Cosmos - - Special Feature - CREDIT: Encyclopaedia Britannica / GETTY IMAGES

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.

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