Did you know that Neanderthal man isn't so much of a brute?


Our distant cousin takes its name from the place where the first bones were found in 1856, the valley (tal in German) of Neander, between Düsseldorf and Wuppertal, when Neanderthal man became part of our long lineage. In fact, the first skull of this type was discovered much earlier in 1829, in the Valley of the Schmerling Caves in Engis in Belgium by a doctor and anthropologist, both a palaeontologist and Belgian prehistorian, who also gave his name to the caves that he discovered, Philippe-Charles Schmerling (1790-1836). But the remains that the scientist discovered belonged to a young individual in which the characteristic traits of the Neanderthals were less obvious and it was not apparent that this was a human fossil of a different species than Homo sapiens.

Neanderthal man was physically stronger and stockier than Homo sapiens, due to his development in a colder environment. He had a slightly larger brain on average, but with slightly lower performance. Our distant ancestor reigned over Europe, Asia and the Near East 400,000 years ago. He died out 40,000 years ago but the reasons why remain a mystery. Long considered as rough brutes, recent work by paleoanthropologists and prehistorians have redeemed the Neanderthals; they understood fire, knew how to produce and maintain it, made clothes, tools, buried their dead, etc.

A fitting return to the beginnings, if it could be written, Neanderthal man was carving stone in Orp-Jauche, a Belgian municipality in Walloon Brabant, 200,000 years ago. One inhabitant, a geologist by profession and passionate about archaeology, has gathered thousands of carved stones on the banks of the Petite Gette and its tributaries. The scenario that unfolds is one of a large, open-air flint knapping workshop at Orp-Jauche which would have existed for tens of thousands of years.