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Neanderthals - Study Guide

Overview, Important Facts, Archaeological Sites, and Study Questions


Neanderthal Reconstruction, Neanderthal Museum, Erkrath Germany

Neanderthal Reconstruction, Neanderthal Museum, Erkrath Germany

Jakob Enos

An Overview of Neanderthals

Neanderthals were a type of early hominid that lived on the planet earth between about 200,000 to 30,000 years ago. Our immediate ancestor, 'Anatomically Modern Human" has been in evidence for roughly 130,000 years ago. In some places, Neanderthals co-existed with modern humans for about 10,000 years, and it is possible (although much debated) that the two species may have interbred. Recent mitochondrial DNA studies at the site of Feldhofer Cave suggest that Neanderthals and Humans had a common ancestor about 550,000 years ago, but are not otherwise related; nuclear DNA on a bone from Vindija Cave supports this supposition although the time depth is still in question. However, the Neanderthal Genome Project appears to have settled the issue, by uncovering evidence that some modern humans hold a tiny percentage (1-4%) of Neanderthal genes.

There have been several hundred examples of Neanderthals recovered from sites all over Europe and western Asia. Considerable debate over the humanity of Neanderthals--whether they purposefully interred people, whether they had complex thought, whether they spoke a language, whether they made sophisticated tools--continues.

The first discovery of Neanderthals was in the mid-19th century at a site in the Neander valley of Germany; Neanderthal means 'Neander valley" in German. Their earliest ancestors, called archaic Homo sapiens, evolved, like all hominids did, in Africa, and migrated outwards into Europe and Asia. There they lived following a combined scavenger and hunter-gatherer lifeways until about 30,000 years ago, when they disappeared. For the last 10,000 years of their existence, Neanderthals shared Europe with anatomically modern humans (abbreviated as AMH, and formerly known as Cro-Magnons), and apparently the two types of humans led fairly similar lifestyles. Why AMH survived while Neanderthals did not is probably among the most-discussed issues concerning Neanderthals: reasons range from the Neanderthal's comparatively limited use of long-distance resources to out and out genocide by Homo sap.

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