The Neanderthal is an extinct member of the genus Homo known from Pleistocene specimens found in Europe and parts of western and central Asia. Neanderthals made and used a diverse set of sophisticated tools, controlled fire, lived in shelters, made and wore clothing, and were skilled hunters of large animals and also ate plant foods.
Over the decades, many theories have been offered to explain what caused the demise of the Neanderthals, ranging from climate change to simple bad luck.The archeological evidence in Europe indicates once modern humans showed up in a region where Neanderthals were living, the Neanderthals in that region vanished. Perhaps the Neanderthals were actively pursued, or perhaps they were just outcompeted.
Before modern humans “replaced” the Neanderthals, they had sex with them. Some of these hybrids survived to have kids of their own, who, in turn, had kids, and so on to the present day. Even now, at least thirty thousand years after the fact, the signal is discernible: all non-Africans, from the New Guineans to the French to the Han Chinese, carry somewhere between one and four per cent Neanderthal DNA.
Around 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals innovated again. Some Neanderthals were suddenly making long, thin stone blades and hafting more tools. Excavations in southwest France and northern Spain have uncovered Neanderthal tools betraying a more refined technique involving, Kuhn speculates, the use of soft hammers made of antler or bone.
There is even some evidence that Neanderthals were the first to place flowers at the site of a burial and to perform crude surgery that sustained the life of the severely injured. This evidence suggests that Neanderthals engaged in complex ritual behavior and were capable of abstract thought, including recognition of the importance of the individual to society and of society to the individual.
Although Neanderthals are popularly pictured as brutish dimwits, this is an unfair characterization. Their brains were larger than ours and the archaeological evidence suggests that they were skilled toolmakers and proficient big-game hunters. The Neanderthal's stone tool kit is dominated by Mode 3 tools, which are characterized by flakes struck from prepared cores.
The discovery of the remains of an adult male Neanderthal with severely deformed arm bones, suggesting a major disability perhaps since childhood, hints they may have taken care of their sick. Genetic research even suggests they might have shared basic language capabilities with modern humans.
Though the fossil evidence is not definitive, Neanderthals appear to have descended from an earlier human species, Homo erectus, between 500,000 to 300,000 years ago. Neanderthals shared many features with their ancestors—a prominent brow, weak chin, sloping skull and large nose.
Neanderthals were adapted to the cold northern climate with short limbs and stocky bodies and flourished during a warmer interglacial period. There was great anatomical variation within this population. Neanderthals had a short period of dental growth indicating that they developed faster even than their immediate ancestor, H. heidelbergensis.
Neanderthals inhabited a vast area roughly from present-day England east to Uzbekistan and south nearly to the Red Sea. Their time spanned periods in which glaciers advanced and retreated again and again. But the Neanderthals adjusted. When the glaciers moved in and edible plants became scarcer, they relied more heavily on large, hoofed animals for food.
For many years, there was a vigorous professional debate about whether Neanderthals should be classified as Homo neanderthalensis or Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. The latter places Neanderthals as a subspecies of Homo sapiens; however, recent evidence from mitochondrial DNA studies indicates that Neanderthals were not a subspecies of Homo sapiens.