Neanderthals on the Move

February 28, 2008

In a recently published study, Greek researchers have suggested that Neanderthal people may have been more mobile than once thought. This brings up a number of questions.

Who were these people? Where did they live? How long did they last? Why was it so surprising to find evidence that they may have moved a mere 12 miles over the course of an entire lifetime?

Neanderthal remains have been found in West and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and even Siberia.  Currently, we do not know of any Neanderthal remains in Australia, the Americas or Africa.

Here’s what we do know. Neanderthal people were named after the Neander river valley in Germany, where their fossilized remains were first discovered and studied in 1856. As more Neanderthal fossils were found and studied, it became clear that Neanderthal people and modern humans co-existed for thousands of years.

Neanderthal people were around as long ago as 250,000 years ago and survived until about 28,000 years ago. They may have even survived through 24,000 years ago.  However, scientists still differ as to when Neanderthal extinction occurred.

By comparison, modern humans – people like you and me – left Africa around 125,000 years ago, and were present in the Levant  90,000 years ago, as evidenced in finds from the Jebel Qafzeh cave in Israel.

Most scientists believe that the Neanderthal population in Europe was small and stable for a very long time. Things started to change with the arrival of modern humans, whose numbers continued to increase slowly as they migrated out of Africa and into other continents, including Europe. Evidence from the same region indicates that our ancestors and Neanderthals both lived in the same region for quite a while.

Questions have arisen regarding the nature of this coexistence. Was it friendly? Did they have offspring together? Did our ancestors wipe out the Neanderthal people, did they starve them to death by being more efficient hunters, or were Neanderthalers genetically swamped?

We’ll examine this topic further in the next post. Until then – what do you think? What would it be like to come face to face with a Neanderthal? Could you coexist with them peacefully? 

Authored By Dirk Van Tuerenhout

As curator of anthropology, Dirk is responsible for the museum’s artifact collection and is involved in its temporary and permanent anthropology exhibits. Dirk is an expert in human cultures; he curates the Museum’s Hall of the Americas and specializes in native American cultures like the Aztec and Maya.

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