Looks can be deceiving
Marcellin Boule's reconstruction of a Neanderthal as a stooped hairy brute. Notice the club grasped firmly in the Neanderthal's right hand.
The picture of Neanderthals as hulking ape-men dates back to 1908 and the discovery of the "Old Man of La Chapelle-aux-Saints." The La Chapelle fossil was the most complete skeleton of a Neanderthal ever recovered, and it provided a unique opportunity to understand the characteristics of this intriguing hominin. The task of analysing the skeleton fell to Marcellin Boule, a prominent paleoanthropologist who came to the job convinced that Neanderthals were "a degenerate side branch of human evolution" (Bowler 1986, 88). Not surprisingly, the portrait that emerged from Boule's analysis was a hairy, stooped creature.
Older pictures tend to show Neandertals as more ape-like and primitive, while modern depictions are more like modern humans.
Movie poster of Neanderthal Man (1953)
To attempt to restore the soft parts is an even more hazardous under-taking. The lips, the eyes, the ears, and the nasal tip, leave no clues on the underlying bony parts. You can with equal facility model on a Neanderthaloid skull the features of a chimpanzee or the lineaments of a philosopher. These alleged restorations of ancient types of a man have very little if any scientific value and are likely only to mislead the public... So put not your trust in reconstructions.
Imagine trying to describe an entire culture based on a few skeletons. Now imagine that those bones are 40,000 years old. Sounds pretty tricky, huh? But scientists in Spain and Germany are starting to do just that.
Genetics - New DNA evidence reveals that Neanderthals had genes for speech and red hair (November 09, 2007)
The discovery of yet another period of interbreeding between early humans and Neanderthals is adding to the growing sense that sexual encounters among different ancient human species were commonplace throughout their history.
Humans and Neanderthals had sex and had hybrid offspring.
Our understanding of the exact timing and duration of this interval is obscured by the limitations of our dating methods. ... the duration of this coexistence is debated, as is contact between the two ... The question of what may have happened during these encounters and what the role of the early modern humans could have been in the Neanderthal extinction, have been the subject of intense discussion and a focal point in Neanderthal research. ... The Neanderthal disappearance is viewed by some as a true extinction. Others however, contend that Neanderthals did not become extinct, but instead were assimilated into the modern human gene pool.
Just like humans
Scientists used to think that Neanderthals were our dumber, less evolved cousins — not the artistic type. But research over the past decade has revealed a rather different picture. We now know that Neanderthals probably cooked their food and made tools for hunting and fishing. They were also culturally more sophisticated than previously thought.
For decades scientists believed Neanderthals developed 'modern' tools and ornaments solely through contact with Homo sapiens, but new research from the University of Colorado Denver now shows these sturdy ancients could adapt, innovate and evolve technology on their own.
Judged by the amount of evidence upon which it is based, the study of fossil man hardly deserves to be more than a sub-discipline of paleontology or anthropology. ... the collection is so tantalisingly incomplete, and the specimens themselves often so fragmentary and inconclusive.
In 1978 Mary Leakey discovered at Laetoli in Kenya a fossilized trail of 70 humanlike footprints marked out some 3.7 million years ago. But with this notable exception, the known fossil remains of man's ancestors would fit on a billiard table. That makes a poor platform from which to peer into the mists of the last few million years from which the hominid line suddenly emerged. Those who skillfully uncover the rare fossil remains of man's past make a lasting contribution to knowledge. The interpretations of this evidence have so far proved more ephemeral.
The early theories of human evolution are really very odd, if one stops to look at them. David Pilbeam has described the early theories as 'fossil-free.' That is, there were theories about human evolution that one would think would require some fossil evidence, but in fact there were either so few fossils that they exerted no influence on the theory, or there were no fossils at all. So between man's supposed closest relatives and the early human fossils, there was only the imagination of nineteenth century scientists. People wanted to believe in evolution, human evolution, and this affected the results of their work.
We hope to find more pieces of the puzzle which will shed light on the connection between this upright, walking ape, our early ancestor, and modern man.