Once we thought of them as mere brutes. But a series of recent discoveries shows the Neanderthals in a haunting new light. Steve Connor reports on a dark skeleton in humanity's cupboard
New thinking on an old conundrum
Much has been unearthed about Neanderthal Man since a skull and bones were famously dug out of the Neander Valley near Dsseldorf in 1856. But not since that date has there been such excitement about this archaic form of humanity. He was a thick-set, muscular sort with a tough jaw, but diminutive chin. Not very tall, but with more intelligence than originally given credit, the Neanderthal occupied much of Europe for about 200,000 years prior to the arrival of anatomically modern humans - our own species, Homo sapiens.
Yet there is one enduring puzzle about this early cousin of ours that is now engaging scientists in frenzied debate. If the Neanderthal managed to survive for so long and lived through an ice age, what caused them to disappear? Was it, as some have suggested, a period of intense climate change that even they could not adapt to?
Or did it have something to do with the arrival of a taller, less bulky but more intelligent rival?
This debate over the demise of the Neanderthal has sparked unprecedented levels of interest in them - and us. It raises issues about human nature and what sort of ancestors we came from. Could the disappearance of a closely related human being perhaps tell us something about the brutish nature of our own species?
And, perhaps the most difficult question of all, did the loss of the Neanderthal from Europe represent something more violent? Could it have been an early form of ethnic cleansing perpetrated by our direct ancestors?
The latest evidence appears to point in the direction of the Neanderthal being pushed out of their European heartland rather than being struck down by a change in weather patterns. A team of scientists led by Katerina Harvati of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig has all but ruled out climate change as the sole cause of their demise.
"Our findings suggest that there was no single, abrupt climatic event that caused the extinction of the Neanderthal," Dr Harvati said yesterday.
"Only a controversial date for very late Neanderthal survival places their disappearance just before a major environmental shift. But even in this case the role of climate would have been indirect, perhaps by promoting migration and competition with other human groups.
"This leaves a whole range of other possibilities which could have included other forms of competition with modern humans. We can only speculate on how that competition took place."
The research, published today in the journal Nature, compared radiocarbon dating of Neanderthal bones and archaeological artefacts with data of climate fluctuations that have occurred in the North Atlantic region - which has dominated the climatic history of western Europe. "Until now, there have been three limitations to understanding the role of climate in the Neanderthal extinction," said Professor Chronis Tzedakis, of the University of Leeds, a member of the research team. "These are: uncertainty over the exact timing of their disappearance, uncertainties in converting radiocarbon dates to actual calendar years, and the chronological imprecision of the ancient climate record. We have circumvented the last two problems."
Some scientists believe it is no coincidence that the demise of the Neanderthal coincided with the arrival of modern humans in Europe about 50,000 years ago. Once the Neanderthal's range stretched from the Middle East and the north Caucasus to the Balkans and Portugal. But their habitat gradually shrank with the arrival of modern humans. Their last enclave seems to be a cave system in Gibraltar at the southern tip of Spain where Neanderthal …