Are Neanderthals the same species as us?


Museum human evolution expert Prof Chris Stringer, who has been studying Neanderthals and early modern humans for about 50 years, tackles the big question of whether we belong to the same species.

Everyone on the planet today, whatever they look like and wherever they live, is classified by biologists in the species Homo sapiens. But some commentators are now suggesting that the extinct Neanderthals with their heavy brows and big noses should be classified in our species as well.

So what defines our species, and who qualifies to join the club?

An expanding family tree

When I drew up a family tree covering the last one million years of human evolution in 2003, it contained only four species: Homo sapiens (us, modern humans), H. neanderthalensis (the Neanderthals), H. heidelbergensis (a supposedly ancestral species), and H. erectus (an even more ancient and primitive species). I have just published a new diagram covering the same period of time and it shows more than double the number of species, including at least four that were around in the last 100,000 years.

Timeline of human species that lived during the last one million years

Scientists currently recognise as many as nine human species from the past one million years, including the recently discovered Homo luzonensis, which was announced in April 2019. This diagram showing their inferred age ranges was published in the Journal of Quaternary Science in August 2019.

Named by Linnaeus

Our species name (which means ‘wise humans’ – though we might question the wisdom of that name today) was given to us by that great Swedish classifier Carl Linnaeus in 1758. In those pre-evolutionary times, species were usually considered to be fixed identities, created by God.

Grouping living things in species allows biologists to study aspects of life ranging from our own evolutionary history to the conservation of rain forests in the Amazon.

Today we still recognise each species by its own special features.

How do Homo sapiens and Neanderthals differ?

Natural History Musuem for more

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