Neandertals (Homo neanderthalensis) are an extinct member of the Homo genus. Neandertals are thought to have evolved in southern Europe about 400,000 years ago. Neandertals spread throughout Europe and into southwestern Asia before they became extinct approximately 28,000 years ago. It is generally believed that Neandertals evolved from the species Homo heidelbergensis.
The first few waves of Neandertal bone discoveries made during the early and mid-1800s brought about little fanfare. The remains were assumed to be those of Homo sapiens. But with the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species and the rising understanding of evolution and natural selection, scientists began to look at the growing collection of Neandertal bones differently. In 1964, Irish anatomist William King named the ancient humans after the Neander River Valley in Germany, a site where some Neandertal remains had been found.
Neandertals were, in general, stockier and shorter than their modern human cousins. The lower bones in their arms and legs were proportionally shorter than those of modern humans and they grew to a maximum height of about 5 ½ feet. Neandertals led a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Many Neandertal fossils tell of a painful existence, with numerous examples of broken bones that had healed-over—injuries possibly sustained while hunting large, dangerous prey.
Neandertals exhibit a number of anatomical differences from modern humans. They had low, sloping foreheads and an elongated skull. They had a prominent brow ridge and a bulge at the back of their head called an occipital bun. In profile, their chin was rounder than modern humans and they had larger noses. Brain size, a trait often used when comparing hominins, was similar between Neandertals and modern humans.
Note: The classification of Neandertals has at times been the subject of turbulent debate. Some experts place Neandertals as a subspecies of humans and as such identifies them with the scientific name Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. Other experts classify Neandertals as a species separate from humans and therefore identify them by the scientific name Homo neanderthalensis.