The Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) are our closest ancient human relatives. Homo is a Latin word describing “man” or “human.” The term neanderthalensis comes from the Neander Valley in Germany, where the first significant specimen was discovered in 1856. The German word for valley is ‘Tal,’. Hence, Homo neanderthalensis signifies “Human from the Neander Valley.”
During the Pleistocene Epoch (roughly 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago), Neanderthals first appeared at least 200,000 years ago. Around 35,000 to 24,000 years ago, they were superseded by modern humans (Homo sapiens). Neanderthals co-existed alongside homo sapiens for a long time before going extinct around 28,000 years ago. Both fossils and DNA evidence indicate that the Neanderthals and modern human lineages split at least 500,000 years ago.
Homo sapiens, or modern humans, originated in Africa, whereas Neanderthals appeared in Europe and Asia. From Portugal and Wales in the west to Siberia’s the Altai Mountains in the east, the species was widespread all over Eurasia. Neanderthal populations were resilient, living in icy cold habitats in England and Siberia approximately 60,000 years ago, and mild temperate woods in Spain and Italy approximately 120,000 years ago.
Neanderthals possessed a long, low head (opposed to modern humans’ more globular skull) with a noticeable forehead ridge above the eyes. A broad, wide nose that jutted forward in the middle of the face. Some researchers believe this trait evolved as a way to survive in colder, drier regions. The air they breathed would’ve been moistened and warmed by the nose’s vast interior size.
Their front teeth were large and scratched, suggesting they were regularly used in food preparation and other tasks. Unlike humans, Neanderthals didn’t have much of a chin. They had a robust, muscular physique with broad hips and shoulders. Adults weighed 64-82 kg and stood 1.50-1.75 m tall. On average, ancient Neanderthals were taller than later Neanderthals, yet they weighed about the same.
Their short, stocky bodies were well-suited to frigid climates. They had proportions that limited the skin’s surface area, likely to save heat in cooler regions, thanks to their broad torso mixed with their short lower legs and lower arm bones. Some researchers believe that the Neanderthals’ physique also gave them better strength in their arms and legs, allowing them to participate in close-range hunting ambushes.
Neanderthals were quite intelligent and skilled beings. Late Neanderthals had brain sizes ranging from 1,200cm3 to 1,750cm3, larger than the current average, yet proportional to their body size. Homo sapiens skulls from roughly 30,000 years earlier possessed, on average, bigger brains than modern humans. Spears and stone handaxes excavated in caves reveal that Neanderthals were skilled toolmakers.
Neanderthals devised incredible stone technology over 300,000 years ago. This entailed developing pre-shaped stone cores that could later be fine-tuned into a finished tool. It abled them to produce tools when they needed them. They were seasonal hunters and ate whatever animals were available at the time. Sharp wooden spears and enormous numbers of big animal carcasses, uncovered by scientists, indicating that Neanderthals chased and butchered them.
Neanderthals built shelters, regulated fire, and even crafted symbolic or attractive artifacts. There is proof that Neanderthals buried their deceased and even decorated their graves with flowers. This sophisticated and symbolic behavior had never been seen in other monkeys or earlier human species. Being buried substantially enhances the chances of becoming a fossil, which may explain why the Neanderthal fossil record is so extensive as opposed to the fossils of other human species.
Neanderthals are usually portrayed as carnivorous ice-age hunters and scavengers who ate massive creatures. Food remains deposited in the calculus around their teeth, on the other hand, suggest that the Neanderthal diet contained a variety of plants, either directly accessed or devoured from the stomach contents of their plant-eating prey. Fungi, Mussels, baby seals, and even dolphins were among the things they consumed.
But, as opposed to early humans living in tropical Africa, where consumable plant foods were plentiful all year, the diversity of plant foods available to Neanderthals fell dramatically during the winter season, requiring them to rely primarily on alternative food sources like meat.
As per fossil and genetic evidence, Neanderthals and modern humans (Homo sapiens) descended from a single ancestor between 700,000 and 300,000 years ago. Neanderthals and modern humans shared the same genus (Homo) and lived in the same geographic locations in western Asia for 30,000–50,000 years; genetic data suggests that they eventually split off into distinct species of the human family tree after mating with non-African homo sapiens.
Neanderthals and modern humans, it appears that these two groups mated whenever they crossed paths until modern humans swept into Europe during a particularly frigid period. Their arrival may have hindered Neanderthals from returning to areas where they once thrived, hastening the extinction of the Neanderthals. Their numbers plummeted to the brink of extinction barely a few thousand years after modern humans arrived in Europe. By roughly 40,000 years ago, all traces of them had vanished.
In many populations today, the genetic traces of this mingling can still be found. Neanderthal genomes make up about 2% of European and Asian genomes. The genetic shift, on the other hand, seems to have had little impact on African populations.