Some 50,000 years ago, a small group of Neanderthals camped out beneath a rock shelter in what is now western France. Neanderthals were sophisticated toolmakers and even prepared animal hides, which they used as clothing.
Indeed, Neanderthals were probably less brutish and more like modern humans than commonly portrayed. There is evidence that they cared for the elderly and the sick, for instance. Yet they left few signs of having art or using the complex symbols typical of our own species.
Focus On: Homo neanderthalensis
When: 200,000 to 30,000 years ago
Where: Europe and western Asia
Brain Size: up to about 1,700 cubic centimeters, at least as large as a modern human brain
Diet: mainly meat, with some plants
Average Adult Height:
females: 1.6 meters (5 feet, 3 inches)
males: 1.7 meters (5 feet, 7 inches)
Average Adult Weight:
females: 50 kg (110 pounds)
males: 64 kg (140 pounds)
Our understanding of the Neanderthals has shifted over time. A 1919 image depicts a primitive brute; one from 1983 shows a mother engaged in animated conversation, with her hair coiffed and her skirt neatly sewn. Today, scientists think Neanderthals lived in complex social groups, controlled fire and were fairly proficient hunters. Yet they did not create art or possess language as we know it. They did bury their dead, but probably not with an elaborate ritual as modern humans do.
The front teeth of many Neanderthals have been worn down dramatically, suggesting they used their teeth as tools, possibly holding animal hides while scraping them.
DNA is a delicate molecule--an animal carcass in a temperate climate might have no readable DNA after only 50 years. Yet in 1997, researchers extracted and sequenced 40,000-year-old DNA from a Neanderthal fossil. Since then, several other Neanderthal fossils have yielded DNA sequences.
This Neanderthal DNA confirmed what many scholars already believed: Neanderthals and modern humans are two separate species. By comparing Neanderthal and modern human DNA sequences, researchers estimated that the last common ancestor of the two species lived roughly 500,000 years ago.
To get the first Neanderthal DNA, researchers drilled into a piece of the first Neanderthal fossil find, an arm bone unearthed in 1856 in western Germany's Neander Valley. Researchers handling ancient DNA take great care to avoid contaminating their samples with DNA from their own skin, saliva or hair.