Neanderthals are considered to be the closest extinct “relatives” of humans. Therefore, it is not surprising that their relationship with Homo sapiens is one of the topical research topics of scientists.
Recent findings have helped to understand the dangers faced by Neanderthals, learn about the skills that helped them survive for millennia, why they looked different from Cro-Magnons, and how they possibly saved Homo sapiens from extinction.
From the very first days, when researchers learned about the extinct hominids, the question arose: why the faces of Neanderthals are very different from the same Cro-Magnons. Compared to modern humans, their strongly protruding faces had distinctly high cheekbones and large noses.
One well-known theory suggested that such facial features provided Neanderthals with the ability to bite harder. Earlier studies of tooth damage showed that Neanderthals used their jaws as a third hand to hold onto something. However, a newer 2018 study of human and Neanderthal skulls proved the theory flawed.
It turned out that modern people have a more substantial bite but at the same time thinner facial features. As it turns out, these differences may have something to do with material needs. Neanderthals had more muscular bodies that used more energy (up to 4,480 calories per day).
They move a lot and sometimes lived in crisp conditions. The study found that Neanderthals could inhale 29 percent more air through their noses than humans, thanks to their facial features. These allowed a significant improvement in oxygen consumption, which could help maintain high hominid activity during the winter.
Mystery of the separation of humans and Neanderthals
The human lineage is incredibly complex. Despite all the fossils found and modern DNA technology, scientists still don’t know the complete history of hominid evolution. In particular, they cannot find the unknown common ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals.
It also remains unclear when they split into different species. It is believed that modern humans appeared 300,000 years ago, but the evidence for the existence of Neanderthals is highly confusing. The oldest found remains of this species are 400,000 years old, but some genetic studies found traces of the split of some ancient hominids into humans and Neanderthals 650,000 years ago.
In 2018, researchers studied fossil teeth that were found in two locations in the Apennine Peninsula. There was no way they could determine what kind of hominid they belonged to. However, during the study, the distinctive features of the Neanderthal species were found. DNA results showed that both teeth were 450,000 years old. These confirmed the assumption that the split into homo sapiens and Neanderthals occurred more than half a million years ago. The same era when humans and Neanderthals became completely separate species remains unknown.
In 2010, the remains of a seven-year-old Neanderthal boy were found among the bones of a group of 12 adults and children in El Sidron Cave in Spain. They died 49,000 years ago. A recent study of the boy’s remains revealed exciting things. For example, he did not differ at all in height from a modern seven-year-old child. This similarity could be one of the reasons the two species interbred so easily.
Although it is already known that Neanderthals had a large brain volume, the boy was still developing (his brain volume was 87.5% of the average volume in an adult). In a modern child of the same age, it is about 95 percent. Neanderthal children matured more slowly, suggesting that the adults cared for and trained them for a longer time. Another difference was found in the boy’s spine.
Tailors and artists
Despite many discoveries showing that Neanderthals were not violent cavemen, their image as rough and clumsy hominids persists. In 2018, the results of a study showed a completely unexpected side of the Neanderthals. It turns out that their hands were entirely adapted for such delicate activities as tailoring and creating art objects. Scientists have scanned the hands of modern builders, artists, and even butchers.
The scientist then turned their attention to how they developed entheses (the connections between tendons and bones that show which muscles are used the most). For comparison, the hands of 12 prehistoric people (both homo sapiens and Neanderthals) who lived about 40,000 years ago were checked and analyzed. Only half of the prehistoric people had entheses on their thumb and forefinger, which indicates that they were engaged in delicate work.
When studying the history of Neanderthals, their medical skills are often overlooked. These hominids have existed for thousands of years, with small groups in which each person was probably considered valuable to the group.
Neanderthals only learned to survive when they developed their health care practices. In 2018, the remains of over 30 Neanderthals who had any physical problems were examined. Interestingly, they all recovered from various injuries during their lives, and on the remains of each found evidence that these injuries were treated.
This was the first conclusive evidence that Neanderthals had an advanced medical system. Moreover, researchers now believe that Neanderthal healers even practiced obstetrics.
Strange message in stone
Several decades ago, researchers discovered an adult Neanderthal and a child in the Crimean Kiik-Koba cave. When re-examined in 2018, a flint knife with strange 13 marks on its surface was found in the cave. The artifact was about 35,000 years old, and the lines on it were not drawn by chance.
Scientists hypothesized that a Neanderthal with relatively well-developed hand coordination and eye gauge used several pointed stone tools to create zigzag lines. Such efforts also required a lot of mental focus. Scientists also concluded that this process was too laborious to be the usual scribbles of a bored Neanderthal so that the patterns could carry some specific information. Naturally, hardly anyone will know what this message was.
Genes that resist flu
A scary 2018 study by scientists at Stanford University showed that modern humans could once become extinct from the flu. And they were saved only by mating with Neanderthals. Most Europeans today have about 2 percent Neanderthal DNA. Were examined 4500 human genes that interact with viruses. Surprisingly, 152 of them were inherited from Neanderthals and served to protect against hepatitis C and modern influenza A.
When humans first came to Europe, Neanderthals had lived in the region for millennia. Their genetic code was already well adapted to fight European infectious diseases. This was not the case with the new immigrants from Africa. If two groups never met, people would naturally have to develop their disease resistance. Thus, they could become extinct from the common flu.
They hunted in groups
About 120 thousand years ago, two deer died, whose remains were found in 1988 and 1997 in Germany’s Neumark-Nord region. These bones “told” exciting facts about Neanderthals. In 2018, researchers examined the skeletons and found that cave dwellers had killed the deer. The bones bore marks identical to those of the Neanderthal spears.
These led to the assumption that a skilled group of hunters killed the animals. If proven, this fact will surely “hammer another nail in the coffin” of the theory that Neanderthals were “stupid cavemen.” Scientists made hunting simulations like spears that they threw at real deer skeletons wrapped in ballistic gel to simulate soft tissue. Bone damage was consistent with those found on the bones of ancient deer.
A child eaten by birds
A terrible find was made in the Polish Ciemna Cave in 2018. About 115,000 years ago, a Neanderthal child died at the age of 5-7 years. Although it is unclear exactly how this child died, he may have been killed by giant birds of prey, which were a considerable danger in prehistoric times.
It turned out that such a bird had indeed eaten the child since the damage was found on his finger bones, characteristic of passage through the digestive tract. It is also viable that something else caused the child’s death, and the bird ate his corpse.
The strangest study of Neanderthals was carried out in a California laboratory. In 2018, while trying to understand why Neanderthals became extinct, and people still flourish, scientists decided to grow a caveman’s brain.
Since the complete Neanderthal genome was already known, it took several genetic tricks to transform human stem cells into brain cells corresponding to a lost hominid. Then another step was to grow an organoid (a smaller version of an organ).
It took 6-8 months for the mini-brain to grow about 0.5 centimeters. The most exciting thing was the shape of what came out. Human brain organoids are circular, but the Neanderthal brain organoid turned out to look like some unusual popcorn. The neural network was also less complex than in humans. This does not necessarily mean that Neanderthals were stupider; they were just a little different.