Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Mystery of the Neanderthal

Once upon a time in the history of our planet two distinct species of human walked the Earth together. Then some thirty five thousand years ago, in the ultimate contest of survival one species alone would survive to inherit the Earth – Homo sapiens. We are the descendants of the winners of that evolutionary contest.

Eventually we would spread out from the Old Worlds of Europe and Asia into the New Worlds of the Americas and Australia and became a planetary species. We discovered agriculture, built the first cities, developed culture and writing and became the pioneers of a totally new domain of evolution which is distinctly non-biological - Cultural Evolution. It is this new realm of evolution that has made us the most dominant life form on this planet and has set us on a trajectory that will one day take us out amongst the stars.

But, what of that other species that once roamed the planet with us? What happened to them? Their skeletal remains grace the glass cases of our museums and we gawk at them in wonder and fascination. We are haunted by the mystery of their demise. And just as Hamlet contemplating the skull of Yorick, looking into the face of the Neanderthal we feel the stirrings of unease in the depth of our soul. For in this face we see both kinship and the alien both. Here is a species that was in many respects just like us, yet not of the same flesh.

The Neanderthal was one of the most successful species ever and they dominated Europe for a quarter of a million years - a tenure far longer than that of our own species. They lived in a world ravaged by a long ice age and dominated by furious gargantuan animals such as the saber-toothed cat, the woolly mammoth and the mastodon. Then thirty five thousand years ago they faced the ultimate challenge -the arrival of another human species - our ancestors. The Neanderthal survived the vicissitudes of a changing global climate yet they could not survive us.

Why did we beat them in the contest of Darwinian natural selection? What gave us the edge in this contest of survival? This is the essence of the mystery of the Neanderthal that we will be exploring in today’s video offering.


The were one of the most successful species ever. For 250,000 years they dominated Europe, a continent ravaged by ice ages and stalked by wild animals. Then 35,000 years ago they faced the ultimate challenge. The arrival of a another human species. This is the story of the last time two different species of human shared this planet . Only one of them will survive.

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