Human skull and Neanderthal skulls.

A human skull (left) and Neanderthal skull (right). What differences can you see?

Image: hairymuseummatt (original image)/DrMikeBaxter (derivative work) via Wikimedia Commons [CC-BY-SA-2.0]

What’s your name? No, not your personal name – your species name. You and every other person on the planet are from the same species: Homo sapiens, or modern humans. Today, we are the only human species, but this wasn’t always the case.

The earliest human species was Homo habilis, who appeared more than two million years ago. Homo habilis died out before modern humans evolved, but other human species lived at the same time as Homo sapiens.

Fossils of Homo neanderthalensis, commonly known as Neanderthals, were some of the first fossils of early human species discovered. Neanderthals and modern humans are closely related. Populations of both species lived at the same time across Europe and parts of Asia, and there is evidence they interbred. You probably have Neanderthal DNA as part of your genome!

Early interpretations of Neanderthal fossils portrayed them as unintelligent and primitive. Over the years, however, evidence emerged that this might not be a fair assessment of our ancient cousins.

Bone tools called lissoirs were discovered in France. Lissoirs were used on animal hides to make them softer and more water resistant. These tools were dated to around 51 000 years ago and are the earliest of their type found in Europe.

The lissoirs were made by Neanderthals, not modern humans. This discovery can be interpreted in more than one way. It could be that Neanderthals developed these tools independently of modern humans. Another interpretation is that Neanderthals made the tools and modern humans learnt from them. Both of these interpretations suggest Neanderthals were quite intelligent. It is also possible that modern humans invented lissoirs earlier but the evidence hasn’t survived.

Neanderthals were eventually replaced by modern humans. This happened around 40 000 years ago, although there is evidence that some populations survived until around 28 000 years ago. As more evidence comes to light, it shows that maybe our long lost cousins are closer to us than previously thought.

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