The first Neanderthal bones were found in 1856 and were initially dismissed as those of a recently dead Cossack. Controversy about the Neanderthals has gone on ever since. Were they ancestral to us or a separate species which evolved in parallel? Could they speak, and, if so, how well? What was their social life like? Why did they die out? The reconstructions of Neanderthal skeletons that have been done over the years to show what they looked like reflect this controversy; in some, they appear nasty, hairy and brutish, apelike and stooping, while in others they are shown upright and barely distinguishable from modern humans. Such reconstructions tell us as much about ourselves as they do about the Neanderthals.
So who were they, and where did they come from? The most favoured story at present goes like this. An ancestor of modern man, called Homo erectus, came out of Africa about a million years ago. and began to spread out, at first into the Middle East and southern Europe. Later much of the world was colonized. Most authorities think that the Neanderthals evolved from Homo erectus, either directly or via an intermediate species called "archaic Homo sapiens"; there is much disagreement about the details. People with some features of the Neanderthals appear on the scene about 180,000 years ago and fully developed Neanderthals are found from about 130,000 years ago; they finally disappear about 35,000 years ago. What happened to them? One view is that they evolved into us; we are the Neanderthals. Another is that new people, modern humans, arrived in a second wave from Africa and replaced the Neanderthals, perhaps by out-competing them, perhaps even by killing them, although there is no evidence for that. Stringer and Gamble favour the second theory, in part because of the genetic evidence based on mitochondrial DNA.
In this book the authors discuss the ancestry of the Neanderthals and much more besides. In particular, they set the Neanderthals in their environment in a way that brings them to life. There were wide fluctuations in climate during the long span of time for which they existed as ice ages came and went, but for much of the time it was cold and physically they were adapted for cold. They were short-limbed and strongly built, and had very large noses, perhaps to allow the air they breathed in to become warmed. Their lives were very hard; most of their skeletons show evidence of fractures. Their brain cases were, on average, rather larger than ours.
Although they were physically quite similar to us, their way of life was very different from that of our own ancestors. They lived in small groups and did not have a culture in the modern sense. They had no art and did not trade among themselves. Thus the fundamental difference between ancient and modern people is social. Did they bury their dead, and, if so, does this hint at the beginnings of religion? Probably not. Stringer and Gamble think that the Neanderthal burials that have been found suggest simple disposal rather than ritual.
Could the Neanderthals talk? The evidence is equivocal. Anthropologists have tried to answer this question anatomically, trying to decide if they were capable of modulating their voice sufficiently for speech, but there is no agreement about this. Stringer and Gamble think they probably could speak simply and slowly but had no need to develop complex language.
It's interesting to speculate on how our view of ourselves would be different if there still existed more than one species of Homo. The world would be more interesting, but I have a nasty feeling that we would treat the Neanderthals in the way that we treated the Tasmanians. (In fact, perhaps this is exactly what happened.) Nevertheless, it seems a pity that they are no longer with us. But there it is; and all we can do now is read about them. Several books on the Neanderthals have appeared in the last few years; this is one of the best. I found that reading it produced in me a feeling of affection for these people, whether they were true ancestors or merely close cousins. I'd like to know more about them.