Neanderthals or Neandertals were a species of genus Homo who inhabited Europe and parts of what is now western Asia during the last ice age. They seem to have been well adapted to extreme cold, but appear to have had difficulty adapting to climatic changes near the end of the ice age. The first such fossils were found in 1856 near Düsseldorf in the Neander valley in Germany. Their characteristic style of stone tools is called the Mousterian Culture, after another prominent archaeological site.
The name Neanderthal is now spelled both ways. The older German word Thal, meaning "valley" was changed to Tal in the early 20th century, but the former spelling is used in English and in scientific names, while the modern spelling is used in German. In any case, the correct pronunciation is with a "t", not a "th". The Neander derives from the church poet Joachim Neander who got his inspiration in this steep valley of the small river Düssel. The valley was named in his honor in the early 19th century.
Neanderthals apparently co-existed with anatomically modern humans beginning some 100,000 years ago. However, about 45,000 years ago, at about the time that stoneworking techniques similar to those of Cro-Magnon people appeared in Europe, Neanderthals began to be displaced. Despite this, populations of Neanderthals held on for thousands of years in regional pockets such as modern-day Croatia and the Iberian and Crimean peninsulas. Cro-Magnon are considered by most authorities to have been behaviorally modern Homo sapiens; they were certainly anatomically modern.
There is considerable debate about whether Cro-Magnon people accelerated the demise of the Neanderthals, but the timing suggests that the developing behavior patterns of Cro-Magnon may have had considerable impact on the process. Jared Diamond has compared the likely interaction between Cro-Magnon people and Neanderthals to the genocides suffered by indigenous peoples in recent human history. However, other authors have pointed out that even a small selective advantage on the part of modern humans in competition for food could account for Neanderthals' replacement on a timescale short compared with the resolution of the archaeological record, even in the absence of violent physical conflict or an asymmetry of susceptibility to pathogens. Neanderthals were stout and extraordinarily powerful, with cranial capacities as large or larger than Cro-Magnons. Nevertheless one school of thought holds that they were outcompeted by Cro-Magnons because they lacked complex language and therefore the ability to pass on more than rudimentary knowledge to their descendants.¹
In some areas of the middle east and the Iberian peninsula Neanderthals did, in fact, co-exist side by side with populations of anatomically modern homo sapiens for roughly 10 thousand years. There is also evidence that it is in these areas where the last of the Neanderthals died out and that during this period the last remnants of this species had begun to adopt some aspects of the Châtelperronian (upper paleolithic) tool case which is usually exclusively associated with anatomically modern homo sapiens.
Hybrid skeletons sharing Neanderthal and Cro-magnon features have been found in Portugal, proving that the two species did interbreed. However, it has been speculated that these hybrid individuals could have been sterile. It is very difficult to prove as the genetic differences between Neanderthals and Cro-magnons was far more minute than the morphological difference between the two species might seem to indicate. Tests concerning mitochondrial DNA have been conducted but the results may be misleading considering the wide genetic diversity of ancient Homo populations. Morphological symmetry and assymetry often belies genetic truth in the case of these ancient Homo populations. In any case it is possible that the Neanderthals, with their small sedentary populations, could have been absorbed by the much larger populations of modern homo sapiens in such a way that negligable evidencee of the absorbed genetic structure of the species could be detected in any modern humans, thus explaining recent mitochondrial evidence in terms that does not discount interbreeding. Essentially, without living Neanderthals it cannot be proven that they could interbreed with anatomically modern homo sapiens to produce viable offspring. These hybrid remains should not be confused with Homo heidelbergensis, the more ancient common ancestor of both the Neanderthal and modern man.
Neanderthal (Middle Paleolothic) archeological sites show both a smaller and a less flexible toolkit than in the Upper Paleolithic sites, occupied by modern humans, that replaced them. There is little evidence that Neanderthals used antlers, shell, or other bone materials to make tools. Their burials are less elaborate than those of anatomically modern humans, though much has been made of the Neanderthals' burial of their dead. Also, while they had weapons, they did not have spears or other projectile weapons; these were first used by Homo sapiens.²
Although Dr. Jared Diamond and others have specifically mentioned Cro-Magnon diseases as a threat to Neanderthals, this aspect of the analogy with the contacts between colonisers and indigenous peoples in recent history can be misleading. The distinction arises because Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals are both believed to have lived in a way we would now call nomadic, whereas in those genocides of the colonial era in which differential disease susceptibility was most significant, it resulted from the contact between colonisers with a long history of agriculture and nomadic hunter-gatherer peoples. Diamond argues that asymmetry in susceptibility to pathogens is a consequence of the difference in lifestyle, which makes it irrelevant in the context of the analogy in which he invokes it.
Popular literature has tended to greatly exaggerate the ape-like gait and related characteristics of the Neanderthals. It has been determined that some of the earliest specimens found in fact suffered from severe arthritis. The Neanderthals were fully bipedal and had a slightly larger average brain capacity than that of a typical modern human (though the brain structure was organised somewhat differently).
There are many other pieces of evidence contradicting the idea that the Neanderthals were mute, club-toting buffoons. For example, Neanderthals constructed complex shelters, controlled fire, and skinned animals. Particularly intriguing is a hollowed-out bear femur with four holes in the diatonic scale deliberately bored into it. This flute was found near a Mousterian Era fireplace used by Neanderthals, but its significance is still a matter of dispute.
Both the Neanderthals' place in the human family tree and their relation to modern Europeans has been hotly debated ever since their discovery. They have been classified as a separate species (Homo neanderthalensis) and as a subspecies of Homo sapiens (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis) at different times. The consensus has been, based on ongoing DNA research, that they were a separate branch of the genus Homo, and that modern humans are not descended from them (fitting with the single-origin hypothesis). Some recent genetic research has pointed toward the possibility that the gene responsible for red-hair and freckles in modern Europeans had Neanderthal origins (at least partially indicating support for a multiregion origin). In addition to the genetic research, the shapes of the Neanderthal and modern human skulls are significantly different, in ways that make it unlikely that Homo sapiens is descended from Neanderthals.
In popular idiom the word Neanderthal is sometimes used as an insult, to suggest that a person combines a deficiency of intelligence and an attachment to brute force. Counterbalancing this are sympathetic literary portrayals of Neanderthals as in the novel The Inheritors by William Golding, and in science fiction stories in which a Neanderthal is brought into the present as an application of time travel.
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