Who were the Neandertals?

Human evolution expert Prof Chris Stringer has studied Neanderthals his entire career. Here, he tells us what scientists have uncovered about the lifestyle of these early humans, their distinctive characteristics and what they were like.

We know more facts about Neanderthals than any other extinct humans. Many thousands of their artefacts and fossils have been found, including several nearly complete skeletons.

We also know about their genetic make-up, as several Neanderthal genomes have now been reconstructed from ancient DNA obtained from their fossils.

Neanderthal facts

  • Species: Homo neanderthal ensis
  • Lived: from about 400,000 to 40,000 years ago
  • Where: across Europe and southwest and central Asia
  • Appearance: large nose, strong double-arched brow ridge, relatively short and stocky bodies
  • Brain size: at least 1,200cm3 to 1,750cm3
  • Height: about 1.50-1.75m
  • Weight: about 64-82kg
  • Diet: meat, plants and fungi, shellfish when available
  • Species named in: 1864
  • Name meaning: ‘human from the Neander Valley’

Our closest ancient human relatives

Neanderthals were humans like us, but they were a distinct species called Homo neanderthalensis.

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. Some genetic calibrations place their divergence at about 650,000 years ago.

Both dating issues and fossil anatomy mean that scientists are currently uncertain whether the last common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans was Homo heidelbergensisHomo antecessor or another species.

Neanderthals lived alongside early modern humans for at least part of their existence. We now know that some encounters were very intimate – some of us have inherited around 2% Neanderthal DNA. 

When did Neanderthals live?

The Neanderthals have a long evolutionary history. The earliest known examples of Neanderthal-like fossils are around 430,000 years old. The best-known Neanderthals lived between about 130,000 and 40,000 years ago, after which all physical evidence of them vanishes.

Tabun 1 Neanderthal skull
Female Homo neanderthalensis skull discovered at Tabun Cave at Mount Carmel in Israel. Known as Tabun 1, this Neanderthal specimen is around 130,000 years old.

Where did Neanderthals live?

Neanderthals evolved in Europe and Asia while modern humans – our species, Homo sapiens – were evolving in Africa.

Judging from fossil evidence from Sima de los Huesos in northern Spain and Swanscombe in Kent, the Neanderthal lineage was already well-established in Europe by 400,000 years ago.

The species ranged widely in Eurasia, from Portugal and Wales in the west across to the Altai Mountains of Siberia in the east.

Map showing known Neanderthal areas
Map showing the known range of Neanderthals

Neanderthal populations were adaptable, living in cold steppe environments in England and Siberia about 60,000 years ago, and in warm temperate woodlands in Spain and Italy about 120,000 years ago.

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