that it was quite similar.

Like all people of the Ice Age (and some of the post-Ice Age), the Neanderthals did not practice agriculture but pursued an economy based on nomadic foraging. Some anthropologists have suggested that the Neanderthals lacked the advanced planning and scheduling of modern human foraging people and that they wandered from place to place, often depending on chance encounters with animal prey and other sources of food. However, the study of artifacts and animal bones from the sites that they occupied reveals a pattern fundamentally similar to that of modern foragers. For example, on the slopes of the northern Caucasus Mountains in Russia, we find a diverse array of sites at varying elevations used for different purposes during different seasons of the year. The Neanderthals seemed to have visited these locations at specific times to procure locally and seasonally available foods, which must have required planned and scheduled movements and activities. There is a reason to believe, however, that they moved around within smaller territories than their modern successors.

Some anthropologists have also suggested that the Neanderthals were less competent and effective hunters than modern humans. The settlement of northern environments poor in edible plant foods would have demanded a heavy reliance on animal foods, but these might have been obtained from the scavaging of carcasses rather than hunting live prey. There are sites in central Italy that appear to reflect at least partial reliance on scavenging on deer carcasses. On the other hand, sites in France, Russia, and elsewhere contain very strong evidence for the hunting of medium and large mammals such as red deer and bison, the bones of which exhibit the marks of butchering by stone tools and lack the characteristics of the remains of animals that have succumbed to disease or non-human predators. Some Neanderthal sites even contain large quantities of the remains of herd mammals that might have been driven into ravines or over cliffs in the manner of an Indian bison hunt on the plains of America.

The question of the Neanderthal economy is inextricably linked to that of their society. The highly flexible social organization of modern human foragers - as revealed by studies of hunting and gathering people like in south African Bushmen and the Eskimo - allows response to variations in the timing and location of available food sources. Thus, a small group of adult males might be dispatched to the mountains for a protracted winter hunt, while a large group of males, females, and children might be assembled temporarily on the plains to provide the necessary numbers for a bison herd drive in the late summer. Did Neanderthal society possess this organizational flexibility?

Once again, some anthropologists have argued that there were radical differences between the Neanderthals and modern humans. It has long been suggested that the Neanderthals lacked an incest taboo - universal among all modern human societies as far as we know - and did not follow an established pattern of mating and marriage between nuclear families (exogamy). Exogamy ensures a network of cooperative alliances among family groups that provides the foundation for modern human society and seems to be an important part of the organizational flexibility of modern human foraging peoples. But anthropologists have found it difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct Neanderthal society from the limited variety of remains that are available for study. To shed any light on this issue, we must turn to another aspect of Neanderthal life, and one that reveals the most dramatic and important contrast between that life and our own.

Language and Culture?

The critical factor in the shaping of our economic and social order is language and the use of symbols. The intricate network of alliances among families and the complex economic strategies of modern human foragers rest on language and culture - on our ability to formulate and communicate abstract concepts and shared beliefs through symbols. The development of the capacity for using symbols was the last and most significant event in the evolution of modern humans, and in the millennia following the Ice Age, as many populations began to settle down to an agricultural way of life, it provided the basis for civilization.

Despite their large brains and impressive foraging skills, there is much evidence that neanderthals led an existence that was largely if not wholly devoid of symbols. While the modern humans who succeeded them in Europe 40,000 years ago left behind a rich legacy of ornament and art (including spectacular paintings on the walls of caves), the Neanderthals left us virtually nothing in this respect. There are isolated examples of objects bearing simple designs, including two engraved bone fragments from caves in Bulgaria and France. Another French cave yielded a drilled fox tooth that might have been an ornament, and the possible fragment of a flute has been reported recently from Slovenia.

Anthropologists have searched for regional differences among the stone tools produced by Neanderthals that might reflect the sort of cultural variations often evident in even the simplest of modern human artifacts. They have found remarkably little variation among tool types from different parts of Europe and the Near East. Instead, some have suggested that differences in the percentages of these generic tool types might reflect different Neanderthal culture traditions, but recent studies of Neanderthal tools indicate that much of this variation is likely due to the degree to which an individual tool has been worn and resharpened.

