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The Neanderthals

Neanderthal man existed from at least 150,000 years ago - perhaps as much as 230,000 - to about 30,000 years ago. The Neanderthals seem to have become adapted for life in cold environments associated with periods of glaciation. Their migrations south, into the Middle East, may have been to escape particularly cold winters, or perhaps to follow game, since they were efficient hunters. They were very heavily built, with an average height of up to 1.7 metres, and had powerful muscles, making them much stronger than modern humans. They had pronounced brow ridges, a receding forehead, pronounced jaw and a bulging back to the head. Brain size was slightly greater than that of the modern human.

In the Middle East the northern Neanderthals and the southern ‘modern’ humans came into contact. It was once suggested that the two species were so closely related that they could interbreed. However a comparison between DNA from mitochondria (energy-producing components within cells) from modern humans and fossil bone of Neanderthals indicates that Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalis were two entirely separate species, incapable of interbreeding, that diverged from a common stock between 550,000 and 690,000 years ago (Krings et. al., 1997Krings, M. et al. (1997) ‘Neanderthal DNA sequences and the origin of modern humans’ Cell 90, (1), 19-29).DNA in mitochondria descends through the mother and does not undergo the shuffling associated with the pairing of parental DNA. It therefore has a slow and even mutation rate, and is used to date species...There is no convincing explanation of why the Neanderthals disappeared about 30,000 years ago - no evidence of antagonism between Neanderthals and ‘modern’ humans; rather there seems to have been peaceful, though separate, co-existence.

There is evidence of ‘religious’ practice amongst at least some Neanderthal populations (the embryonic position and east-west orientation of some burials, burial with grave ‘goods’ such as flint tools, the possible scattering of flower blossoms - grape hyacinth, hollyhock and grounsel and boughs of pine - over the dead, the circling of a grave with six pairs of goat horns.cf Shreeve, J, The Neandertal Enigma (London: Viking, 1996) p53

It is assumed that both the Neanderthals and modern humans evolved from Homo erectus (see the evolution of hominids). The earliest ‘modern’ human beings, Homo sapiens, are found as fossils at sites in Africa and in the Middle East. These fossils have been assigned dates that range from 70,000 and 120,000 years ago.Rasmussen, DT, (ed.) The Origin and Evolution of Humans and Humanness (Boston, MA.: Jones and Bartlett, 1993) p84Two limestone caves in Israel, one at Skhul on Mount Carmel and the other on Mount Qafzeh, have provided some of the oldest ‘modern’ human remains.Bar-Yosef, O, and Van-Dermeersch, B, (1993) ‘Modern Humans in the Levant’, Scientific American 268, (4), pp64-70The Qafzeh Child skull (Qafzeh XI), belonging to a ten-year-old, is so modern that a caste of it could be easily confused with a 20th Century skull.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate and Dr. Michael Robert Negus
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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