The first Europeans have often been presented as brutes driven to extinction by a superior African race. But now there are doubts. Palaeontological findings in Spain and other countries indicate that the European Neanderthals were smarter than had been thought and almost equal to the African Cro-Magnons. It remains a mystery why the Neanderthals disappeared from the face of the earth some 30,000 years ago.
Spain has some of the most important palaeontological sites in the world. Researchers have discovered the remains of humans who lived in northern Spain 800,000 years ago.
The bones found at the site of Atapuerca in Burgos province are among the oldest in Europe. Scientists believe that the humans in question belonged to a race which they have named the Homo Antecessor and which was the common ancestor of the Neanderthals and of the race widely known as the Cromagnons.
Around a million years ago, groups of Homo Antecessor took off from Africa, the birthplace of humanity, the Spanish theory goes. In Europe they evolved into the Neanderthals while the ones who remained in Africa became the Cromagnons.
Tens of thousands of years ago, Cromagnons spread to Europe and Asia, becoming the ancestors of Homo Sapiens, or modern man. In Europe, they coexisted with the Neanderthals for millennia until the latter became extinct.
It had been suggested that the intelligent Cromagnons encroached on the territories of the Neanderthals which some movies and novels have presented as grunting and club-swinging brutes. Some theories claimed that the two races waged wars which the Neanderthals lost.
Findings in recent years suggest that the Neanderthals deserve a better reputation and that the coexistence of the two races is likely to have been relatively peaceful.
Bones found at the Sima de los Huesos (Pit of Bones) at Atapuerca indicate that pre-Neanderthals buried their dead as early as 250,000 years ago.
A complete skull discovered there leads to believe that pre-Neanderthals were also capable of speech. They did not talk in the same way as modern humans, but the sounds were slow and slurred, according to Spanish experts.
Scientists believe that the Neanderthals had the same brain size as the Cromagnons. They used fire and were fearsome hunters.
Some researchers have even claimed that the Neanderthals created art, a capacity which is usually attributed only to the Cromagnons.
In sparsely inhabited regions, warfare was probably rare, and the two races may even have crossbred.
The two races were closer to each other than had hitherto been thought, but they also differed. The Neanderthals were shorter and stronger than the Cromagnons and had lighter skin.
The Cromagnons are believed to have been able to make better clothes out of animal skins and more advanced stone weapons.
Could such differences have been decisive when the climate got colder and survival became harder some 40,000 years ago? Nobody knows.
Arsuaga believes that the key difference could have been a custom of the Cromagnons to decorate their bodies and make jewellery.
The use of such symbols made it possible for them to recognise allies beyond clan boundaries and to make cross-clan alliances. It may have been art and social skills, rather than weapons, that ensured the survival of modern man.
The original story was published by: The Daily Telegraph, with the title “Early man wasn’t a dummy”