In little more than a decade our understanding of the recent period of human evolution has been revolutionised. New excavations and the application of exciting scientific methods are yielding extraordinary insights to our ancient past and overturning previously-held truths.
We now know that as recently as 40,000 years ago there may have been six or more different lineages of humans on Earth including Neanderthals, Denisovans, the “Hobbits” of Flores (Homo floresiensis), Homo luzonensis on the island of Luzon in the Philippines, in addition to us (Homo sapiens).
We also know that we carry a genetic legacy from the period during which we overlapped with these lost cousins. And this genetic inheritance might have been one key to how we managed ultimately to become so successful and spread so widely across the planet.
Our species, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa from around 300,000 years ago. Prior to 2010 the prevailing thought among scientists was that these people had very little, if any, contact with other now-extinct human relatives (the most well-known being the Neanderthals) as they left Africa and expanded outwards into Eurasia. Precisely when this happened is not known.
I believe that there were several out of Africa movements, broadly between 160,000 and 60,000 years ago, but the most important for our story were the more recent. In some archaeological sites in Europe there is a gap between the latest Neanderthal archaeological layers and the start of subsequent layers containing evidence for early Homo sapiens. This suggested that perhaps in these regions the two groups might not have even met one another.
Read more about Neanderthals:
- Neanderthals could talk like humans, study suggests
- Did Neanderthals have a society?
- 40,000-year-old yarn suggests Neanderthals had basic maths skills
In 2010, however, scientists in Leipzig, Germany, announced that they had sequenced the majority of the Neanderthal genome. Analysis showed that human beings do inherit a small amount of Neanderthal DNA and that there had, in fact, been interbreeding between our two groups.
This came as a great surprise to many at the time. The suggestion was made that the two groups may have met briefly, possibly somewhere in the Near East, with humans subsequently carrying low but similar levels of Neanderthal genetic ancestry to all parts of the world.
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A few years later, in 2014, my research group at the University of Oxford discovered that, in Europe, Neanderthals and Homo sapiens had actually overlapped with one another for a considerable time: up to 5,000 years, before Neanderthals disappeared about 40,000 years ago. The disappearance of Neanderthals was therefore a longer and more drawn-out process than previously thought.
Between ~45,000 to 40,000 years ago, it seems, we were contemporaries and had ample time to meet and interact. New evidence I describe in my book The World Before Us suggests an even wider overlap, both in Europe and in other parts of Eurasia.
Given this co-existence and the genetic exchange that occurred, could there also have been cultural exchange between the two groups? Many palaeoanthropologists thought for decades that if there was cultural exchange it was likely to be one way: from the supposedly superior Homo sapiens to the less capable Neanderthals.
Recent work on the Neanderthals and their world has shown that, far from the backward cave dwellers widely popularised in the 19-20th Century, they were a capable, often sophisticated group of hunter gatherers present for more than 250,000 years, surviving through periods of often significant variability in climate. Evidence is emerging that prior to the arrival of modern humans they were doing certain things that were considered previously to be the exclusive domain of us – Homo sapiens.
Fascinating new evidence, for example, now suggests that Neanderthals might have been the first cave painters of Europe. We can date small concretions of calcium carbonate that have slowly grown over painted surfaces using traces of radioactive isotopes of uranium. Extremely old ages have been obtained, showing that some of the painted caves in Spain are more than 65,000 years old.
This is a time when Neanderthals were the sole occupants of Europe. Archaeologists assumed for decades that all early art drawn on cave walls was produced by modern humans. These new results challenge that view.
Similarly, we are also beginning to recognise evidence for Neanderthals behaving in other ways that we often term ‘behaviourally modern’; perhaps wearing ornaments made from eagle talons, decorating themselves with feathers, using mineral colourants and preparing skins probably for clothing using deliberately selected bone implements.
I wonder whether we ought to look at the overlap period evident in the archaeological record as one where there might have been an exchange of ideas, creativity and technology between the two groups as they met and interacted, rather that this being one way as previously thought.
Increasingly, we see evidence for periodic contact between these various groups, and for interbreeding between humans and others. Recent work that we published in April 2021 has shown that the genomes of the earliest modern humans in Eurasia often contain long chunks of Neanderthal DNA. This indicates that interbreeding between the two groups occurred sometimes only a few generations before that person lived, since the DNA has not been subsequently broken up into smaller blocks with succeeding modern human-only generations (this process is called ‘recombination’). It is an extraordinary thought that 20 per cent or more of the entire Neanderthal nuclear genome can be mapped from across the genomes of living people.
