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About 40,000 years ago, the European continent was home to another species of hominid at a time when modern humans first set foot there. The Neanderthals had been there for hundreds of thousands of years; so long that evolution into a distinct species has not yet occurred in our ancestral cradle, Africa. According to archaeological findings, the two humanoid species shared the vast territory of Europe for nearly 10,000 years before Neanderthals disappeared abruptly. The last traces were left in the caves of Gibraltar almost 28,000 years ago. The death of Neanderthals has made modern humans the last surviving human species. The question that arises is what caused their disappearance?

Neanderthal is often presented as the very archetype of the wild man. He lives in caves, goes hunting and fishing, has a slow mind and communicates only with guttural grunts. He has entangled hair and a grossly neglected beard. He is often depicted vaulted, bearing a club and dressed with animal skins singularly sewn. His name has even become synonymous with barbarian. However, archaeological research has shown that this portrait does not correspond to reality. The Neanderthals would have been monogamous and would have lived in separate small groups. They were very similar to modern man in many of their rituals; especially in the way they buried the dead and cared for their sick and wounded neighbors. Despite the fact that they communicated in a very primary way, they were great hunters and craftsmen and some traces found on Mediterranean islands testify to their ability to travel in open water. This indicates that some boat building techniques were known a very long time ago. Their great artistic talent is confirmed by several rock paintings left on the walls of caves and some dates of about 42,000 years.

Big differences

There are, however, enormous anatomical differences between Neanderthals and modern humans. The differences are mainly in the cranial box; inclined forehead and prominent eyebrows. Their chin was also much less prominent than us. Having lived in the cold climate of Europe, they were much better adapted, as their small sturdy stature suggests. Homo sapiens, which has evolved in the heat of the African savannah, is thinner and less stocky. But despite these notable differences, it would be difficult to distinguish Neanderthal from modern man if the former was to cut off his hair and dress with a pair of jeans and a shirt.

In addition to physiological differences, there were also cultural differences between Neanderthals and humans. Neanderthals had a rather antisocial behavior; they formed small groups and had very little contact with individuals outside their circle. This characteristic of the wild man would probably not go unnoticed in the modern era in which we are. Another interesting distinction is found in the stone tools used by Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens. The Mousterian name is given to Neanderthalian tools, which barely evolved over hundreds of millennia and betray the lack of adaptation of this now extinct species. It seems that unlike humans, Neanderthals were incapable of ingenuity or problem solving.

Two races of humans

Although it is impossible at the present time to say so with certainty, several archaeological discoveries indicate that Neanderthal forked 400,000 years ago from the line of evolution that led to modern man. The common ancestor would be Homo heidelbergensis, himself a descendant of Homo erectus. A group of Homo heidelbergensis apparently crossed over the European continent before being detached from the original population following a long period of glaciation. The radically different climatic conditions of the African continent and Europe would have given birth to two types of humanoid some 150,000 years ago. Neanderthals would have dispersed to Asia and the Middle East while modern humans began to leave Africa nearly 70,000 years ago. According to all indications, there has been very little contact between the two lines of evolution. The Neanderthal population gradually shrank over the millennia until only a few small surviving groups found themselves isolated in the caves of the Rock of Gibraltar. Possible causes of decline include the spread of disease and the confrontation and competition for the same resources with Homo sapiens. History tends to blame modern man, who has wreaked havoc everywhere he has colonized. He has eroded forests, decimated faunas and wiped out many indigenous peoples. It may be thought that a combination of these different factors contributed greatly to the extinction of Neanderthals, although there is no evidence to support these assumptions.

Climatic changes

At its peak, about 100,000 years ago, the Neanderthal man had spread to the far reaches of China. The decline then continued steadily before accelerating some 50,000 years ago. This era is characterized by high climatic instability and very intense cold waves. It is likely that a sudden change in climate has resulted in a decrease in the number of prey species available to Neanderthal hunters. What was once forest was replaced by tundra and steppe. Unable to change their tools and hunting methods, Neanderthals have not been able to adapt quickly enough to new circumstances. The population then fell dramatically before the last survivors fled to southern Spain, where climate change was less severe. If we rely on this theory, the extinction of the Neanderthal is not the fault of modern man but rather the blow of fate.

Interesting questions were raised in 2010 when the complete sequence of wild man's DNA was first published. The results showed that the genes of modern man are inherited between 1 and 4% of Neanderthals. So there were crosses between Sapiens and Neanderthals that produced viable descendants. This leads us to wonder whether Sapiens, Neanderthals and Heidelbergensis are really distinct species. If we follow this reasoning, then the Neanderthal man has not completely disappeared; it has simply merged into the modern population by different crossroads as evidenced by our DNA.