The Neanderthal vs Humans debate has gained a lot of traction over the last couple of years. The latest discovery of Neanderthal fossils in 2019 has put Ernst Mayr’s biological species concept under a lot of scrutiny.
According to Ernst Mayr, a group of organisms can only be considered to be of the same species if they can interbreed and give fertile offspring.
While this concept played a crucial role in the classification of organisms in the early 19s, it has since lost its reliability. Recent scientific evidence points to different species of mammals interbreeding.
Supporting evidence from recent genetic research indicates that the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) and the modern human (Homo Sapiens) interbred outside Africa 55,000 years ago!
Neanderthals vs Humans: Are We Of The Same Species?
Although Neanderthals and humans are classified as different species, there is an ongoing scientific debate on the matter.
The discussion partly revolves around the biological species concept, which asserts that organisms that can interbreed cannot belong to distinct species.
Recent scientific discoveries indicate that Neanderthals and early modern humans interbred to some extent about 500,000 years ago.
Consequent to that, humans whose ancestry roots outside Africa at that time (non-African) ended up having a small portion of Neanderthal DNA, about 2% of their genome.
Based on these findings, Neanderthal’s ability to interbreed with humans to produce fertile offspring would suggest that the two belong to the same species. However, the validity of this statement is pegged on the acceptance of the biological species concept.
Some researchers argue that Neanderthals should be considered a subspecies of Homo sapiens, making them Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. Others, like Chris Stringer, maintain that they are a separate species, Homo neanderthalensis.
What Do Humans Have in Common with Neanderthals?
Although Humans and Neanderthals are still classified into different species, the two have a lot of similarities. These shared characteristics are brought about by their close evolutionary relationship.
The two species are believed to share a common ancestry and are more closely related than any other species within the Homo Genus. Some of the similarities between the two include;
1. Genetic Heritage
Scientific evidence from both fossils and genomic research indicates that the two species underwent divergent evolution at least 500,00 years ago.
Due to limitations in dating and fossil anatomy, scientists are unable to ascertain whether the last shared ancestry was Homo heidelbergensis, Homo antecessor, or another species. However, the Neanderthals certainly lived alongside early humans for a while.
2. Social Structures
Archaeological evidence suggests that Neanderthals exhibited some form of social structure. They are believed to have had a complex culture similar to that of humans.
For instance, Neanderthals are believed to have lived in groups, cared for the sick, and engaged in social activities. Recent discoveries have also shown that Neanderthals buried their dead and engaged in symbolic behaviors such as creating art and body decoration using pigments.
Some scholars, however, debate the degree of symbolic behavior portrayed by Neanderthals. They believe that the rare sighting of art and adornment associated with them was either copied from or traded with modern humans. This is because they don’t think the Neanderthals had the cognitive ability to create art and symbols.
3. Use of Tools
Both Neanderthals and early modern humans were tool users. They created and used stone tools for various purposes, such as hunting, butchering animals, and processing plant materials.
The Neanderthals had an advanced toolkit classified as Mode 3, commonly called Mousterian, named after the Le Moustier site.
They later perfected their craftsmanship to make more sophisticated tools like blades at the end of their history in Europe. This was about the time that modern man was beginning to settle on the continent.
Many archeologists argue that Neanderthals copied the kind of tools they had observed from modern humans to come up with their Chatelperronian.
4. Language and Communication
While there is no direct evidence of Neanderthal language, some researchers believe that they had some form of communication. It is argued that since they had anatomical features necessary for speech, they probably had a primitive language system.
Their relatively large brains, compared to their body size, also suggest that they could handle complex cognitive functions like communication.
Neanderthal vs Humans: How We Differ
Despite sharing a common ancestry, there existed several notable differences between Neanderthals and modern humans.
While the exact nature and extent of these distinctions continue to be a subject of ongoing research and discussion, some of the agreed-upon differences include:
1. Physical Features
Neanderthals are believed to have had robust, stocky build with short limbs with narrow pelvic bones. On the other hand, homo sapiens had a more gracile physique with long limbs and wider pelvic bones.
