Neanderthals Might Not Be The Separate Species We Always Thought

Since the mid-19th century, when the Neanderthals were discovered, perceptions of them as a brutish, simple-minded species a few levels below contemporary humans on the evolutionary ladder have persisted. They are said to be stoop-backed, heavy-browed, and to communicate in ape-like grunts.

Even with all the evidence showing how similar their genes and cultures are, our long-lost "cousins" are still far too frequently relegated to their own species, Homo neanderthalensis.

A group of scientists who have spent the last 20 years sifting through layers of sand and dust in the Gruta da Oliveira cave location in central Portugal believe that this classification is time for a revision.

Lead author of a recent paper that summarizes decades of research on what was home to Neanderthal families more than 71,000 years ago, Diego Angelucci, is an archaeologist at the University of Trento. "More than different species, I would speak of different human forms," he adds.

Angelucci and his colleagues described in detail how, between 93,000 and 71,000 years ago, Neanderthals lived in Gruta da Oliveira, sharing the cave with wolves, lions, brown bears, and lynxes on alternate occasions.

Amidst the dispersed stone tools and animal remnants, there were bones that had a burnt appearance that offered compelling proof of the deliberate application of fire.

With a fireplace that hardly ever moved and a variety of foods being cooked, including goat, deer, and horses, it was evident that fire played a significant role in daily Neanderthal life at Gruta da Oliveira.

It is no secret that for at least 250,000 years or more, members of the hominid family tree have enjoyed a good fire. Those fires were intentionally ignited, controlled, and confined for a large period of that time with the intention of cooking, if not remaining warm and deterring predators.

However, by the time anatomically modern humans became distinguishably different, Neanderthals had already long since broken away from our common ancestral ancestry; in fact, some scholars speculate that Neanderthals left us more than 800,000 years ago.

When their bones were first found in a quarry in 1864, science entered a new era and the idea that there had once been other human species emerged.

The Anglo-Irish geologist William King said they belonged to a different species, one that stood erect like humans but had a hunched, more robust look, based on clear variations in anatomy. From the perspective of Victorian-era anthropology, this long-dead relative who lived in caves was seen to be an intellectual fool compared with contemporary people.

Our perceptions of the Neanderthal increasingly changed as new information became available and analytical techniques advanced. The animalistic growling and outdated stoop are gone. It seems that our 'primitive' ancestors had crafted jewelry, buried their dead on purpose, and maybe even produced artwork.

The idea that Neanderthal society was far from primitive and much more like our own is strengthened by evidence that they skillfully employed fire in their technologies.

"There is a general agreement among archaeologists that they knew how to use fire," Angelucci states.

"However, one thing is to use fire started by natural processes, such as lightning, another is to make it, feed it with wood and use it for cooking, heating and defense."

The exact process by which they may have ignited fires remains unclear, but according to Angelucci, it may not have differed significantly from other Neolithic customs, such the flint and tinder approach employed by Ötzi, the Iceman.

The evidence that Neanderthals often interbred with our own ancestors throughout history is confirmed by DNA study, which makes the case against their existing as a distinct species much weaker.

It's doubtful that Homo neanderthalensis will be officially classified as extinct very soon. Despite its messiness, confusion, and conservatism, taxonomy is nonetheless important and essential to our knowledge of biology throughout history.

Nevertheless, it appears that the elderly Neanderthal ought to be seated next to us in the Homo sapiens family portrait—more like a sister than a cousin.

This research was published in PLOS ONE.