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We know more about the Ne­an­derthal than we do any other hu­man. They’re our clos­est an­cient rel­a­tive af­ter all. Their bones, found across what’s now Asia and Europe, whis­per that they were fear­less hunters who cared for their sick and buried their dead. And the caves in which they were found tell us that they made tools, jew­ellery and per­haps even art. Thus far, the fos­sil record sug­gests that they lived here for some 350,000 years, un­til we showed up. More ac­cu­rately, the Ne­an­derthal story seems to end at about the same time that hu­mans who looked like us left Africa for good and be­gan to spread out across the globe.

Some the­o­ries say we wiped our cousins out, oth­ers sug­gest that since Ne­an­derthal DNA re­sides in most hu­mans to­day, our an­ces­tors made love, not war, un­til there were no Ne­an­derthals left. The most likely ex­pla­na­tion is that, while we prob­a­bly fought and for­ni­cated with the Ne­an­derthals, we also out-com­peted them. At the time of their ex­tinc­tion there were ex­treme cli­mate fluc­tu­a­tions, and the ecosys­tems that the Ne­an­derthals de­pended on rapidly changed. The mod­ern hu­man was bet­ter equipped to sur­vive. But why? What made us spe­cial? Since we can’t go back in time to ob­serve the Ne­an­derthals, sci­en­tists are cap­i­tal­is­ing on a new tech­nique – the cre­ation of mini-brains – to com­pare our minds with those of our ex­tinct cousins. To find out what gave us the edge turn straight to JV Chamary’s bril­liant fea­ture on p42. Daniel Ben­nett, Editor

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