The Neanderthals were a remarkable group. They had brains as large as ours, and they were outstanding toolmakers. But they apparently did not create art or think symbolically, as modern humans do. First appearing about 200,000 years ago, Neanderthals dominated Europe and parts of western Asia until their lineage died out less than 30,000 years ago. Understanding the Neanderthals--our best--known relatives in the fossil record-can help us understand what makes modern humans unique in the natural world.
Neander Valley, Germany
In 1856, when workers digging for lime found unusual bones in the Neander Valley of western Germany, they thought they had discovered an ancient cave bear. Eight years later, these bones were classified as the remains of a previously unknown species of human, Homo neanderthalensis. Neanderthal Man provided the first clear indication that modern humans have a rich and complex family tree that includes now-extinct relatives.
In the 1950s, scientists uncovered the remains of nine Neanderthals at Shanidar Cave in Iraq. One adult male had arm bones that were severely deformed, indicating he had suffered from a major disability, perhaps since childhood.
Some researchers believe this individual would not have survived long without the help of others--and that the Neanderthals lived in social groups that took care of their sick.
Examine the Evidence: Neanderthal braincase
The Neanderthal skull found in Amud Cave in Israel is exceptionally large. Compare the size and shape of its braincase with that of a modern human.
Amud Cave Neanderthal
- cranial capacity is 1,740 cubic centimeters-largest on record oskull is long and low, with a large, projecting face
- average cranial capacity is around 1,400 cubic centimeters
- skull is tall and rounded, with a small face tucked below the front of the braincase
Neanderthals died out less than 30,000 years ago--not long after modern humans arrived in Europe.
The site of Krapina, in modern Croatia, has yielded hundreds of Neanderthal fossil fragments from multiple individuals. Some of these fossils have cut marks made by stone tools, which could be a sign that these Neanderthals practiced cannibalism.