In 1848 a strange skull was discovered on the military outpost of Gibraltar. It was undoubtedly human, but also had some of the heavy features of an ape... distinct brow ridges, and a forward projecting face. Just what was this ancient creature? And when had it lived? As more remains were discovered one thing became clear, this creature had once lived right across Europe. The remains were named Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthal man) an ancient and primitive form of human.
The archaeological evidence revealed that the earliest Neanderthals had lived in Europe about 200,000 years ago. But then, about 30,000 years ago, they disappeared... just at the time when the first modern humans appear in Europe. The story has it that our ancestors, modern humans, spread out of Africa about 100,000 years ago with better brains and more sophisticated tools. As they spread into Neanderthal territory, they simply out-competed their primitive cousins.
But was Neanderthal really the brutish ape-man of legend, or an effective rival to our own species? And how exactly had he been driven to extinction? What could be found out about this remarkable evolution from the bones themselves? To begin the investigation a skeleton was needed, and no complete Neanderthal had ever been found.
However a reconstruction expert at The American Museum of Natural History in New York realised that it would be possible to create an entire composite skeleton from casts of partial skeletons. Gary Sawyer combined and rebuilt broken parts to create the most complete Neanderthal ever seen. This Neanderthal stood no more than 1.65m (5' 4") tall, but he had a robust and powerful build - perfect for his Ice Age environment. But would he have stood up to the cold better than modern humans?
BBC, Broadcast 2003