In 1829 and 1848 skeletal remains of heavily built “humanoid type” creatures were discovered in Belgium and Gibraltar, triggering massive scientific interest. Then in 1856, in the Neandertal Valley in Westphalia, Germany, further fossil evidence of the same type was indentified and given the name “Neanderthal Man”.
For the first time scientists realised that it was likely that another "homo species", running parallel with our own Homo sapiens, existed many millennia ago but for some reason had died out, leaving Homo sapiens to develop into the modern human being.
Many more similar skeletons were later discovered across parts of Europe, the Middle East, western and central Asia and southern parts of Great Britain, but interestingly not in Africa, believed to be the birthplace of Homo sapiens.
Above: The skeleton of a Neanderthal Man in the American Museum of Natural History. (Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)
The remains of more than 400 Neanderthals have been discovered since, and dating of these indicates that they existed from around 130,000 years to 30,000 years before the present time, before unaccountably disappearing.
The sites where Neanderthal remains have been discovered. (Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)
Using forensic reconstruction techniques based on existing skeletons, scientists have been able to make an educated guess as to their appearance. The males were about 165 to 168 cm (65 to 66 inches) in height with the females a little smaller at 152 to 156 cm. (60 to 61 inches). This was about the same height as the Homo sapiens of the same era.
However the skeletal evidence indicates that the Neanderthals were far more thickset, and the large bones point to the fact that stronger muscle groups would have anchored Neanderthals together. They would have been far more powerful than Homo sapiens, perhaps of similar strength to the modern chimpanzee.
But far from being the hulking, unintelligent brutes of folklore, recent evidence reveals many modern traits about the Neanderthals. It is now believed that they made weapons and tools, cooked, lived in family groups, developed a language and wore clothing.
It appears that Neanderthals disappeared around 30,000 years ago after cohabiting their area with Homo sapiens for some 20,000 to 30,000 thousand years.
And the fascinating question arising from this disappearance is obviously – what caused it?
There are several theories and these include
(a) Climate change
(b) Increased competition from and possibly warfare with Homo sapiens
(c) Interbreeding and absorption with Homo sapiens.
The most significant climate event during the time of the Neanderthals, as deduced from Antarctic ice data, was a sudden jump in global temperatures from around 120 to 110 thousand years ago, followed by a marked cooling from that point to about 100 thousand years ago. Global temperatures then fluctuated erratically over the next 30,000 years.
Temperature fluctuations during the time of the Neanderthals - did these lead to extinction? (Click to enlarge)
It has been suggested that these temperature variations produced significant changes in the vegetation patterns, together with the various dependant animal species. This may have tested the Neanderthals ability to cope with change, with the competing Homo sapiens more effective in this respect.
Another possibility is that increased competition and possibly warfare occurred with Homo sapiens, with the latter winning out through slightly more efficient social skills and cooperation.
But another, more fascinating theory, is that the Neanderthals did not disappear at all but were absorbed through interbreeding with Homo sapiens and continue to live on in the genes of modern humans. This theory has received some powerful reinforcement in recent times when researchers were able to reconstruct the genome sequence of the Neanderthals and found that “up to 2 percent of the DNA in the genome of present-day humans outside of Africa originated in Neanderthals or in Neanderthals' ancestors”.
This interbreeding appeared to take place between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago across parts of the Middle East before spreading to other areas across Europe.
The interbreeding hypothesis is still an area of scientific debate, but the mystique and intrigue surrounding what could be our closest ancestor continues to fascinate the scientific community, as well as the general public.
In 1970, the British band “Hotlegs” wrote a song called Neanderthal Man that was interspersed with the chorus:
"I'm a Neanderthal man
You're a Neanderthal girl
Let's make Neanderthal love
In this Neanderthal world."
Hear it here:
Although the lyrics were far from award winning, Neanderthal Man reached No.2 in the UK Singles chart in July 1970 and No. 22 in the US, ultimately selling two million copies worldwide. It success was possibly due in part to the fascination we have for this strange and enigmatic being that trod the Earth so long ago and may continue to exist as part of us today.