Homo neanderthalensis

Homo sapiens neanderthalensis or Homo neanderthalensis? The dispute in nomenclature shown here marks the ongoing debate among paleoanthropologists as to the relationship between Neanderthals and modern Homo sapiens.

Some authorities argue that the skeletal differences found in Neanderthals are not sufficient to see them as anything other than at most a distinct population (or sub-species) form of Homo sapiens.

Other scholars claim that the differences between the two forms are too dramatic for a common species and that Neanderthals form their own species which became extinct some 25 to 30 thousand years ago, after having evolved out of European Homo heidelbergensis around 250 to 200,000 years ago.

A key question here is whether or not Neanderthals contributed any genes to the modern human species (which is also seen as evolving from Homo heidelbergensis but in Africa, about 130,000 years ago). There is little agreement among paleoanthropologists on this issue, partly because we cannot go back in time and observe the breeding patterns in Europe and southwestern Asia during the thousands of years that the two groups coexisted in the same areas and time periods.

The particular Neanderthal skull pictured here is a composite of many specific finds made from throughout the population's range, spanning thousands of miles from westernmost Europe to southwestern Asia.

While there are many questions about these humans we also know some certainties about them. Neanderthals were the first people to survive in southern and central Europe during the onset of extremely cold glacial expansion phases of the Pleistocene, due to their increasingly sophisticated material culture.

They invented the Mousterian lithic tool technology, which involved the preparation of a core cylinder of flint or obsidian, from which a finished flake could be struck with a single tap of a hammer tool. This was a major technological improvement over the preceding Acheulean tool tradition.

Regarding the possession of spoken language for the Neanderthals, a growing consensus is that they probably had words but not syntax, and thus not a fully developed language. Their brains were at least equal in size to those of modern humans, albeit differently shaped.

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