Evidence is building that shows that the genetic variants we have inherited from these ancient liaisons – from Neanderthals but also from another group in eastern Eurasia called the Denisovans – have important implications for us today. These range from the positive (without Denisovan DNA Tibetans would not be able to live at altitude and New Guineans would not have the same levels of resistance to certain tropical diseases) to the less positive (genetic variants coding for type II diabetes, lupus and smoking addiction come from Neanderthals).
It is becoming increasingly apparent that ‘hybridisation’ between different human groups may have been crucial as our ancestors moved into new and challenging environments. Through hybridisation we were able to gain some rapid genetic benefits from human lineages that had been occupying these regions for millennia before. These benefits, along with other behavioural and technological adaptations that we see in the archaeological record, helped Homo sapiens to become a highly successful ‘invasive species’, moving into all parts of the planet and adapting to life there.
Why, then, did Neanderthals and other groups eventually disappear from the archaeological record? There are intriguing clues from demography mined from high coverage genetic analysis of human bones. DNA analysis of some late Neanderthals shows that they have long tracts of ‘homozygosity’, when one inherits two alleles on a gene locus that are identical in both parents suggesting that those parents must have been closely related.
This, and other evidence from population genetics and archaeology, supports the idea that Neanderthals were probably living in small groups and in low numbers generally. It is quite likely that no more than 5,000 Neanderthals might have lived across Eurasia at any one time. This might have been a key difference compared with Homo sapiens.
A slow trickle of newly arriving modern humans, without any substantial cognitive or behavioural advantage, might have been all that was required on the part of humans to consign Neanderthals to oblivion. Gradually we will also learn the fate of the other members of the wider human family that once lived on Earth and what role we had in their demise.
We have always thought of ourselves as unique. It turns out that in evolutionary time this uniqueness did not exist until yesterday.
The World Before Us: How Science is Revealing a New Story of Our Human Origins by Tom Higham is out now (£20, Viking).
- Buy now from Amazon UK, Bookshop.org or Waterstones
Read more about human ancestors:
- Lucy and Ardi: The two fossils that changed human history
- Ancient human species recreated from DNA
Did Neanderthals teach humans? ›
Two Stone Age humans watch intently as their teacher works on a fragment of rib. With a final flourish the tool is complete, and one student moves in for a closer look. Communication is difficult in the absence of a common language.Did humans evolve from Neanderthals explain 2 points? ›
Evolutionary Tree Information:
Both fossil and genetic evidence indicate that Neanderthals and modern humans (Homo sapiens) evolved from a common ancestor between 700,000 and 300,000 years ago.
The physical traits of Homo sapiens include a high and rounded ('globular') braincase, and a relatively narrow pelvis. Measurement of our braincase and pelvic shape can reliably separate a modern human from a Neanderthal - their fossils exhibit a longer, lower skull and a wider pelvis.Is it possible Neanderthals were smarter than humans? ›
The new study suggests that Neanderthals must have had quite a bit of brain power, at least enough to do cave paintings. At that time, 65,000 years ago, they may even have been similar to Homo sapiens in intelligence.What traits did humans get from Neanderthals? ›
Research has found links between Neanderthal DNA and fertility, how people feel pain and immune system functionality. Neanderthal DNA may affect skin tone and hair color, height, sleeping patterns, mood and even addiction in present-day Europeans.Why are humans more intelligent than Neanderthals? ›
Modern humans have a mutation that boosts the growth of neurons in the neocortex, a brain region associated with higher intelligence. This is absent in more ancient humans like Neanderthals, so it is likely that it makes us cleverer, say the researchers who uncovered it.How do we know humans did not evolve from Neanderthals? ›
The Neanderthal and modern human lineages diverged about 550,000 years ago. So far, we have no evidence of Neanderthal mtDNA lineages in modern humans. Neanderthals were not as genetically diverse as modern humans were at the same period, indicating that Neanderthals had a smaller population size.Did everyone evolve from Neanderthals? ›
While we didn't descend from the Neanderthals through an evolutionary transformation, if there was interbreeding, some of us today (particularly in Eurasia) might have Neanderthal-derived genes.Why are Neanderthals important for human evolution? ›
Together with an Asian people known as Denisovans, Neanderthals are our closest ancient human relatives. Scientific evidence suggests our two species shared a common ancestor. Current evidence from both fossils and DNA suggests that Neanderthal and modern human lineages separated at least 500,000 years ago.Are Neanderthals just humans? ›
Yes. Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) were archaic humans who emerged at least 200,000 years ago and died out perhaps between 35,000 and 24,000 years ago.
