Neanderthals were a race of hominids that developed alongside early humans. They first appeared in Africa about 700,000 years ago and slowly migrated into Europe and the Middle East. They shared almost all the same genetic classifications with Homo sapiens (us), but differed in the final category, species (Homo neanderthalensis). After about 40,000 years of sharing territory with humans in Europe, the Neanderthals died out while Homo sapiens kept evolving. So why didn’t the Neanderthals survive?
They weren’t smart enough. It was long conventional wisdom that Neanderthals were not very intelligent, but recent findings suggest Neanderthals had bigger heads and brains than humans.
They weren’t skilled hunters. Not true. It turns out that Neanderthal tools were actually more efficient than those crafted by early humans. Neanderthals are also believed to have had control over fire before Homo sapiens did, and to have cooked, rather than gathered, much of their food. (They actually ate healthier than most people do today.)
They couldn’t communicate well. Recent studies have led some scientists to conclude that Neanderthal voices were not incoherent grunts, as once believed, but high-pitched and melodic, and that their means of communicating may have been a combination of language, pitch, and song.
Far from being the brutish creatures of cliché, Neanderthals were probably the first hominids to bury their dead (they even left flowers on the grave sites). It is true that Neanderthals and humans looked different: Neanderthals were shorter and broader, with a heavier brow. But about the same percentage of Neanderthal and human DNA includes the genetic mutation that inhibits brown pigmentation, so Neanderthals were about as likely as humans to be pale-skinned, blond, or redheaded.
Native Africans, whose ancestors never lived alongside Neanderthals in Europe, have no Neanderthal DNA in their genomes—but pretty much all other people do. So when the last of them disappeared about 25,000 years ago, it’s possible they had already assimilated into the larger human population.
Where did the Neanderthals go? Look in the mirror.