The Neanderthals: Tracking our Ancestors

2021, Science  -  42 min Leave a Comment
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Neanderthals lived in Eurasia for thousands of years before Homo sapiens walked the Earth. Neanderthals were a species of ancient humans that survived for about 300,000 years before going extinct 40,000 years ago. Because they lived long ago, it has often been challenging to discover more about them.

It was in 1829 when modern man first found evidence that Neanderthals existed. Yet over these last 200 years, scientists and paleoanthropologists are still trying to paint a clearer picture of who they were, how they lived, and what caused their disappearance. Thanks to modern archeological tools, as well as significant discoveries of ancient sites and artifacts over the last 25 years, the Neanderthals are slowly giving up their secrets.

Neanderthals lived in a vastly different Eurasia from what it is today. They lived during the Ice Age in extremely harsh weather with temperatures as low as -20°C. They mastered their surroundings and understood the environment completely and their anatomy, with larger nasal cavities and bigger lungs, helped them adapt to the cold. Neanderthals also created tools and weapons, using mainly flint, which helped them hunt for large animals such as mammoths and bison for much-needed sustenance and heat.

Neanderthals were nomadic, traveling in small groups of 20 to 30, as shown by recent archaeological sites in England, France, and the British island of Jersey. They designated specific areas for specific activities; one location would be where they gathered materials; another would be where the game they hunted was butchered and divided, and so on. Each group would stop at these places in yearly or longer cycles.

All this new evidence shows Neanderthals were not stereotypical, crude cave people but organized groups that planned activities. They met regularly to hunt and exchange news and females to ensure that their population continues, which is clear evidence that they could communicate with each other. However, what is still unknown is how intricate the form of communication was; did it have rules, and was it sophisticated enough to convey thoughts and feelings? And along with language, was there culture or art? The 1990 discovery of ancient Neanderthal stalactite circles dating back to 175,000 years ago in the Bruniquel Caves in France seems to point in that direction. These circles show the possibility that Neanderthals were trying to create something - a structure - out of chaos, out of nothing. More research is needed before we find a definitive answer.

Around 42,000 years ago, the first Homo sapiens arrived in Western Europe, around the time Neanderthals began to die out. However, this was a gradual disappearance. Homo sapiens were built differently and were more sophisticated and technologically and socially advanced. Both coexisted with each other for a period of about 2,000 to 4,000 years. They began to interbreed, and Neanderthal numbers got smaller until the Homo sapiens became the only human species on the planet.

We may never get a complete picture of Neanderthal man, but since a bit of their DNA can be found in modern humans, it's vital to continue discovering who they really were and how they lived exactly. Not only will more information help us imagine today's world if they still existed, but it will give us knowledge of our ancient past to help us determine our future.

Directed by: Pascal Cuissot, Rob Hope