Anatomically Neanderthals were somewhat shorter but much more robust than contemporary H. sapiens, and appear to have been much stronger than modern humans. Distinctive cranial features of Neanderthals included prominent brow ridges, low, sloping foreheads, the lack of a protuding chin, a heavy, forward-jutting jaw, and larger front teeth. The shoulders and pelvis were wider, the rib cage more conical in shape, and the forearms and lower legs shorter. When placed in an evolutionary perspective, Neanderthal anatomy can give the impression of a large and somewhat
primitive hominin, as though the evolutionary trajectory of Homo sapiens had somehow reversed itself. This impression is offset somewhat by the Neanderthal braincase, which measured on average about 1600 cc, larger than that of contemporary H. sapiens.
The unique anatomy of Neanderthals probably reflects the fact that they were the first hominin to spend extensive periods of time in extremely cold environments, having evolved in Europe at the onset of the most recent glaciation of that continent (see Pleistocene epoch). For example, their thick, squat build was adapted to maintaining body temperature under harsh climatic conditions. Large front teeth may have reflected a practice common among Eskimo populations of softening animal skins by chewing. Forceful chewing is also suggested by the heavy jaw and brow ridge, both of which serve to buttress powerful muscles.
Neanderthal phylogeny remains somewhat enigmatic, despite the relative abundance of fossil remains. Among African and Asian fossil remains, the reduction in skull and brow ridge thickness and the expansion of the forehead proceeded gradually, with anatomically modern H. sapiens present by 150,000 years ago in S and E Africa. In contrast, by 125,000 years ago, the classic Neanderthal form arose in Europe; it probably persisted in Europe until about 40,000 years ago.
Culturally, Neanderthals are closely associated with a stone-tool tradition known as the Mousterian of the middle Paleolithic. Neanderthal remains have also been found in association with the later (roughly 45,000–40,000 years ago), transitional Châtelperronian tools and jewelry, which were often assigned to H. sapiens, and some archaeologists have suggested that the influence of modern humans was responsible for their development. Neanderthals were proficient hunters. As in most cold environments, plant foods were probably relatively scarce and consumed only seasonally. Evidence of aesthetic behaviors and of religious beliefs among Neanderthals remains relatively scant and has been challenged, leading many experts also to question the extent of their linguistic capabilities, but surviving anatomical evidence suggests that they could have been physically capable of speech. Recently hand stencils and geometric cave art at three Spanish sites have been dated to at least 65,000 years ago, before the known arrival of H. sapiens in Europe (although the dating has been challenged by other scientists), and pigment-stained seashells perforated for a necklace or other use, also found in Spain, have been dated to c.115,000 years ago.
Controversy has surrounded the fate of Neanderthals. Some have argued that their extinction was due to being wiped by modern H. sapiens, and others have argued relatively low population numbers and the stresses caused by recurrent receding and advancing glaciation led to their demise. Recent research has suggested that rapidly changing climatic conditions and volcanic eruptions may have contributed to the Neanderthals' demise. Others have argued that their anatomical distinctions were diluted through gene flow (see genetics) with H. sapiens, but tests conducted on surviving Neanderthal DNA have conflicted on that issue. A number of studies, however, have suggested that in modern Eurasian (but not African) humans typically as much as 4% of the genome is of Neanderthal origin as a result of interbreeding; modern human DNA has also been found in the genome of a Siberian Neanderthal woman's remains.
See E. Trinkaus and P. Shipman, The Neanderthals (1993); J. Shreeve, The Neandertal Enigma (1995); I. Tattersall, The Last Neanderthal (1999); S. Paabo, Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes (2014).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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