Decoding Neanderthals (NOVA)

As humans left Africa and reached Europe, they found another hominid species which had left Africa much earlier — 800,000 years back — and had colonized specific parts of Europe. For about 10,000 years, humans and the Neanderthals co-existed; the magnificent Chauvet caves were built during this period. Then they just disappeared from the face of earth. Thus a species, which had survived for so long battling against an unforgiving nature, simply vanished and the reason behind that remains a mystery. Was it because they were now battling for the same resources as humans and could not win? Or was it because Neanderthals, who lacked art, language and technology, were wiped out by a superior species?

The new NOVA documentary, based on evidence from archaeology and genetic studies, does an image makeover of Neanderthals based on evidence from archaeology and genetics.

  1. It turns out that they had skills to use a set of carefully designed strikes to convert a flint stone into a flake with sharp edges. This flake could then be used to cut meat or as a weapon when attached to a pole.
  2. For attaching the flake to a pole, they brewed their own glue from birch bark using a dry distillation process which involved controlled heating.
  3. They had some language skills which was used to convey the above technologies to their peers.
  4. They also interbred with humans; everyone except Africans has a percentage of Neanderthal gene in them. Italians have the most.
  5. They had ritual, art and symbolism. They may have attempted body painting and also used grave goods as part of a burial ritual.

Since the program covered a lot of aspects of Neanderthal life, it fast-forwarded through one of the interesting questions about why they perished. One theory was offered: they were bred out by humans through interaction and absorption. Though it led to their extinction, this interbreeding might have helped us by providing with immunity to pathogens.

The entire program is available online

Watch Decoding Neanderthals on PBS. See more from NOVA.

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