Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Brothers or Cousins? Volume 53 Number 5, September/October 2000
by Jean-Jacques Hublin

Climate change and competition from modern humans led to the demise of the Neandertals.

[image] Discovery of the Saint-Césaire Neandertal (reconstructed skull, left) proved that Neandertals were associated with transitional artifact assemblages once thought to have belonged only to modern humans. Excavations in the early 1990s at Zafarrya Cave (right) in southern Spain demonstrated that this area was a cul-de-sac where Neandertals survived long after the arrival of modern humans. (Jean-Jacques Hublin)

Meeting a male Neandertal face to face would be an unforgettable experience. He would have the bodily proportions of an Eskimo, with a long trunk and incredibly powerful shoulders and arms. He would weigh a muscular 200 pounds, and have a huge head with a long face, a big projecting nose, no chin, receding cheeks, and big eye sockets surmounted by a continuous browridge. Neandertal facial characteristics are so distinct that even primary school children can distinguish a Neandertal skull from a modern one.

Discovered more than a century-and-a-half ago, Neandertals are the most studied group of fossil hominids. The debate over the causes of their extinction and their relation to modern humans is one of the most passionate in the field of palaeoanthropology. Indeed, the Neandertals are not a remote species of extinct primates, but rather our closest neighbors in the hominid family tree. Discussing their biology and behavior means talking about our own.


Chimpanzee, modern human, and Neandertal inner ears (left to right) have different shapes, suggesting that Neandertals, relative to Homo sapiens, were a distinct sub-species or even a species of hominids.

Interestingly, scholars and the public have viewed Neandertals differently over the years. While in the past Neandertals were often (but not always) imagined as ape-like hairy brutes, there is now a tendency to depict them as pacific, crafty hunter-gatherers just a shade stockier than modern humans but otherwise much like us. That Neandertals and early modern humans coexisted in Europe for 10,000 years and shared culture and technology while representing different species or sub-species of hominids is for some an uncomfortable fact. The present need among some researchers to integrate the Neandertals' behavior and biology with that of modern humans is a misguided response.

Jean-Jacques Hublin, a director of research at France's Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, is head of the Dynamics of Human Evolution Laboratory.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America