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New Ideas about the Neanderthal Extinction

A modern human cranium (left) and a Neanderthal cranium (right). Modern humans have a globe-shaped braincase with steep sides, our foreheads lack a prominent bony ridge about the eye sockets, and our faces are shorter and flatter with scalloped cheeks. Credit: BirdImages/iStockphoto

A modern human cranium (left) and a Neanderthal cranium (right). Modern humans have a globe-shaped braincase with steep sides, our foreheads lack a prominent bony ridge about the eye sockets, and our faces are shorter and flatter with scalloped cheeks. Credit: BirdImages/iStockphoto

By Darren Curnoe

Were modern humans so superior that they drove Neanderthals to extinction, or did their lonely existence leave them genetically vulnerable?

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The Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) are a species of extinct human relatives that occupied Europe, West Asia and Central Asia from around 400,000 to a little less than 40,000 years ago. Science has known about them for more than 180 years, and they were the first extinct hominin to be discovered, pushing our understanding of human origins beyond a Biblical timeline for the Earth.

Scientists studying human evolution are fascinated by them for a multitude of reasons, with more written about them than any other extinct species. This year has already seen dozens of scientific articles published about them, and we’re only halfway through the year!

The Neanderthals are also deeply embedded in Western culture as the archetypal “caveman”, and have historically been given a bad wrap. In the English language we even use the term “Neanderthal” in a derogatory way to describe an ignorant or unenlightened person. So, why the fascination with them?

A Little Bit of History

The first Neanderthal fossil was found at Engis Cave in Belgium by Philippe-Charles Schmerling in 1829. Schmerling found fragments from the skull of a Neanderthal child. Slightly earlier, in 1823, a fossil had been found at Paviland Caves in Wales, but we now know it to be a member of Homo sapiens.

Quite remarkably, these two European caves provided the earliest evidence for...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.