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Neanderthal man: 230,000 - 35,000 years ago

The Neanderthals are widely spread through Europe and the Middle East, and they thrive for an extremely long period (from about 230,000 to 35,000 years ago). Sophisticated stone tools and bones of animals of all sizes, up to bison and mammoth, are found with their remains.

Yet almost everything about them seems uncertain and controversial.

There is inconclusive evidence that the Neanderthals may have buried their dead (in one case, it has been suggested, even with flowers on the corpse). If they did have burial customs, that implies religion. Yet they have left no other trace of it.

There are skeletons of Neanderthals who lived for several years after serious injury, suggesting a social cohesion strong enough to protect the weak. But if they were so advanced socially, it seems odd to us that they should have left no art, decoration or jewellery. Yet the recent discovery of a Neanderthal flute suggests they were culturally more advanced than has been assumed.

It may be that this sense of uncertainty about Neanderthal man stems largely from our own eagerness to find early reflections of ourselves. It is perhaps only the lack of clear answers in that context which seems to blur Homo sapiens Neanderthalensis.

Looked at in a different perspective, as small groups of interdependent humans subsisting in very difficult circumstances, the Neanderthals are an unprecedented success story. Like Homo erectus before them, the Neanderthals slip fairly suddenly out of the fossil record - in their case about 35,000 years ago.

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