Neanderthal remains at Kebara, Israel
Neanderthal remains at Kebara, Israel

There is evidence that the Neanderthal buried their dead in caves, which would seem to indicate some element of ritual and belief in their lives, but the interpretation of these burials remains controversial. Some of the skeletons seem to represent individuals who were simply buried in falling rubble and debris; whole or partial skeletons of cave-dwelling bears and other animals are not uncommon. The careful excavation of a Neanderthal Skeleton discovered in France several years ago revealed no evidence of a burial pit. Some Neanderthal remains have been found associated with stone tools and other objects thought to have been grave goods; one burial found in Iraq even yielded traces of flowers (in the form of pollen concentrations) that may have been tenderly placed next to the deceased. Many anthropologists suspect that the association of these objects with the skeletons is largely fortuitous. Once again, the contrast with their modern human successors who sometimes buried their dead with pendants, necklaces, and sculptures - in a stark one.

There have been no attempts to deduce the linguistic abilities of the Neanderthals directly from the reconstructed anatomy of their vocal tracts. These studies reveal some differences with modern humans that suggest that the Neanderthals may not have been able to produce a comparable range of speech sounds. Because no modern human language employs the full range of sounds we are capable of making, the implications of these studies are not clear, but they do seem consistent with the general lack of evidence for the use of symbols.

The End of the Neanderthals

The last known Neanderthal to walk the earth died in southern Spain roughly 40,000 years ago, and the location of this somber event may be significant. From that day onwards only the modern apes - safely hidden in tropical forests of Africa and Asia - remained as living reminders of the last 10 million years of our evolution. The fate of the Neanderthals is still hotly debated among anthropologists worldwide. Were they destroyed by modern human populations, or did they mingle with the newcomers and contribute their heritage to the living people of western Eurasia?

Genetic studies indicate that living human populations of Europe and Asia are derived from an ancestral African population. Modern humans were present at least 100,000 years ago in Africa and appeared shortly thereafter in the adjoining Near East. Many Anthropologists believe that these people spread across Europe and Asia, replacing the Neanderthals and other archaic forms of Homo sapiens roughly 50,000-30,000 years ago. In fact, a widely publicized genetics study of 1987 suggested that all living humans are descended from a single African woman (the 'Eve Hypothesis). Modern humans appear in eastern Europe over 40,000 years ago, and subsequently seem to move westward toward the Atlantic coast, although some anthropologists insist that the modern humans of Europe are descended - at least to some extent - from the Neanderthals, there is little evidence of intermediate or hybrid forms (especially in western Europe), and the genetic contribution of the latter to the former would seem to be minimal at best.

In a physical contest between the two, it is hard to imagine the powerful Neanderthals being overwhelmed by their effete modern human counterparts. However, the invaders may have triumphed through superior organization and technology. Both the physical appearance and accompanying evidence for art and symbols indicate that the people who entered Europe roughly 40,000 years ago were fully modern in their behavior. Our studies of the Neanderthal economy show that the two populations must have competed for the same resources.

A curious twist is that, before their arrival in Europe, modern humans revealed no sign of this new behavior; their sites are as devoid of art and symbols as those of the Neanderthals. The change seems to have been related to the move north. The catalyst may have been the onset of the last major cold period of the Ice Age, 60,000 years ago. For all their skills in coping with northern environments, the Neanderthals seem to have had problems adjusting to the especially harsh conditions in eastern Europe. Recently dated fossils document a Neanderthal intrusion into the Near East at this time, which some believe to have been made by refugees from glacial Europe. If so, the Neanderthals may have won the first round, temporarily displacing the modern human inhabitants of the region.

During the next 20,000 years, modern humans moved into eastern Europe, simultaneously manifesting their new use of symbols. Possibly the latter conferred advantages in communication and organization that were essential to the settlement of glacial landscapes where resources had become scarce and widely dispersed; there is evidence (materials moved from one place to another) that modern humans were foraging across much larger territories than the Neanderthals. Eventually, groups of modern humans probably intruded on lands still occupied by the latter. The encounter between the two groups, the subject of various novels and films, seems to have been protracted and complex. Some late Neanderthal sites in western Europe contain simple ornaments and tools similar to those of modern humans, suggesting that their final period they were beginning to adopt some of the ways of the invaders. There are no traces of violence on the Neanderthal skeletons found to date, and the cause of their disappearance remains a mystery.

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