Homo sapiens neanderthalensis

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Homo sapiens neanderthalensis

Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, commonly referred to as Neanderthal man, is a species of the hominid (human) family Homo sapiens that disappeared about 30,000 years ago. As an early member of this species, Neanderthals were shorter and stockier than today's humans and had differently shaped heads with heavy ridges over the eyes, although their brains were as large as that of modern humans. Neanderthals existed about the same time as modern man emerged, and it is not known whether they were assimilated into the new group by interbreeding or were somehow made extinct by violence or disease.

The first fossil finds of Neanderthals were made in Germany in 1856, and simply by studying the heavy-ridged brows of the skulls, it was realized that if these bones were human, they were those of a distant ancestor. Eventually these and other bones were dated to between 70,000 to 35,000 years ago, and their rugged bodies indicated that they had adapted to an existence in a cold climate. For some time, Neanderthals were considered to be a form of prehuman brutes, but the size of their brains was shown to be as big or bigger than modern man's. When Neanderthal stone tools and weapons were later found that were more advanced than their predecessors, Homo erectus, it was realized that Neanderthals were not as primitive as believed. Neanderthals also demonstrated the beginnings of certain cultural activities that would become a human trademark. One of these was the simple fact that they buried their dead in special graves, suggesting that they had some awareness and sensitivity to the permanent loss of an individual.

Neanderthal fossils have also been found in Asia dating from as far back as 125,000 years ago to as recent as 35,000 years, and aside from anatomical differences in their pelvis, shoulder blades, and skull, they did not look that much different from modern humans. Their skulls, however, did show heavy eyebrow ridges and facial bones. This would have made their facial features much less delicate or refined than those of today's humans. The contents of their skulls, however, were similar, and their brain size ranged between 1,300 and 1,750 cubic centimeters (512.2 to 689.5 cubic inches), much like modern man's. Neanderthals had sophisticated tools and they probably lived in caves and rock shelters. Today, there is disagreement as to whether Neanderthals are part of the gene pool that gave rise to modern humans. A controversial comparison of Neanderthal DNA obtained from fossil bones has not proved conclusively whether Neanderthals were our ancestors or whether they were a dead-end branch on the human tree.

Researchers had previously thought that human speech began about 40,000 years ago when Homo sapiens sapiens emerged. However, a recent study argues that for thousands of years prior to this, Neanderthals had the ability to speak. This claim is based on the diameter of a nerve canal that connects the brain and the tongue in Neanderthal skulls. This "hypoglossal" canal is roughly the same size as that in a modern human skull, and implies that Neanderthals may have had the necessary physical equipment for speech. Whether they were modern humans' direct ancestors, an evolutionary deadend, or a species that succumbed to disease or slaughter, researchers continue to study Neanderthal fossils in order to educate themselves about human evolution.

[See alsoFossil; Hominid; Human Evolution ]