What makes your brain different from a Neanderthals? ›
Neanderthals, among our closest extinct hominin relatives, had brains as big as ours. But Neanderthal brains were elongated, whereas humans have a more spherical shape.How strong were Neanderthals compared to humans? ›
The average Neanderthal was about 5′6″, with short forearms and lower legs, which are adaptations for cold. A Neanderthal man could bench press 500 pounds, and the women about 350. Both genders hunted.Were ancient humans as smart as us? ›
DNA evidence may indicate a possibility of intelligence being a neutral trait in human evolution suggesting that ancient individuals living 3700–4100 years BP could have been as intelligent as modern humans.When did humans become intelligent? ›
Indeed, to some scientists the find supports the idea that mental abilities associated with modern humans emerged when anatomically modern humans did, about 200,000 years ago, rather than resulting from a genetic mutation cropping up between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago, as others have posited.Were Neanderthals self aware? ›
We found that Neanderthals had nearly the same genes for emotional reactivity as chimpanzees, and they were intermediate between modern humans and chimpanzees in their numbers of genes for both self-control and self-awareness.Does Neanderthal DNA affect intelligence? ›
The Neanderthal DNA variants alter gene expression in brain regions involved in planning, coordination and learning of movements. These faculties are used in speech and language, but there is no indication that the Neanderthal DNA affects cognition in modern humans.What was unique about Neanderthals? ›
Features of the cranium and lower jaw that were present more often in Neanderthals than in early and recent modern humans include a low-vaulted cranium, large orbital and nasal openings, and prominent arched brow ridges.What was special about Neanderthals? ›
They excelled at hunting animals and making complex stone tools, and their bones reveal that they were extremely muscular and strong, but led hard lives, suffering frequent injuries. There is no doubt that Neanderthals were an intelligent species, successfully adapted to their environment for over 200 millenia.Were Neanderthals smart creative and misunderstood? ›
Neanderthals Were Smart, Sophisticated, Creative—and Misunderstood. Nearly 40,000 years after disappearing from the planet, Neanderthals are having a moment. In recent years, tantalizing new evidence suggests that our primitive, heavy-browed cousins were chefs, jewelry-makers and painters.Which was the smartest human species? ›
Anthropologists and other scientists have held that human intelligence crossed a threshold (a 'magical' rubicon) with the arrival of Homo sapiens , who replaced Homo erectus a million years ago. It was believed that Homo erectus was not intelligent enough to make anything more than crude stone tools.
Who is more intelligent than humans? ›
We share 99 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees, so it comes as no surprise that countless hours of research have been dedicated to understanding the intelligence and behavior of our sister species. This research has firmly established that chimps are one of the most intelligent species on earth.
Neanderthals have been classified as a separate species from Homo Sapiens due to a lack of evidence suggesting sexual interactions between the two human species, and because the term 'species' doesn't have a universally accepted definition.What did humans evolve from? ›
Modern humans originated in Africa within the past 200,000 years and evolved from their most likely recent common ancestor, Homo erectus, which means 'upright man' in Latin. Homo erectus is an extinct species of human that lived between 1.9 million and 135,000 years ago.Why are humans the only species that evolved? ›
We have much bigger brains relative to body size and in absolute size than other mammals, and have a level of intelligence that other animals don't. There are many advantages to intelligence, such as the ability to plan and cooperate, innovate new techniques and share information about what works.What color eyes did Neanderthal have? ›
Fair skin, hair and eyes : Neanderthals are believed to have had blue or green eyes, as well as fair skin and light hair. Having spent 300,000 years in northern latitudes, five times longer than Homo sapiens, it is only natural that Neanderthals should have developed these adaptive traits first.Who was the first person to ever be born? ›
Adam is the name given in Genesis 1-5 to the first human.Could Neanderthals speak? ›
The Neanderthal hyoid bone
Its similarity to those of modern humans was seen as evidence by some scientists that Neanderthals possessed a modern vocal tract and were therefore capable of fully modern speech.
