10 Extinct Hominids

Homo Neanderthalensis
Questions remain about modern humans' relationship with co-existing Neanderthals. De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

Neanderthals, aka Homo neanderthalensis, are the closest known relative to modern humans, and we have uncovered several complete skeletons of the species. We therefore know quite a bit about them, but much remains unclear — including how exactly Neanderthals fit into our family tree. Evidence shows that modern humans interbred with Neanderthals but that we didn't evolve from them.

This species thrived across Europe and even into Asia. They tended to be shorter and wider than modern humans. They had wide shoulders, strong arms and legs and a large, deep chest. Paleoanthropologists speculate that the short stature could have been an adaptation to deal with the colder weather to conserve body heat. Another possible explanation is that this sturdier, tougher build was an adaptation to a brutal lifestyle. Indeed, the fossil remains show many injuries [source: Roberts]. They hunted animals and ate a lot of meat, but they also enjoyed seafood and plants. Plaque found on molars has revealed remains of starch grains [source: Smithsonian].

Neanderthal brains tended to be even larger than our own, and evidence of their culture suggests behavior that was worlds apart from earlier hominids. They buried their dead, wore primitive clothing and even made ornamental objects. This prompts questions about the relationship of brain size to social behavior, innovation and imagination.

Paleoanthropologists are interested in the question about how modern intelligence, behavior and culture evolved. Did it evolve alongside our physical evolution or did it happen more quickly? We may never definitively answer this question, but with each new fossil unearthed, we get closer to understanding our ancient ancestors.

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