Homo neanderthalensis

Exemplar: La Ferrassie 1 [La Ferrassie] - c.50,000 y.a.

HOMO NEANDERTHALENSIS, which lived from about 250,000 to 30,000 years ago, is the last species to diverge from the human line prior to the emergence of modern humans, and the last species of hominid to have gone extinct.

Neandertals lived mostly in cold climates, and their body proportions are similar to those of modern cold-adapted peoples: short and stocky with solid limbs. Shorter than modern humans, males stood 1.6 meters high at 84 kilos; females stood 1.5 meters at 80 kilos. Western European Neandertals (like the fossil shown here) usually have a more robust form, sometimes called the "classic Neandertal." These were extraordinarily strong by modern standards, but their skeletons often show the scars of a punishing existence.

Neandertals had a slightly larger brain capacity than modern humans (1450cc on average, but as large as 1800cc or more), with a developed material culture and some form of spoken language. A large number of tools and weapons have been found from Neandertal sites, all from the Mousterian tool industry, a tool industry more advanced than the Acheulean industry available to Homo erectus or heidelbergensis. Neandertals were formidable hunters, and are the first people who may have buried their dead, with the oldest known burial site dated to around 100,000 years ago.

Like erectus, Neandertals had a protruding jaw, weak chin and receding forehead. The nose and brow also protruded, a feature that is not found in erectus or heidelbergensis and was probably an adaptation to cold climates. The brain case is longer and lower than that of modern humans, with a marked bulge at the back of the skull. Bones are thick and heavy and show signs of powerful muscle attachments. In all, the most accurate recent reconstructions reveal a physiognomy that is obviously unlike modern humans.

Some experts claim that modern humans and Neandertals shared genes and habitats right up until about 30,000 years ago, but this is a minority view falling ever further into empirical complications. The latest genetic study suggests that the ancestors of Neandertals and modern humans diverged about 500,000 years ago. It is more likely that Neandertals evolved independently of modern humans, as a conservative descendant of heidelbergensis, without significant cultural or genetic exchange with Homo sapiens.

The extinction of Neandertals coincides in most geographic regions with the arrival of modern humans and the most recent Ice Age. There is no reason to conclude that Cro Magnon man intentionally eradicated the Neandertals. Neandertals already led a difficult, scarring existence. Add to this the final glaciation of their northern ranges, the increased competition with Homo sapiens for large game, and perhaps too the new diseases that the southern immigrants brought with them, and there are more than sufficient "peaceful" explanations for the end of the Neandertal way of life.