The Neanderthals are both the most familiar and the least understood of all our fossil kin.
For decades after the initial discovery of their bones in a cave in Germany in 1856 Homo neanderthalensis was viewed as a hairy brute who stumbled around Ice Age Eurasia on bent knees, eventually to be replaced by elegant, upright Cro-Magnon, the true ancestor of modern Europeans.
Science has long since killed off the notion of that witless caveman, but Neanderthals have still been regarded as quintessential losers—a large-brained, well-adapted species of human that went extinct nevertheless, yielding the Eurasian continent to anatomically modern humans, who began to migrate out of Africa some 60,000 years ago.
Lately, the relationship between Neanderthals and modern humans has gotten spicier.
According to a new study that analyzed traces of Neanderthal DNA in present-day humans, Neanderthals may have been interbreeding with some of the ancestors of modern Eurasians as recently as 37,000 years ago. Read more.