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