Neandertal sites are found throughout most of Europe, in Western Asia, and in parts of Central Asia. In the early and mid-1900s, anthropologists Franz Weidenreich and Ales Hrdlieka proposed that all modern humans went through a Neandertal stage of evolution. Under this model, all Middle Pleistocene hominid fossils that were morphologically intermediate between Homo erectus and anatomically modern humans were referred to as Neandertals. Thus, literature in the mid- and later 20th century may refer to Asian or African Neandertals, but this has generally fallen out of practice.
Neandertals are often thought of as cave dwellers because most sites are discovered in rock shelters and caves. However, it is important to remember that certain biases may be partially responsible for the distribution of Neandertal sites on the landscape. For example, there is a bias toward finding fossils in caves and rock shelters where they are better protected and more likely to be preserved. Moreover, the number of sites discovered in Europe is at least partially a result of European historical interest in (and thus interest in finding evidence for) human evolution.
The first Neandertal recognized as such was found at Feldhofer Cave in the Neander Valley near Dusseldorf, Germany. It is for this site that Neandertals were named (valley = Tal in German). Feldhofer 1 was discovered in 1856, 3 years before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Without any evolutionary framework in which to interpret the fossils, they were first believed by Johann Fuhlrott to represent an extinct human race that was replaced by the ancestors of modern Germans. In contrast, the famous biologist Rudolf Virchow believed the Feldhofer specimen was a pathological modern human. Still others believed the bones were the remains of a Cossack from the Napoleon Wars. The original fossils from Feldhofer Cave included a skull cap and a partial postcranial skeleton. Excavations at Feldhofer Cave have been recently reopened, and additional remains of Felhofer 1, together with those of other individuals, have been recovered.
Although Neandertals were named for the Feldhofer site, the Feldhofer specimen was not the first Neandertal discovered. The cranium of a Neandertal child (Engis 2) had been discovered near Engis Village, Belgium, in 1829. Likewise, the cranium ofan adult Neandertal from Forbes Quarry, Gibraltar, had been reported in 1848. However, as with the Feldhofer specimens, their evolutionary significance was not appreciated until much later.
The fossil from the site of La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France (discovered in 1908), has played an important role in how we view Neandertals. The Neandertal image—that of a hunched over, bent-kneed, awkward-looking caveman—can be traced to Marcellin Boule’s inaccurate reconstruction of this fossil published between 1911 and 1913. Boule believed that Neandertals played no part in human evolution. Thus, it is no surprise that he would describe Neandertals as intellectually inferior despite this specimen’s cranial capacity of more than 1600 cc (well above the modern human average of 1450 cc). However inaccurate, this negative image has been difficult for Neandertals to shed. We now know that La Chapelle-aux-Saints (“Old Man from La Chapelle”) was a severely arthritic old man whose bent posture was the result of the disease. As such, it was not representative of Neandertals as a whole.
Since these early discoveries, thousands of Neandertal sites have been discovered. Not all Neandertal sites are associated with fossils, however. In fact, most have been identified on the basis of Middle Paleolithic or Mousterian tools. Indisputable Neandertal remains are currently known from more than 80 sites dating to between 130,000 and 28,000 BP. They span Europe and parts of Western and Central Asia.
Among the most ancient Neandertal sites are Krapina, Croatia (130,000 BP), and Saccopastore, Italy (120,000 BP). The Krapina remains were excavated between 1899 and 1905. They represent one of the largest collections of Neandertal fossils, with close to 400 cranial and mandibular fragments and nearly 200 teeth. The Saccopastore individuals were excavated in 1929 (Saccopastore 1) and in 1935 (Saccopastore 2). Saccopastore 1 is a nearly complete adult cranium and Saccopastore 2 is a less complete adult cranium.
The two most recent Neandertal sites comprise the fossils from Zafarraya, Spain (27,000 BP), and Mezmaiskaya in the northern Caucasus, Russia (29,000 BP). Excavated in the early 1980s, the fossils at Zafarraya play a pivotal role in the hypothesis that the Iberian Peninsula was a refugium for late surviving Neandertals. The individuals at Mezmaiskaya are also quite recent. Excavated between 1987 and 1997, the specimen that has received the most attention is an infant dating to 29,000 BP. Mitochondrial DNA extracted from the infant shows that it is very similar to DNA extracted from other (geologically older) Neandertals, indicating little genetic change in the species over time.
Outside Europe, excavations above the Wadi Amud, Israel, took place in the 1960s and were resumed again in the 1990s. Two important fossils are known from this site. Amud 1 is the tallest known Neandertal (1.8 m or 5’8″) with the largest cranial capacity (1740 cc). Amud 7 is a 10-month-old infant, which demonstrates that distinctive Neandertal cranial morphology is present even in very young individuals. Both date to approximately 40,000 to 50,000 BP and are presumed to be burials. Excavations in Tabun Cave, Israel, took place between 1969 and 1971. The fossils from Tabun may be as old as 120,000 years. The Neandertal fossils from Shanidar, Iraq, excavated in the 1950s and 1960s, date to 70,000 BP. The site is notable for (among other things) the number of skeletons discovered (seven) and for their alleged status as Neandertal burials, including the famous “flower burial” (Shanidar 4).
Further east, in Uzbekistan, a site named Teshik-Tash (70,000 BP) is the easternmost Neandertal site known to date. Here, a 9-year-old child was discovered in 1938. It is frequently cited as an example of Neandertal burial because of its association with presumed ritual placement of goat horns.
Finally, one of the most recently discovered Neandertal fossils comes from a site not far from Teshik-Tash. The fossils from Obi Rakhmat (published in 2004) consist of cranial fragments and teeth from two individuals. The analysis of these fossils is not complete, but initial results suggest that they are somewhat different from those Neandertals found in western Europe. This indicates that geographic variation existed among Neandertals, just as it does among modern humans today.
From the discovery of the first Neandertal, our image and interpretation of these enigmatic humans has been changing. Excavations of Neandertal sites, both old and new, are ongoing. There is no doubt that new fossils will continue to come to light and shape our understanding of Neandertals for decades to come.
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