What Really Happened to the Neanderthals?

The Neanderthals are our closest evolutionary human cousins and for hundreds of thousands of years were much more successful at colonizing Europe than we were. Recent archaeological evidence shows that they had equal if not larger brains than Homo sapiens, developed language, tools, cared for their disabled and buried their dead—not at all the dim-witted cavemen of popular misconception.

They were stronger and better adapted to a cold post-ice age climate than we were. So why did they become extinct and we survived? The last decade has been a golden age in terms of our knowledge of Neanderthals—we have even extracted their DNA—and at last we are getting some answers.

Our shared origins

In the human evolutionary tree, Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis (commonly known as Neanderthals and named after the Neander Valley in Germany where the first specimen was found in 1856) share a common ancestor in Homo heidelbergensis. Heidelbergensis evolved in Africa but around one million years ago some of them migrated into Europe and Neanderthals evolved from them, starting to develop into a distinct species about 500,000 years ago.

Most of our evidence of heidelbergensis comes from Europe rather than Africa, and we know that they were formidable hunters (butchered bones of lions and wolves have been found from this period) and used stone handaxes. By around 250,000 years ago they had evolved into Neanderthals, their stone tools became smaller and more sophisticated, and it is this date that is generally regarded as the beginning of the time of the Neanderthals.

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