The Neanderthals are an important part of mankind's past. Being our closest pre-historic relatives. For 200,000 years they dominated they area geographically described as Eurasia, that is the continued landmass on which the continents of Europe and Asia sit. They managed to poke their, now famously, large and protruding noses into every corner of Europe, south along the Mediterranean, into Greece, Iraq, Russia and new evidence suggests almost as far as Mongolia in the east. It is calculated that even at the height of their occupation, they never numbered more than 15,000, the size of a small town. Despite these surprisingly low numbers, they managed to endure at a time when Europe was cooling, creating an environment that would have been much like northern Scandinavia s bleak tundra.
By the end of their dominance, they had been reduced to a few pockets on the Iberian peninsular and along the southern Mediterranean shores, squeezed out by the deteriorating climate and the westward spread of a breed of anatomically modern and more adaptable humans from Africa and the middle east. Soon the Neanderthals would be gone leaving a few bones and a lot of questions to be answered.
This period from about 45,000 years ago when the two branches of humans co-existed to 30,000 when the Neanderthal's disappeared from history, hold a massive fascinations with anthropologists and archaeologists, no least because understanding the scientific detail and sequence of events holds the answers to who modern man is truly descended from. Why did one survive and the other disappear? And more to the point are we descended wholly from the new emergent strain of modern man or is there Neanderthal in us today.
The image of the Neanderthal has come down to us today as a slow, low browed, sub human, but this is a fallacy that harkens back to the earliest finds in the 1850's in Germany and is based purely on the shape of the finds. Fossil size does indeed suggest short, heavily built frames with massive muscles and a large ribcage to encompass capacious lungs, everything you need to survive in sub arctic conditions. A short, heavy shape means the blood warms the body more efficiently helping to ease the burned on the estimated 5000 calorie intake needed to survive in such bleak environments. Think of modern day, Inuit, Lapps and Siberians, all conform to this evolutionary design. And behind that low domed skull and bulging brow-ridges, the Neanderthal possessed a brain actually slightly larger, by volume, than we do today.
The longest and most controversial debates in human evolution rages around the relationship between Neanderthals and their European successors. Did the modern humans sweep out of Africa and totally replace the Neanderthals, or did they interbreed and assimilate them? It's an argument that seems to move in circles.
In 1997, geneticist Svante Paabo and his colleagues were able to extract a tiny snippet of mitochondrial DNA from the original Neanderthal find and came to the conclusion that Neanderthals and modern humans had begun to diverge long before the modern migration out of Africa. Both had a common ancestor but the Neanderthals were an evolutionary dead end long before the two branches met again north of the Mediterranean. These discoveries suggest that Neanderthals were a separate species, yet that doesn't explain why they disappeared.
One obvious possibility is that modern humans were just, more clever, more adaptable, more sophisticated, if you like, more "human" There is evidence, in the archaeological record, for a great leap forward about 40,000 years ago that suggests, developments in stone and bone tools, body ornamentation and other symbolic expression. Some scientist argue for a dramatic change in the brain, possibly associated with the development of language around this time, that propelled the modern humans to cultural dominance.
The evidence on the ground is not so clear cut. In 1996, fossil finds that were clearly Neanderthal bones, were found in association with ornamental objects, such as ivory rings and pierced animal teeth and even as far back as 1979 similar bones had been found along side sophisticated tool kits. All things normal associated with the more modern arrivals. Were Neanderthals more advanced than we give them credit for or is this evidence of imitation of their rivals or could it be evidence of a mixing of the two cultures if not genetically, possible as traders.
To confuse the issue even more, Erik Trinkaus at Washington University in St Louis, proposes that the two groups did interbreed. "There were very few people on the landscape, you need to find a mate and reproduce. Why not? Humans are known not to be choosy. Sex happens"
This furthers the idea that the Neanderthals did not disappear in a physical sense but they were assimilated into the more populous modern humans to a point where it is difficult to see them on a genetic level.
It's a debate that is still running and changing balance with every new find. In conclusion, there is no definite answer and there looks likely that there will not be firm evidence for one theory or another for a long time to come, but it is a fascinating debate and one that has repercussions on our whole understanding of where we come from and fundamentally who we are.