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Origins of Humankind
The Hominid Family Tree

Orrorin tugenensis
(6 mya)

Ardipithecus ramidus
(4.4 mya)

Australopithecus anamensis
(4.2 to 3.9 mya)

Australopithecus afarensis
(3.6 to 2.9 mya)

Kenyanthropus platyops
(3.5 to 3.3 mya)

Australopithecus africanus
(3 to 2 mya)

Australopithecus aethiopicus
(2.7 to 2.3 mya)

Australopithecus garhi
(2.5 mya)

Australopithecus boisei
(2.3 to 1.4 mya)

Homo habilis
(2.3 to 1.6 mya)

Homo erectus
(1.8 to 0.3 mya)

Australopithecus robustus
(1.8 to 1.5 mya)

Homo heidelbergensis
(600 to 100 tya)

Homo neanderthalensis
(250 to 30 tya)

Homo sapiens
(100 tya to present)

mya = millions of years ago        tya = thousands of years ago


Homo neanderthalensis (250,000 to 30,000 years ago)

Species Description:

Like H. erectus, H. neanderthalensis had a protruding jaw, receding forehead, and weak chin. The average Neanderthal brain was slightly larger than that of modern humans, but this is probably correlated with larger body size in general. The mid-facial area of Neanderthals protruded much more than the same area in H. erectus or H. sapiens and may have been an adaptation to cold. Indeed, Neanderthals lived mostly in cold climates.

Their short, stocky bodies are similar in proportion to those of modern cold-adapted peoples; men averaged about 5 feet 6 inches tall. Neanderthal bones are thick and heavy and show signs of powerful muscle attachments. Neanderthals most likely would have been extraordinarily strong by modern standards, and their skeletons show that they endured brutally hard lives. They are found throughout Europe and the Middle East. Western European Neanderthals usually have a more robust form, and are considered "classic Neanderthals."

Some scientists consider Homo neanderthalensis to be a subspecies of Homo sapiens, rather than a species unto itself. The essay below briefly explores this idea.

The Neanderthal Within:

For about 70,000 years, Neanderthals roamed Earth with modern Homo sapiens. Fossil evidence from the Middle East suggests that our ancestors not only lived at the same time as Neanderthals, but probably lived alongside them in some areas. So why are there no Neanderthals walking Earth today? Or are there?

For decades, the overwhelming scientific consensus has held that sometime between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago, Homo sapiens left Africa in search of more space and new habitats to exploit. En route, they inevitably met up with the Neanderthals occupying the Middle East and southern Europe. This "out of Africa" hypothesis, as it has come to be known, says that Neanderthals were no match for the better-adapted, quicker-witted Homo sapiens. They were out-competed, pushed out of their habitats, and ultimately driven to extinction by a superior species -- ours. End of story. The explanation is simple, plausible, and accepted by most scientists. But is it correct?

Newly discovered evidence suggests another possibility, lending some credibility to a hypothesis that has languished in relative obscurity for as long as "out of Africa" has reigned. The "multiregional" hypothesis is the messy alternative. It says that pockets of Homo sapiens left Africa not in one large, unstoppable wave, but in smaller movements across many different regions.

Such a scenario would likely have been easier for resident Neanderthals to accommodate. The hypothesis goes further to suggest that Neanderthals didn't actually go anywhere, but were instead subsumed into the various populations of Homo sapiens. This scenario implies that Neanderthals were so closely related to Homo sapiens -- a subspecies, in fact -- that they interbred and mixed gene pools with our own. Is this possible?

The evidence supporting multiregionalism comes from recent anatomical and genetic comparisons of fossilized Homo sapiens and Neanderthals with contemporary human specimens. One such study suggests that modern humans have even more in common genetically with ancient Neanderthal specimens than we do with an equally old Homo sapiens specimen.

Skeptics maintain that the new data are far too sparse and unsubstantiated to overturn the preponderance of evidence supporting the "out of Africa" hypothesis. Indeed, because DNA breaks down over time, analyses of bones as old as these must be interpreted with caution.

And so the controversy remains, and will until more evidence shifts our understanding solidly in one direction or the other. For now, we can only wonder if our instincts and urges are occasionally driven by a bit of dilute Neanderthal in our genes.

Fossil Finds:

Shanidar 1
Estimated age: 70,000 to 40,000 years
Date of discovery: 1953 to 1960
Location: Shanidar Cave, Iraq

This site has yielded nine Neanderthal skeletons. One of them, Shanidar 1, was partially blind, one-armed, and crippled when he died, suggesting that he was a member of a society that cared for its elderly. Shanidar 4, another specimen found here, appears to have been buried with offerings of flowers (although this interpretation has been disputed).

Spy 1

Spy 1
Estimated age: 60,000 years
Date of discovery: 1886
Location: Belgium

Discovered at the Grotto of Spy (pronounced "spee") d'Orneau in Belgium, this find consisted of two nearly complete skeletons and partial crania. The crania show heavy brow ridges very different from anatomically modern humans. Fossil analysis established that the individuals were very old when they died, largely discrediting the previously held idea that the Neanderthal physique was a pathological condition.

Old Man

Old Man
Estimated age: 50,000 years
Date of discovery: 1908
Location: La-Chapelle-aux-Saints, France

This individual, who was 30 to 40 years old when he died, had a healed broken rib, severe arthritis of the hip, lower neck, back, and shoulders, and had lost most of his molar teeth. This indicates that Neanderthals may have had a complex social system that included care for the elderly.

Saint-Cesaire Neanderthal
Estimated age: 35,000 years
Date of discovery: 1979
Location: Saint-Cesaire, France

This partial skull belonged to one of the most recent Neanderthals known. The find was particularly important because it included sophisticated tools previously assumed to belong to the Cro-Magnon culture.

Evidence of Culture:

Mousterian stone tools (debated)
Estimated age: 200,000 years
Location: Europe and the Middle East

Archaeologists have identified as many as 20 different tools that Neanderthals made using this technique. The tools served a range of purposes, from slicing meat and scraping hides to cutting wood.

Burial of the dead
Estimated age: 100,000 years
Location: Europe and the Middle East

Archaeologists have discovered numerous Neanderthal skeletons apparently buried deliberately in caves. The placement of these specimens and artifacts indicates some form of ritualized burial.

-> Go to Homo sapiens

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