ANTHROPOLOGY: Decoding Neanderthals

The PBS documentary, Decoding Neanderthals, reevaluates contemporary notions of prehistoric humans. As described in the documentary, Neanderthals have been incorrectly depicted for decades. The impression was that Neanderthals were a primitive, hairy, less intelligent species than our modern day human ancestors. But with advancements in gene sequencing, and research having been conducted on both modern human and Neanderthal DNA, we now have a much better understanding of Neanderthals.


Human evolution is a complex and exciting story, which tries to map the evolutionary journey from our ancient ancestors in Africa. Homo Neanderthalensis (Neanderthals) were once thought to be a separate species of early human who migrated out of Africa into Europe roughly 800,000 years ago. When Homo Sapiens (modern humans) migrated into Europe around 40,000 years ago, the belief was that Neanderthals were driven to extinction. However, an analysis of Neanderthal and modern human DNA tells a different story. When comparing the two genomes, scientists discovered that up to 5% of modern human DNA can be traced back to Neanderthals. In other words, interbreeding seems to have been occurring, and since modern humans were able to breed with Neanderthals, they are not separate species. With a population density of roughly 10:1 (Neanderthals to modern humans), interbreeding eventually would lead to the absorption of Neanderthals into the modern human population.

Further analysis of the DNA samples, specifically in areas related to speech, have shown that Neanderthals had the capability of vocal communication. With the discovery of complex stone tools and the ability to extract pitch from birch bark, the ability to communicate would have been essential to pass along such advancements. Evidence of pigments on cave walls and bone fragments also points to the possibility of wall painting, a practice that was once only associated with non-Neanderthal modern humans. All of these discoveries are helping to paint a new and more realistic image of Neanderthals.

View this PBS documentary in its entirety below:

For additional PBS resources regarding Neanderthals and evolution, please visit the link below:

CJ NemastilCJ Nemastil

CSCC Correspondent

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