Talking about Neanderthals

12 February 2009

Who were the Neanderthals? How closely related to us were they and why did they die out?

The Natural History Museum’s evolution expert, Professor Chris Stringer, reveals the facts about Neanderthals when he speaks at the world-famous AAAS science conference in Chicago, USA, this Friday.

On Thursday, scientists at the same conference announced the first draft of the Neanderthal genome. An important step in helping us to understand more about the similarities and differences between modern humans and Neanderthals.

Extinct relatives
Model head of a Neanderthal man

Model head of a Neanderthal man

Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis, are our best-known extinct relatives. These ancient people were closely related to, but a distinct species from us, Homo sapiens.

‘Neanderthals are particularly interesting because they and modern humans overlapped and may have crossed paths, particularly in Europe between 35–40,000 years ago,’ says Stringer.

‘However, around 30,000 years ago Neanderthals disappeared, and the scientific jury is still out as to the reason why.’

Theories of extinction

Researchers have many theories as to why Neanderthals may have died out, from disease, warfare, competition for food or climatic changes. 

Some argue that early modern humans interbred with Neanderthals and genetically absorbed them. However, the genome study announced today, suggests this is not the case.

‘Neanderthals covered a large range in time and space,’ adds Stringer. 

‘We need to take a wide view of them, since the fascinating events that took place in western Europe some 35,000 years ago were only the endpoints of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution and potential interaction between these lineages.’

Stringer examines the evidence for Neanderthals gathered from fossil, archaeological and, the more recent genetic data.

AHOB and RESET

Stringer leads the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project that is reconstructing the earliest human colonisations of Britain.

Neanderthal skull from Gibraltar

Neanderthal skull from Gibraltar

The initial findings of the project are outlined in Stringer’s recent award-winning book, Homo britannicus.

Stringer is also a member of a project called RESET (Response of Humans to Abrupt Environmental Transitions), which is investigating how Neanderthal and early modern humans coped with rapid climate change.

AAAS conference

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world's largest general scientific society and their annual meeting on 12-16 February brings together experts to address crucial areas of science, technology and engineering.

Professor Chris Stringer is speaking at The Origin of the Human Species session on Friday.

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany announced the first draft of the Neanderthal genome.