Neanderthals have really struggled to shake the view of being rather dim-witted, grunting brutes since they were first described back in 1856. Their name has even become shorthand to describe someone who lacks common sense, or is unable to adapt to change. It almost was worse than that. The wonderful scientist and artist, Ernst Haeckel proposed the name Homo stupidus for Neanderthals (literally translating to ‘stupid man’).
Why have the Neanderthals had such a rough time? Were they really slow, dumb creatures?
The last ten years have seen an enormous change in how Homo neanderthalensis is viewed. We now see Neanderthals as a very successful species of hominin that inhabited Eurasia for over 250,000 years. Their range spread across Western Europe and into Eastern Europe and Central Asia, but was limited to the north by the enormous barriers of ice during the last major glaciation. During the Pleistocene the Earth has been through incredible shifts in climate over relatively short periods of time. The ‘Ice Age’ was not one time when the Earth was cold: it was a time when the climate switched fairly rapidly from bitterly cold glacials, to tropical interglacials. It was during the glacial period from 300,000 to around 250, 000 years ago that the Neanderthals evolved. And they flourished. They survived two extremely hot interglacial periods, periods so hot, hippopotamuses were living in Britain! Our recent past was a dangerously unstable place to live.
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