Friday, October 26, 2007

Map of Neanderthal Geography

Neanderthals have been at the centre of many of the most intense debates in palaeoanthropology ever since the discovery of their bones spawned the field 150 years ago. A popular caricature portrays them as beetle-browed brutes, but this is far from the truth. Neanderthals were sophisticated stone-tool makers and made razor-sharp knives out of flint. They made fires when and where they wanted, and seem to have made a living by hunting large mammals such as bison and deer. Neanderthals also buried their dead, which, fortunately for researchers, increases the odds of the bones being preserved.

Bones and artefacts leave a whole range of questions wide open, though. How exactly are Neanderthals related to us? Did our ancestors interbreed with them, and if so, do modern Eurasians still carry a little Neanderthal DNA?

Just how "human" were they? There's only one way to be sure: By sequencing their entire genome we can begin to learn more about their biology. What's more, if we can answer the genetic questions we might solve the biggest mystery of all: why did Neanderthals die out while modern humans went on to conquer the globe?

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