Who Were the Neandertals?; New Look at Human Evolution; Special Editions; by Kate Wong; contributions by E. Trinkaus and C. Duarte; J. Zilh¿o and F. d'Errico; and F. H. Smith; 10 Page(s)
It was such a neat and tidy story. No match for the anatomically modern humans who swept in with a sophisticated culture and technology, the Neandertals-a separate species-were quickly driven to extinction by the invading moderns. But neat and tidy stories about the past have a way of unraveling, and the saga of the Neandertals, it appears, is no exception. For more than 200,000 years, these large-brained hominids occupied Europe and western Asia, battling the bitter cold of glacial maximums and the daily perils of prehistoric life. Today they no longer exist. Beyond these two facts, however, researchers fiercely debate who the Neandertals were, how they lived and exactly what happened to them.
The steadfast effort to resolve these elusive issues stems from a larger dispute over how modern humans evolved. Some researchers posit that our species arose recently (around 200,000 years ago) in Africa and subsequently replaced archaic hominids around the world, whereas others propose that these ancient populations contributed to the early modern human gene pool. As the best known of these archaic groups, Neandertals are critical to the origins controversy. Yet this is more than an academic argument over certain events of our primeval past, for in probing Neandertal biology and behavior, researchers must wrestle with the very notion of what it means to be fully human and determine what, if anything, makes us moderns unique. Indeed, spurred by recent discoveries, paleoanthropologists and archaeologists are increasingly asking, How much like us were they?