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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Neanderthal vs. Cro-Magnon

If you have read Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel (review coming later this week) you will be constantly interacting with Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon, now commonly referred to in the scientific community as Early Modern Humans (or EMH). It can help to have a little bit of a visual aid and some additional information nearby while reading – or if you are just interested in learning something new! Read on!

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has an awesome website about early humans. Among other things there are visuals and explanations of the different fossils they have found, genetics information, timelines, and interactive features. There is a pretty awesome exploration game where you get to compare “unknown” skull fossils against “known” species to determine which species they belong to.

Neanderthals were our most recent ancestors - they lived alongside Cro-Magnon for a period of almost 10,000 years (really just a blink of the eye in evolutionary time). They lived about 200,000 to 28,000 years ago. Common to Europe and parts of Asia. Neanderthals have a distinct look that would prevent you from misidentifying them as Cro-Magnon. On the face they have a defined, protruding brow ridge and larger nose. The size of the head is very similar to Cro-Magnon, but in comparison to the size of their bodies it is larger in proportion. The body is more compact, stocky, and strong. Females averaged 5 feet 1 inch tall and weighed around 119 pounds. Men were approximately 5 feet 5 inches and weighed around 143 pounds. The body adaptations were designed to help them weather the cold temperatures better. They are also believed to have been one of the first to use burial rites – which is why we have found so many fossils of Neanderthals. In terms of sustenance they ate both plants and hunted game. In the long winter periods plants would be difficult to find. New research shows that they hunted using thrusting spears and the multitude of fractures to their bodies suggest they may have rode on top of some of their prey. They also were the first to create a type of clothing.

Cro-Magnons are very similar to humans today, but compared to Neanderthals they are very different. Cro-Magnon’s have a very defined chin, little to no brow ridges, a taller skull (rather than the more elongated of the Neanderthal), less defined nose and straight sloping face. They stood taller (due to their straightened legs) and had straighter, longer arms. The average height was between 5 feet 5 inches and 5 feet 7 inches. The Cro-Magnon started out in the East Africa/Middle Eastern area and spread east and westward bringing them into contact with the Neanderthals. There was likely an exchange of culture and possible interbreeding between the two groups.

There has been news made lately about the Neanderthal Genome Project. With the high volume of fossils found they have been able to extract a usable amount of Neanderthal DNA. With these findings they are better able to compare Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon and even modern humans. One of these findings shows that 1-4% of the European population has some amount of Neanderthal DNA. These findings may also help shed light on why they became extinct. Various theories abound about inability to adapt to a changing environment, competition for resources with Cro-Magnon, conflicts and fighting with Cro-Magnon, and also that their genetic material became diluted when they intermixed and bred with Cro-Magnon populations.

There is still a lot to be learned about the early people that came before us and science is finding new information every day. Keep a listen out for more on the Neanderthal Genome Project in the news as that is the big thing right now.

Copyright © 2011 by The Maiden’s Court


  1. Thank you for the wonderfully informative post Professor Heather ;)

  2. Jenny - thanks! I spent a lot of time on this one!


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