What was 5’5″, buried its dead, and went extinct 30 000 years ago?
I’ll give you a hint: they belong to the same genus as you and me.
Haven’t got it yet? Here is another hint: their name almost rhymes with “Damn, you’re tall!”.
That’s right, today’s awesome extinct animal is our (very) distant cousin: the Neanderthal.
First things first, let’s get the nomenclature down. The scientific name is Homo neanderthalensis, but they are popularly referred to as Neanderthals.
Interesting experiment: say that word out loud. Neanderthal. Did you pronounce the th?
I think most people in North America do, but I have heard professors refer to this creature as both NeanderTHal and NeanderTal. It seems scientists and the Smithsonian Institute prefer the ‘th’ to be pronounced as ‘t’, but science fiction author Robert Sawyer goes for the ‘th’ pronunciation. Both are acceptable, though the area in Germany where the first fossils were found is definitely NeanderTal. Luckily for those amongst you who have strong feelings about pronunciation, this article is in writing and so you can pronounce it in your head however you want. Enough with the phonics lesson, let’s learn a little something about our long lost relative.
Homo neandertalensis was a species of human that arose 500 000 years ago. They lived in much of Europe and Asia and are one of the only other Homo species to live contemporaneously with H. sapiens and may have interbred with our ancestors (The other species is H. floresiensis, a very short hobbit-like human from the islands of Indonesia that lived 95-17 thousand years ago). Neanderthals were shorter than modern humans (the males averaged 5’5″, the females 5’1″), but had stockier limbs and a more robust build. Their faces were fairly modern looking, but they (in general) had a larger brow ridge, head, brain case, nose, and less of a chin.
Neanderthals have often been portrayed in the media as dumb, slow-moving cavemen. One 19th century scientist, Ernst Haeckel, even tried to name them Homo Stupidus. Luckily H. Neanderthalensis came first and biologists really hate changing the names of organisms. There has been a general move away from this perception as researchers uncover the intricacies of their lives, but much prejudice still remains. There has even been a recent book published called “Them and Us” that suggests Neanderthals were apex predators and often killed H. Sapiens. Without having read the book, I cannot be sure that the argument is silly, but it does go against what all the peer-reviewed literature says so I put little stock in it. The image below is from the book but the creature looks more like gorilla than a Neanderthal. It sure is scary though.
There has been a surge of recent publications that shed new light on the capabilities of Neanderthals. Not only did they have mastery of fire, wear clothes, and make tools, but there is also evidence to suggest they communicated with language, understood symbols, buried their dead, and used feathers as decoration.
Neanderthals are definitely part of the Homo genus. Through mitochondrial DNA analyses (mtDNA is passed on through the mother and stays separate from regular cell DNA, so is generally more stable), they are thought to have diverged from H. sapiens 500 000 years ago. This probably happened in the first wave of hominid migration out of Africa. Some of the hominids stayed in Africa and developed into H. sapiens, others travelled north to become H. Neanderthalensis. These intrepid explorers adapted to the cold by staying short and stocky and used their large brains to manufacture tools and clothes that would help them survive.
So where did they all go?
Neanderthals are believed to have had inhabited most of Eurasia, ranging from Portugal to Russia. They disappeared around 30 000 years ago. Sort of.
Most modern humans actually carry some Neanderthal DNA in them, meaning that at least part of the Neanderthal species lives on. Researchers believe that approximately 80 000 years ago, a second wave of humans (H. sapiens) left Africa. They spread and multiplied and were tough competition for the Neanderthals. They were still similar enough to mate and produce viable offspring and the data suggest they created many such viable offspring. One leading theory suggests that the Neanderthals were gradually assimilated into H. Sapiens.
The amount of Neanderthal DNA you carry depends on your background, but in general if you are of European or Asian descent, 1-4% of your genes can be traced back to a Neanderthal. Those of African descent generally have less Neanderthal DNA because their ancestors never left Africa and so never interbred.
It’s amazing to think that if you looked out from a cave in Eastern Europe 60 000 years ago, not only would the vegetation, fauna, and climate be radically different, you wouldn’t be the only species of human on Earth.
Green, R. E., Krause, J., Ptak, S. E., Briggs, A. W., Ronan, M. T., Simons, J. F., Du, L., et al. (2006). Analysis of one million base pairs of Neanderthal DNA. Nature, 444(7117), 330–6. doi:10.1038/nature05336
Stringer, C. (2002). Modern human origins: progress and prospects. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 357(1420), 563–79. doi:10.1098/rstb.2001.1057