We first discovered the remains of a Neanderthal in 1829. Almost two centuries later, we’re still uncovering the secrets of our distant relatives. For example, did you know Neanderthals—or rather, Homo neanderthalensis—didn’t have a chin? They were also much stronger than humans, with large arms great for hunting or combat. New findings are turning the traditional perception of Neanderthals as dumb, barbaric beasts upside down, suggesting they weren’t so different from us after all. Here, a few recent discoveries.
1. Neanderthals mated with early humans
Researchers long suspected this to be true, considering the genetic similarities between Neanderthals and modern Europeans and Asians, but they lacked the evidence to prove it. In a new study published in Genetics, they now say the evidence is undeniable thanks to statistical modeling.
Researchers think there are two possible scenarios for these genetic similarities. Scenario #1: Modern humans and Neanderthals both have roots in a shared common African ancestor, and some humans—the ones that eventually became today’s Eurasians—evolved in relative isolation, therefore maintaining a lot of the genetic makeup shared by their Neanderthal cousins. Scenario #2: Humans and Neanderthals mated and produced offspring in Europe and Asia.
In their own words, they “did a bunch of math” to compare the statistical likelihood of each scenario and found that "a model that involves interbreeding is much more likely than a model where there was sustained substructure in Africa," according to evolutionary biologist Laurent Frantz, the study’s co-author.
And if statistical evidence isn’t enough to convince you, the remains of a human/Neanderthal hybrid were discovered in northern Italy.
2. The genes we inherited from Neanderthals are linked to modern ailments
One’s likelihood for having Crohn’s disease, lupus, and type 2 diabetes can all be traced back to genetic variants inherited from Neanderthals, as can your potential for becoming a smoker, according to a January 2014 study from the Harvard Medical School. Also, the offspring of humans and Neanderthals came with genetic mutations in the X chromosome. Some East Asians may have reduced fertility as a result.
3. They weren’t intellectually inferior to humans
Conventional wisdom holds that Neanderthals died out after we Homo sapiens came along because our superior intellect, technology, and mad hunting skills gave us the advantage. Survival of the fittest (or, smartest), right? Not so much. Thanks to a recent study in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, we now know that “the conventional view of Neanderthals is not true,” says Paola Villa, one of the study’s authors (she also curates the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History).
On the contrary, evidence suggests they were excellent planners and hunters, and worked expertly in groups. And remember, we aren’t comparing Neanderthals to modern humans, but to the very earliest Homo sapiens. Researchers think this is where the misconception stemmed from. “It would be like comparing the performance of Model T Fords, widely used in America and Europe in the early part of the last century, to the performance of a modern-day Ferrari and [concluding] that Henry Ford was cognitively inferior to Enzo Ferrari,” Villa explains.
So, what did kill the Neanderthals? Well, researchers haven’t quite nailed that one down yet, but they suspect it could be connected to genetic problems linked to inbreeding.
4. Neanderthal children may have gone to school
Accompanying the theory that these guys weren’t so dumb after all, researchers think Neanderthal parents educated their young. OK, maybe they couldn’t do arithmetic, but they could make tools. At several sites, researchers have discovered perfectly assembled tools alongside less advanced versions of the same objects, suggesting children were honing their tool-making skills thanks to some lessons from more experienced crafters.
5. They buried their dead
Like us, our not-so-dim-witted evolutionary relatives seemed to honor their lost loved ones with burial ceremonies. Researchers landed on this conclusion after studying the remains of several Neanderthals found in a cave at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, in southwestern France. The remains showed no sign of disturbance from animals or external elements, suggesting they were covered quickly and intentionally. “While we cannot know if this practice was part of a ritual or merely pragmatic,” said Dr. William Rendu, a researcher at New York’s Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences, “the discovery reduces the behavioral distance between them and us.”
6. They could speak
It all comes down to a little bone called the hyoid. Located in the neck near the thyroid, the hyoid supports your tongue and helps you talk. Apes, our closest living relatives, don’t have this bone. But Neanderthals did. Archaeologists discovered it in 1989, and last year, thanks to a 3-D computer model, demonstrated how the bone might have served the Neanderthals. While it doesn’t look exactly like the hyoid in your own jaw, it could have served a similar function, allowing Neanderthals to form a language. "Many would argue that our capacity for speech and language is among the most fundamental of characteristics that make us human,” Stephen Wroe, a faculty member at the University of New England in Australia, told the BBC. “If Neanderthals also had language then they were truly human, too.”