During the ice age, Europe was inhabited by a race of physically powerful and intelligent people known as Neanderthals. The Neanderthals had large brains, language, clothing, shelters, fire, tools, and maybe even art—but they were not the same species as us. When our own species finally spread from Africa to Europe 40,000 years ago, the Neanderthals vanished.
Homo neanderthalensis (HOE-moe nee-AN-der-thaw-LEN-siss)
■ When: 350,000–30,000 years ago (Neogene)
■ Fossil location: Europe and Asia
■ Habitat: Ice age grasslands and woodlands
■ Height: 5 ft 5 in (1.66 m)
■ Diet: Mainly meat
Neanderthals were shorter, stockier, and far stronger than us. Their compact build helped them cope with the cold environment, and their great strength was needed for hunting wild animals as big as mammoths, although they probably scavenged for meat, too. Their brains were at least as big as ours, but their heads were flatter in shape, with a lower, more sloping forehead, a heavy ridge of bone over the eyes, a huge nose, and large jaws that jutted forward.
To survive the freezing cold of the Ice age, the Neanderthals used fire to keep their homes warm. They wore clothes made of animal skin and fur, much like Arctic people do today. They may even have lined their beds with rabbit fur to keep themselves snug at night.
Like Homo erectus, the Neanderthals made stone tools by chipping flakes off a rock to form a sharp edge. Their tools were much more varied than those of Homo erectus and included heavy-duty hand axes; smaller, more delicate knives; and spearheads. Neanderthals probably also made tools from wood that have not survived.
Clues from bones
Scientists have found the remains of around 275 Neanderthals. Wear
marks and injuries on the bones reveal that their owners endured great physical stress and often violence. The injuries match those of rodeo riders—perhaps Neanderthals wrestled with the animals they hunted. Some Neanderthal bones bear scratches made by stone tools. Some experts think this means Neanderthals were cannibals. Others think the dead were “defleshed” in religious ceremonies before burial.
The Neanderthal voicebox was just like ours, which means Neanderthals could probably speak.
Six feet under
Neanderthal skeletons have been found in what appear to be graves, suggesting that Neanderthals deliberately buried their dead. Unlike later humans, however, they seldom placed sacred or precious objects with the bodies.