The oldest Neanderthal remains – from the Sima de los Huesos, or ‘pit of bones’, site in Spain – date to nearly half a million years ago. DNA evidence suggests Neanderthals split from our ancestors between 550,000 and 765,000 years ago.
This suggests the Neanderthals are directly descended not from Homo heidelbergensis (who arrived in Europe only 700,000 years ago), but Homo antecessor (who arrived in Spain 1.2 million years ago).
From their European homeland, Neanderthals moved east as far as Siberia, but the fossil record suggests they never crossed into Africa.
Neanderthals were a sophisticated bunch. They hunted large game with spears, harvested molluscs, fish and dolphins, and possibly sewed rudimentary animal-hide clothing using large bone needles. They also constructed mysterious rock structures in underground caves and buried their dead in graves which they adorned with offerings such as flowers.
They became extinct about 40,000 years ago, although they may have held on as late as 28,000 years ago in southern Spain. For decades, their demise was chalked up to the arrival of the more competitive – or downright bloodthirsty – Homo sapiens. The advent of ancient DNA analysis over the past decade has shaken up this tidy version of history. By coaxing ancient DNA from millennia-old fossils, palaeogeneticists have uncovered a more intriguing tale of interspecies trysts.
Sequencing of the Neanderthal genome from Croatian remains in 2010 revealed the first evidence that humans and Neanderthals interbred. The first trysts probably occurred in the Middle East about 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, as Homo
sapiens migrated out from Africa. All modern humans, bar Africans, still carry traces of Neanderthal DNA – usually about 1-2% of the genome. Homo neanderthalensis perhaps survived in Soain until 28,000 years ago.