Neanderthals also had a distinctive cranial morphology characterized by a large, elongated skull with a prominent brow ridge. In contrast, modern humans have a rounder skull and lack the pronounced brow ridge.
Additionally, Neanderthals had a larger nasal cavity, suggesting differences in respiratory systems.
2. Technological Differences
The Homo neanderthalensis is associated with a specific stone tool tradition called the Mousterian. Their tools were bifacial, flaked on both sides.
In contrast, modern humans used more sophisticated and diverse tools, including arrows, spears, composite stone tools, fishhooks, and harpoons.
3. Cultural Differences
There is evidence that modern humans have more sophisticated symbolic behavior and art. These behaviors were expressed through cave paintings, jewelry, and other artistic expressions. On the other hand, there is limited evidence of symbolic behavior in the Neanderthal archaeological record.
What did Neanderthals look like?
The Neanderthals had distinct features that set them apart from other Homo Genus. Their average height is estimated to be about 5.3 to 5.9 feet (1.6 to 1.8 meters), with some regional variation.
They had a robust and stocky build, characterized by a strong, muscular physique. Neanderthals also had a barrel-shaped ribcage for additional lung capacity that offered them greater endurance in demanding activities. Their build was vital for survival in the challenging environments in which they lived.
They also had a large, elongated skull with a prominent brow ridge (supraorbital torus) that extended over their eyes. Their skull had a somewhat flattened face and a large, distinctive nose with wide nasal openings. This adaptation is related to the warming and moistening of the cold, dry air of Ice Age Europe.
Their limbs were relatively shorter than their body size, with robust hands and fingers. They also had relatively short, strong thumbs.
Although their exact hair and skin color cannot be determined from fossils, it’s believed they had adaptations for living in northern latitudes.
Some archeologist suggests that they might have had fair skin covered with red hair. This could have been advantageous in absorbing more vitamin D in low-light environments.
The Extinction of Neanderthals
While there is no cut-through explanation for the disappearance of the Neanderthals, these two theories have gained the most traction;
1. Homo Neanderthalensis Interbred with Homo Sapiens
Followers of this theory believe that Neanderthals interbred with Homo Sapiens on a large scale. Since the population of homo sapiens was more prominent, the Neanderthals ended up being diluted to extinction.
They argue that while Neanderthals may no longer exist as organisms, their genes were present in early humans and might still exist.
Proponents of this theory further argue that there exist features of homo sapiens in the recent Neanderthal species. For instance, the Vindija Neanderthals appeared to be more modern than the preceding versions, citing evidence of interbreeding.
Their research also shows the presence of Neanderthal features in modern Europeans. It is not unusual to find Europeans with mandibular foramen shaped like that of the Neanderthal man. In some isolated cases, one can also observe the distinct retromolar gap.
2. Homo Sapiens Replaced Homo Neanderthalensis
This second theory attributed the extinction of Neanderthals to the emergence of the Homo Sapiens. Archeological evidence suggests that the modern human was better adapted to the environment than the Neanderthal.
The evidence further indicates that Neanderthals, ranging from Spain to Siberia, had a small population with limited diversity. Genomic studies on the fossils of a female found in the Alps showed systemic inbreeding in her lineage, hinting at low population and isolation.
The encroachment of modern humans to Europe about 10,000 years ago led to competition for resources. Following Darwin’s theory of survival, Homo Sapiens eventually prevailed over Neanderthals.
Biologically, Neanderthals’ reproductive and survival rates also appeared to be lower than Homo Sapiens. More than half of all the Neanderthal fossils are of children.
The oldest adult remains are barely over 30 years of age which was way lower than that of homo sapiens. This disparity in survival rates could explain how the Neanderthals became extinct.
The Neanderthals vs human debate has been around for a while and is not going anywhere soon. Their similarity and differences continue to spark discussion among researchers around the world. The fact that both species share a common ancestry makes it even more challenging to distinguish them clearly.
Although the two are considered different species, contracting evidence between their classification continues to mount. What do you think? Do Neanderthals and homo sapiens belong to the same species?