Homo neanderthalensis the smithsonian institution’s human origins program

Compared to early humans living in tropical Africa, with more abundant edible plant foods available year-round, the number of plant foods Neanderthals could eat would have dropped significantly during the winter of colder climates, forcing Neanderthals to exploit other food options like meat more heavily. There is evidence that Neanderthals were specialized seasonal hunters, eating animals were available at the time (i.e. reindeer in the winter and red deer in the summer). Scientists have clear evidence of Neanderthal hunting from uncovering sharp wooden spears and large numbers of big game animal remains were hunted and butchered by Neanderthals. There is also evidence from Gibraltar that when they lived in coastal areas, they exploited marine resources such as mollusks, seals, dolphins and fish.

Isotopic chemical analyses of Neanderthal bones also tell scientists the average Neanderthal’s diet consisted of a lot of meat. Scientists have also found plaque on the remains of molar teeth containing starch grains—concrete evidence that Neanderthals ate plants.

The Mousterian stone tool industry of Neanderthals is characterized by sophisticated flake tools that were detached from a prepared stone core. This innovative technique allowed flakes of predetermined shape to be removed and fashioned into tools from a single suitable stone. This technology differs from earlier ‘core tool’ traditions, such as the Acheulean tradition of Homo erectus. Acheulean tools worked from a suitable stone that was chipped down to tool form by the removal of flakes off the surface.

Neanderthals used tools for activities like hunting and sewing. Left-right arm asymmetry indicates that they hunted with thrusting (rather than throwing) spears that allowed them to kill large animals from a safe distance. Neanderthal bones have a high frequency of fractures, which (along with their distribution) are similar to injuries among professional rodeo riders who regularly interact with large, dangerous animals. Scientists have also recovered scrapers and awls (larger stone or bone versions of the sewing needle that modern humans use today) associated with animal bones at Neanderthal sites. A Neanderthal would probably have used a scraper to first clean the animal hide, and then used an awl to poke holes in it, and finally use strips of animal tissue to lace together a loose-fitting garment. Neanderthals were the first early humans to wear clothing, but it is only with modern humans that scientists find evidence of the manufacture and use of bone sewing needles to sew together tighter fitting clothing.

Neanderthals also controlled fire, lived in shelters, and occasionally made symbolic or ornamental objects. There is evidence that Neanderthals deliberately buried their dead and occasionally even marked their graves with offerings, such as flowers. No other primates, and no earlier human species, had ever practiced this sophisticated and symbolic behavior. This may be one of the reasons that the Neanderthal fossil record is so rich compared to some earlier human species; being buried greatly increases the chance of becoming a fossil!

Both fossil and genetic evidence indicate that Neanderthals and modern humans ( Homo sapiens) evolved from a common ancestor between 500,000 and 200,000 years ago. Neanderthals and modern humans belong to the same genus ( Homo) and inhabited the same geographic areas in Asia for 30,000–50,000 years; genetic evidence indicate while they may have interbred with non-African modern humans, they are separate branches of the human family tree (separate species).

In fact, Neanderthals and modern humans may have had little direct interaction for tens of thousands of years until during one very cold period, modern humans spread across Europe. Their presence may have prevented Neanderthals from expanding back into areas they once favored and served as a catalyst for the Neanderthal’s impending extinction. Over just a few thousand years after modern humans moved into Europe, Neanderthal numbers dwindled to the point of extinction. All traces of Neanderthals disappeared by about 40,000 years ago. The most recently dated Neanderthal fossils come from western Europe, which was likely where the last population of this early human species existed.