Neanderthals offer a mirror to our humanity in a way not even chimpanzees or bonobos can do. Also, being so distant in time, they are ripe for projection, thus uncovering our beliefs about what it means to be human and to not be human.
Neanderthals represent an alternative pathway of hominid development. The early evolution of both species demonstrates many similarities, and no one knows why they respectively evolved the way they did, although there is always endless speculation.
This makes for interesting reading as we learn more about neanderthals. New discoveries always elicit media attention and public discussion. People are quick to interpret the new data and pass judgment upon it.
This has become particularly interesting with the analysis of human and neanderthal genetics. I’m not sure about other populations, but Europeans have something like around 4% neanderthal genetics. So, neanderthals didn’t die out. They simply merged with homo sapiens (like some other hominids in other regions of the world with similar fates interbreeding with homo sapiens).
The only pure breed humans left on the planet live in small isolated populations in certain regions of Africa. People of European descent aren’t exactly or entirely homo sapiens. We are hybrids, although technically still categorized as homo sapiens.
The first thing I read years ago that really caught my attention was the fact that neanderthals were still living in Europe when early agricultural societies had been developing there. This means that, when origins of modern European culture and religion was first forming, neanderthals were living in the same general region as humans. Considering the genetic mixing, the nearness at times was quite close.
Neanderthals were even living in the Levant when homo sapiens were leaving Africa… which is supposedly how neanderthal genetics ended up being spread throughout human populations all over the world. But this goes beyond genetics. For around 60 thousand years, the two species co-existed in the Levant. They lived the same lifestyle and used the same stone technology. Later neanderthals in Europe even adopted some of the new innovations by homo sapiens. Also, both species had the potential capacity for speech (by way of similar brain and physiological structures), although no one knows if either species had yet developed speech as we know it.
The earliest homo sapiens looked and acted like us in many ways, and yet their lifestyle wasn’t all that different from neanderthals. Social and technological development remained mostly unchanging across the species for a long period of time. There was nothing particularly special about homo sapiens during this early period. At some point, however, homo sapiens began to diverge, but no one knows exactly how or why this divergence happened. Homo sapiens kept developing new technologies and lifestyles while neanderthals went extinct as a separate species.
Some claim it was climate changes that made life too difficult for neanderthals. But that doesn’t explain why neanderthals were able to co-exist in the same regions as homo sapiens when these changes occurred. And it doesn’t explain why neanderthals didn’t just migrate northward.
More interestingly, why did the hybrids of the two species have the best survival rates outside of Africa. Apparently, homo sapiens without neanderthal genetics were unable to survive outside of Africa beyond that early period. Is that true? If so, what survival value did neanderthal genetics give homo sapiens and can that explain the sudden social transformation? If not, was it a mere accident that some homo sapiens and some neanderthals had children together and that those children had descendants that spread to every region and continent?
All of this fascinates me because it is a revolutionary way of thinking about humanity. It challenges many deep-seated beliefs. I’ve noticed that even high quality scholarly books on human evolution often ignore the evidence about interbreeding. It will take a while for people to come to terms with this challenging data.