For over 150 years, scientists have struggled to unravel the mystery of the Neanderthals. The first significant discovery was made in August 1856. A partial skeleton was found at the Feldhofer Cave in the Neander Valley, near Dusseldorf in Germany. This was the find that gave the species its name.
In 1908, French palaeontologist Marcellin Boule wrote about an almost complete Neanderthal skeleton from La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France. He published one of the first illustrations of Neanderthals alongside his scientific findings. His words were far from flattering, depicting a shuffling, bent-kneed, and hairy creature capable of "rudimentary intellectual abilities". The Neanderthal image was born.
Since Boule's beastly description, scientists have worked hard to rejuvenate the Neanderthal image. Neanderthal fossils have now been unearthed from over 80 sites in Europe, the Middle East and parts of Western Asia. The total remains represent less than 500 individuals and around half of these are children. As well as these bones, several hundred thousand stone tools have been found.
These discoveries, and the application of new investigative techniques, have cast a fresh light on the physical, social and cultural aspects of Neanderthal life. The infamous 'Old Man of La Chapelle', like the species as a whole, has largely been redeemed. The Neanderthal from La Chapelle is now known to have suffered from arthritis, his bent posture a product of the disease. Other discoveries have shown that Neanderthals cared for the sick and elderly; hardly the brutes of popular myth.
Every year, the Neanderthal story becomes a little more detailed, a little less blurred. But despite all our endeavours, the Neanderthals will probably keep some of their secrets buried forever. How long was their hair? What colour were their eyes? Perhaps we will never know, they're not the kind of things that fossilize. For now, scientists can dig, deliberate and make their best guesses about our remarkable ancient relations.
6 Key Neanderthal Discoveries
1856: Neanderthal remains discovered in the Neander Valley, Germany.
1908: Marcellin Boule publishes first major study of Neanderthals, portraying them as savage brutes.
1929-30s: Neanderthal and Modern Human skeletons found at caves around the Mount Carmel, Palestine (now Israel). They provide key information about the two species.
1957: Elderly Neanderthal found buried in Shanidar Cave, Iraq. Healed injuries on his battered body show that he was cared for until his death.
1979: A Neanderthal skeleton is discovered at Saint-Cesaire in France with Chatelperronian tools alongside. It sparked a re-evaluation of Neanderthals' tool making and intellectual abilities.
1997: DNA fragments recovered from the Neander Valley support the idea that Neanderthals and Modern Humans are from separate lines of evolution. Subsequent DNA tests have added further support to the argument that Neanderthals were a separate species from us.
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