For too long, the Neanderthals have been seen as dim-witted evolutionary dead-enders with strange-looking heads. Now advances in DNA technologies have forced a reassessment of the Neanderthals’ place in our own past. The Neanderthals’ story has been transformed thanks to new discoveries and paradigm-shattering scientific innovations. It turns out that the Neanderthals’ behaviour was surprisingly modern. They buried the dead, cared for the sick, hunted large animals, harvested seafood, used red paint and spoke.
If Neanderthals were so advanced, what caused their extinction? This is just one of many mysteries that we are inching ever closer to solving. By looking at the full Neanderthal story, we can better address the biggest mystery of all: what it means to be human.
The authors take a new approach in order to make a fairer assessment of a species whose name is often used as a pejorative. They look at the Neanderthals through the full arc of their existence – from their evolution in Europe to their expansion to Siberia, their subsequent extinction (and ultimately to their revival in popular novels, cartoons, cult movies and TV commercials!). The superiority of Homo sapiens suddenly seems less obvious or inevitable. Neanderthals evolved in Europe very much in parallel to the Homo sapiens line evolving in Africa. When both species made their first forays into Asia, the Neanderthals may even have had the upper hand.