Mystery still surrounds Neandertals

Excerpt from the December 4, 1965 Science News Letter

illustration of Neandertals

MURKY RELATIONS  Once thought of as cavemen (as in this 1920’s artist’s depiction), Neandertals may have built structures, researchers discovered 50 years ago. The finding led to speculation that Neandertals were direct ancestors of modern humans, a conclusion that is still hotly debated.

Charles Robert Knight

Past, Modern Man Linked — Neanderthal man may have built structures, indicating that he was far more advanced than formerly believed and implying that he may have evolved into Cromagnon man. Evidence uncovered at the Molodova site in the Ukraine … is a circle of mammoth animal bones [that] date … to the time of Neanderthal man, some 50,000 to 70,000 years ago. Directly above this site are similar bone circles dating from … less than 35,000 years ago, when man had already made his appearance. Post holes indicate that modern or Cromagnon man would cover a large area … with one single structure. … It is logical to assume that the early “man” also built structures. — Science News Letter, Dec. 25, 1965


Archaeological evidence suggests that Neandertals used tools and had sophisticated culture, but scientists are still debating what happened to them. One theory is that Neandertals were cousins of modern humans, either a subspecies or a separate species, that went extinct by 30,000 years ago. Neandertals, the theory goes, sometimes bred with modern humans outside of Africa, leaving behind a genetic trace. Others say that Neandertals were actually an archaic population of Homo sapiens that was absorbed into modern populations and rather than going extinct, live on in human DNA.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

More Stories from Science News on Archaeology