Neanderthals and Humans: The Big Question

This from Discover Magazine:

The possibility that early humans attacked, killed, and drove small bands of Neanderthals to extinction has intrigued anthropologists and fascinated the public ever since Neanderthal bones were first studied in the mid-19th century. At first naturalists were not sure what to make of the funny-looking humanlike bones. But with publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, the idea that the bones were from a species closely related to us began to make sense. Eventually scientists recognized that Neanderthals were an extinct species that shared a common ancestor (probably Homo heidel­bergensis) with Homo sapiens. For thousands of years, Neanderthals were the only hominids living in Europe and parts of Asia. Then, around 50,000 years ago, early modern humans migrated into Europe from Africa. By 28,000 to 30,000 years ago, the Neanderthals had disappeared.

For more than a century after their discovery, our robust relatives were depicted as dumb brutes, but the Neanderthals have had something of a face-lift in recent years. They are now considered to have been intelligent (as smart as early modern humans, some anthropologists think), perhaps red-haired and pale-skinned, and capable of speech. They might even have created their own language. The more we learn about Neanderthals, the more familiar they seem. But one deep mystery remains: Whatever happened to them, and why did they disappear?  Continue reading…

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