The last “sympatric” humans we know of were Neanderthals, who became extinct only about 30,000 years ago. Since stable separation of parts of the species is the key factor for the formation of new species, we can say that a new split of our species is impossible under current circumstances.What is the Neanderthal theory? ›
The Neanderthals emerged in Europe as far back as 400,000 years ago. The current theory suggests that they went extinct about 40,000 years ago, not long after Homo sapiens arrived on the continent from Africa.Who would win in a fight Neanderthal or human? ›
A Neanderthal had a wider pelvis and lower center of gravity than Homo sapiens, which would have made him a powerful grappler. But humans, don't resign yourselves to defeat just yet. Homo sapiens probably has a longer reach, on average, than Neanderthals did, and more stamina.
How violent were Neanderthals? ›
Far from peaceful, Neanderthals were likely skilled fighters and dangerous warriors, rivaled only by modern humans. Top predators — Predatory land mammals are territorial, especially pack-hunters. Like lions, wolves, and Homo sapiens, Neanderthals were cooperative big-game hunters.Who would win a human or a Neanderthal? ›
A Neanderthal would have a clear power advantage over his Homo sapiens opponent. Many of the Neanderthals archaeologists have recovered had Popeye forearms, possibly the result of a life spent stabbing wooly mammoths and straight-tusked elephants to death and dismantling their carcasses.How did humans become so smart? ›
According to the “cultural brain hypothesis,” humans evolved large brains and great intelligence in order to keep up with our complex social groups. We've always been a social species, and we may have developed our intelligence in part to maintain those relationships and function successfully in these environments.Are humans naturally smart? ›
Humans have been widely acknowledged as the most intelligent species on the planet, with big brains with ample cognitive abilities and processing power which outcompete all other species. In fact, humans have shown an enormous increase in brain size and intelligence over millions of years of evolution.Are humans the smartest species alive? ›
Strictly speaking, humans are the smartest animals on Earth—at least according to human standards.What made us human? ›
The three traits described are bipedalism, language, and tool making. This video assumes some familiarity with the theory of evolution, the process of how organisms developed from earlier forms of life. Evolution is not a linear process, but a dynamic one.Are humans born with IQ? ›
Researchers have previously shown that a person's IQ is highly influenced by genetic factors, and have even identified certain genes that play a role. They've also shown that performance in school has genetic factors. But it's been unclear whether the same genes that influence IQ also influence grades and test scores.Did Neanderthals have theory of mind? ›
Neanderthals did not think only with their minds but, like us and other primates, through the senses and emotions of the body as well. The tools they used were, Wynn and Coolidge say, “extensions of perception, and hence extensions of mind”.Were Neanderthals peaceful? ›
Far from peaceful, Neanderthals were likely skilled fighters and dangerous warriors, rivalled only by modern humans. Predatory land mammals are territorial, especially pack-hunters. Like , wolves and our own species sapiens, Neanderthals were cooperative big-game hunters.Did Neanderthals give rise to modern humans? ›
Neanderthals are genetically distinct from modern humans, but are more closely related to us than chimpanzees are. The Neanderthal and modern human lineages diverged about 550,000 years ago. So far, we have no evidence of Neanderthal mtDNA lineages in modern humans.
Do modern humans share any DNA with Neanderthals? ›
This information is generally reported as a percentage that suggests how much DNA an individual has inherited from these ancestors. The percentage of Neanderthal DNA in modern humans is zero or close to zero in people from African populations, and is about 1 to 2 percent in people of European or Asian background.Who did the first human mate with? ›
As some of the first bands of modern humans moved out of Africa, they met and mated with Neandertals about 100,000 years ago—perhaps in the fertile Nile Valley, along the coastal hills of the Middle East, or in the once-verdant Arabian Peninsula.Are we bringing back Neanderthals? ›
While the data answer many questions about such issues as Neanderthal language capacity and the genes they passed onto humans through interbreeding, we're still a long way from being able to resurrect one.Did humans cause the extinction of Neanderthals? ›
How the Neanderthals died out remains one of the biggest mysteries in human evolution. A new paper proposes that Homo sapiens may have been responsible for the extinction of Neanderthals not by violence, but through sex instead. Making love, not war, might have put the Neanderthals on a path to extinction.Why do we share DNA with Neanderthals? ›
Did you know that most people have about 3% Neanderthal DNA? About 40,000 years ago, ancient humans and Neanderthals had kids together. The mixing of these two species resulted in the exchange of DNA, a process that biologists call introgression.Did Neanderthals have blue eyes? ›
Fair skin, hair and eyes : Neanderthals are believed to have had blue or green eyes, as well as fair skin and light hair. Having spent 300,000 years in northern latitudes, five times longer than Homo sapiens, it is only natural that Neanderthals should have developed these adaptive traits first.