Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

The Enigmatic Neanderthal

The changing face of human evolution

In the last few decades, we have seen a huge amount of migration throughout the world as individuals look to take up opportunities to be closer to families or look for new career prospects. The cost of travel has seen the major tourist destinations of the world become bulging at the seams during peak travel times as more of us look to experience new cultures and see the wonders of the world. It is not unusual to be in any city in the world and see faces and hear languages that are very distant from those at home. It also makes us think about who we are as a culture, society and our ethnic origins as the world moves towards becoming one big global village. However, even with over seven billion of us on the planet and a multitude of backgrounds and interests, we are all still just one race, Homo sapiens. How would one of our lost cousins, Homo neanderthalensis, appeared to us given how used we have become to looking at unfamiliar faces? Would we still see them as not one of us? Would we need to broaden human rights to include other human species?

Neanderthals still have the power to attract interest and intrigue the public. A recent visit to the Museum of Natural History in London highlighted this as their exhibit on human evolution was crowded with people interested in our lost ancestors and cousins. And it’s no wonder, we share 99% of our genes with Neanderthals. We are so similar yet divided by differences in physical appearance and time.

Our knowledge of the evolution of Homo sapiens is undergoing a rapid rethink as new discoveries are made that change our understanding of our past. Not only are these physical discoveries, but also those being done in laboratories that are mapping the genomes of our extinct cousins and ancestors. I have book called Ape.Man by Robin McKie that was published in 2000 that I have referred to over the years. However, even this is missing so much of what we now know as there are no references to Homo floresiensis, Denisovans or Homo naledi. All these recent fines have added to our knowledge and understanding of the past and yet add another level of ambiguity and confusion to those that have an interest in the evolution of Homo genus. I am still watching with interest to see if discoveries in China of the Red Deer Cave people result in another new species being classified. As yet, this has not occurred but given the relatively you age of the fossil finds, it could mean that modern humans existed with another species for tens of thousands of years.

So, what is it that draws attention to the Neanderthals? This extinct species of human lived and thrived for 360,000 years throughout Eurasia during the Pleistocene Epoch. When we consider that we, Homo sapiens, came in to being approximately only 300,000 years ago, the duration of the Neanderthal species does show some remarkable resilience. Of course, it must be pointed out that many of the dates listed are approximation as we have no definitive hard and fast evidence beyond the dating of specimens. Neanderthal fossils were first discovered in Belgium in 1829 and then in Gibraltar in 1848 but it wasn’t until a discovery in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856 that they were recognized as an archaic type of human. Since then, there have been many significant finds of fossils and tools that have added to our knowledge of these extinct humans. Most importantly though is the reinterpretation of those earlier fossils that led to the perception that Neanderthals were nothing more than brutish hunched over cavemen. The long period of Neanderthal existence has also led to differences in their fossils indicating their evolution over time and can be seen in the skulls from various dates. This is termed the accretion model and refers to the gradual change to their features rather than one abrupt change occurring all at once.

Probably the most intriguing question in regard to Neanderthals is who or what did they evolve from. At present, is it only known that Sapiens and Neanderthals split from a common ancestor between 550,000 and 765,000 years ago. Two contenders for this title are Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis as both are known to have existed throughout Europe and Africa. However, as mentioned before, there are many moving targets in the study of evolution and it is now believed that evidence that one of these two was the ancestor is being questioned. Why? There is a belief that heidelbergensis may be a pre or early Neanderthal. There is also new evidence that shows Neanderthal and Denisovans diverged from each other 200,000 after Sapiens and Neanderthals split.

Just from the above it can be seen how complex the timeline and evolution of these species are. It must also be remembered that we are discussing very large date approximations. With the absence of a fully functioning time machine, it is difficult to be precise when looking back through time.

Once thought incapable of any culture, language or intelligence, Neanderthals have now been recognized as far more capable that earlier believed. This lack of assigning intelligence to another species was probably symptomatic of time in Europe as nations looked to empire building and the educating of the ‘noble savage’. The Neanderthal brain was of a similar size to that of our and their skulls, although quite sloping at the front, had frontal lobes and speech areas like ours. They also had a version of the FOXP2 gene that is associated with language in humans. Fossil evidence also shows that the hyoid bone in the neck that is used for anchoring speech muscles is similar to ours. All these traits mean that they may have been capable of speech and had a language. There is also a study of skulls of modern humans and Neanderthals that think this may not have occurred until 50,000 years ago. If we assume for a moment that the evidence of language is enough for speech to have been present in Neanderthals, we need to think of them as more like us than we could have imagined. Language is what allows us to pass on knowledge. As a hunter gatherer, it would be extremely advantageous to be able to voice commands when hunting, give instruction on safe foods to eat, where shelter is available and to pass on an oral history. We have seen it in many cultures throughout the world where there is no written language, the importance of storytelling in cultures. There is no reason to believe that this was not also the case for the Neanderthals. Recent dating of cave art in Spain and Europe has also indicated that it is too old to have been made by modern humans and was therefore done my Neanderthals. This a far stretch form the belief that they were inferior to us.

The use of fire predates the Neanderthals and there is evidence that fire was used at many locations where fossils have been found. Given that Neanderthals were living across Europe at a time when the continent was in the midst of an ice age, it would appear the fire was a skill that needed to pass on to others. There is also ample evidence of exquisite stone tools being found at many Neanderthal sites. They are also given credit for making the world’s oldest glue or pitch, approximately 200,000 years ago. This is made from Birch bark and is a complex procedure.

With the use of language, culture and the ability to craft fine hunting tools, we must question why they are no longer here. The hypotheses available in the academic world are many and varied in relation to their extinction. It is known that their decline started around 40,000 years ago and that the last possible site of their existence was 37,000 years ago on the Iberian Peninsula. Reasons for their extinction vary from climate change and the warming of the European continent that allowed modern humans to flourish, conflict with modern humans, pathogens and interbreeding. Most likely it is a combination of all these factors. European flora and fauna are very different to that of the time of the Neanderthal as the glaciers retreated and the climate warmed. Many of the mega fauna hunted also disappeared at similar times. The most interesting hypothesis is that of interbreeding with modern humans. We know that hybrid human Neanderthals through genome sequencing of fossils. This most likely occurred around 50,000 years ago. Further DNA testing has shown that all modern humans carry between 1–4% of Neanderthal DNA, except those of African origin. This gives further evidence to the migration of modern humans out of Africa.

It is somewhat a romantic notion to hope that a relic population of Neanderthal survived somewhere and are as yet undiscovered. Unfortunately, this is unlikely. The best we can hope for is that maybe global warming results in the thawing of a glacier to reveal a complete body, similar to those of Woolly Mammoths found in Siberia. The insights gained from such a find would be fantastic.

The timeline of human evolution continues to challenge our accepted knowledge as new physical and genetic work continues to identify new species and new details on old species. It is an exciting time for those interested in the evolution of humans and natural history. These distant cousins are only so in name as we share so much of our genetics we can see their shadows in our own reflection.

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warren coppard

warren coppard

Interested in history, culture, business and the pursuit of knowledge