Neanderthal—old humans that are new men

I am fascinated by our relationship with Neanderthals. They were the unlucky branch of the hominin family—that disappeared about 28,000 years ago. Their name has a little irony in its creation that may be quite appropriate.

Who were the neanderthals

Neanderthals are our cousins. We had a common ancestor around 500,000 years ago. They likely evolved outside Africa in the cold north of Europe and Asia and adapted to survive. Their short limbs and torso helped conserve heat, and their wide noses helped warm and humidify air as they breathed. They may have had lighter coloured skin and eyes to synthesis more Vitamin D and to see better in the lower light.

Old humans that are new men

During the age of Roman revenge and gothic revival, scholars differentiated themselves from the uneducated by adopting classically-derived names. A German intellectual named Neumann (English “new man”) converted his name to the Greek, Neander. His grandson, Joachim Neander, was a rector famous for his hymn-writing. Joachim was inspired by a little river valley near Düsseldorf in Germany and wrote some of his hymns there. After his death in 1680 the local people named  the gorge after him. It became Neander’s Valley or Neanderthal (“thal” or “tal” means valley in German).

In 1864, a Neanderthal skeleton was found in a cave in the Neander Valley. Homo neanderthalensis became the first fossil hominid species to be named. Later, scientists realised that earlier discoveries—in 1829 at Engis, Belgium; and in 1848 at Forbes Quarry, Gibraltar—were also Neanderthals but the name had already been given.

Neanderthal lifestyle

Studies suggest that Neanderthals were smarter than us. Although smaller they were more robustly built with a relatively larger brain. The first ritual burial by hominids was by the Neanderthal. They painted the bodies with ochre and buried them with flowers. Perhaps the beginning of existential thought, an understanding of death and the emotion of parting.

Neanderthals made and used sophisticated tools for hunting and sewing. They occasionally made symbolic objects. They used fire, lived in shelters, and made clothing They hunted large animals. Their bones show lots of fractures, similar to the injuries in professional rodeo riders. It shows they were frequently injured in the hunt.

Did we interbreed?

There had been a long debate between human anthropologists as to whether modern humans and Neanderthals interbred. It was solved in 2010 when fossil DNA from a Neanderthal skeleton was analysed (sequenced). The sequence was then compared with our DNA to show that modern non-African humans may have between 1% and 4% Neanderthal DNA.

So, when I look into someone’s green, blue or hazel eyes I think that I might be looking into the eyes of our long lost cousin and I am pleased that there is something of the Neanderthal left.