For me, until somewhat recently, the word “Neanderthal” had a negative connotation. Popular culture depicts Neanderthals as brawny, uncivilized, horribly primitive (and really hairy). At best, the Geico commercial with the caveman comes to mind. However, after studying Neanderthals in Anthropology, evolution in AP Biology, and listening to John Hawks, I realized that Neanderthals are really not that different from Homo sapiens. They had odd brow ridges, thick fingers, and heavy-set bodies, but those characteristics were adaptations to their environment. Without AP Biology, I do not think I would have looked at Neanderthals as part of a grand evolutionary timeline; they would have just been an unrelated, different species. They are not so different, however, that we can’t speculate about interbreeding between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens; DNA sequencing has revealed that we share approximately 3% of our genes with Neanderthals.
A few things that really struck me, and worked to demolish the remnants of the popular culture Neanderthal, were the cultural behaviors. One of the early Neanderthals found had osteoarthritis, which led researchers to draw incorrect conclusions about the skeletal structure of the average Neanderthal. An apparent lack of linguistic communication added insult to injury: Homo stupidus. But further research revealed the condition of the Neanderthal, and that Neanderthals kept the elderly alive—why? Perhaps for the same reasons we do. The discovery of a vocal auditory tract caused researchers to reconsider Homo stupidus. Forensic evidence revealed crude stone tools and even projectile weaponry created and used by Neanderthals; plant fiber that closely resembled string was also found. I don’t know if we are the last Neanderthals, but I do know that there is still much to be learned about our evolutionary history.