Neanderthals: Fossil evidence and DNA
Neanderthals inhabited Western Eurasia from approximately 300 to 30 thousand years ago (ka). They are distinguished by a unique combination of anatomical traits, and are commonly associated with Middle Paleolithic lithic industries. Current consensus among paleoanthropologists is that they represented a separate Eurasian human lineage, which evolved in isolation from the rest of the Old World and which shared a common ancestor with modern humans in the Middle Pleistocene. It is thought that some aspects of the distinctive Neanderthal anatomy evolved in response to selection related to the extreme cold of the European glacial cycles. Nevertheless, genetic drift seems to be partially responsible for the evolution of these traits. The last appearance of Neanderthals in the fossil record ca. 30 ka BP dates a few millennia after the first appearance of modern humans in Europe. The retrieval of ancient mitochondrial and, more recently, nuclear DNA from Neanderthal fossil puts us in the unique position to combine fossil with genetic evidence to address questions about their evolution, paleobiology and eventual fate.