Neanderthals Revisited: New Approaches and Perspectives

Part of the series Vertebrate Paleobiology and Paleoanthropology pp 9-22

The distinctiveness and systematic context of Homo neanderthalensis

  • I. TattersallAffiliated withDivision of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History
  • , J. H. SchwartzAffiliated withDepartments of Anthropology the History and Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh

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The “packaging” of the diverse living world is untidy, with the result that there are no absolute criteria for recognizing in all contexts the bounded historical entities we call species. However, there is no doubt whatsoever that Homo neanderthalensis is as clear-cut a morphological entity as any in the hominid fossil record: one that is characterized by a whole host of cranial apomorphies. Further, a recent full-skeleton reconstruction further emphasizes just how different Neanderthal body structure was from that of Homo sapiens, not simply in numerous anatomical details, but in the proportions of the thorax and its relation to the pelvic region. These bodily proportions would have given these extinct hominids a very distinctive appearance on the landscape, and enhance the likelihood that we are dealing here with a reproductively differentiated entity. Still, Homo neanderthalensis is not unique in all those features that distinguish it from Homo sapiens. Many “Neanderthal” cranial features are shared with various middle Pleistocene European hominids, notably the Steinheim specimen and, to a lesser extent, the Sima de los Huesos hominids from Atapuerca. Indeed, it appears that, far from being an isolated phenomenon, Homo neanderthalensis formed part of a larger endemic European hominid clade. This clade seems to have existed contemporaneously in Europe with at least one other hominid lineage or clade, exemplified by the Homo heidelbergensis fossils from Mauer, Arago and Petralona.


Homo neanderthalensis Neanderthals Homo heidelbergensis Mauer Arago Atapuerca Sima de los Huesos reconstructed skeleton