Updated 24 July 2020
History is written by the winners. Neanderthals have long been thought to be a distinct and more primitive, sub-human species from ourselves. We have different names; Homo neanderthalis and Homo sapiens. We were thought to have displaced them outright as we advanced through their old stamping grounds in Europe. But that picture has changed drastically in recent years and is continuing to change.
We now know that some advanced artefacts previously ascribed to us were made by Neanderthals. They buried their dead with flowers. We coexisted for thousands of years - and we interbred in several periods along the way. Genetically we all have some Neanderthal in us today; we already know that they help control our hair and skin colours and sleep pattern. We shared cultures. They copied our bear-tooth necklaces. We probably learned a few tricks from them and not the other way round, as previously assumed. The reconstruction of a Neanderthal man from his skeleton has demonstrated graphically that a Neanderthal walking the streets today in modern dress would look short, stocky and powerfully built, but nobody would question their membership of the human race for a moment.
Then, a third "species" was discovered, Homo denisova. The Denisovans lived further east and made advanced artefacts. They left a few bone fragments and, again, the stamp of their genes in our blood.
Most recently, we have identified a whole web of early human populations scattered about Africa who are now lost but interbred widely and contributed to our genetic makeup.
The picture is growing of a great web of small, semi-isolated communities scattered across Africa and Eurasia, interbreeding when occasion arose and sometimes merging when the pure strains died out leaving no physical trace behind save their genes. As we learn more about the Neanderthals and Denisovans, we will find more of their genes in us and surely begin to unearth more such strains and webs behind their ancestry.
The idea that all these interbreeding strains, many little more than large and long-lived tribes, were distinct species is absurd. There is not the slightest scientific basis for treating the Neanderthals and Denisovans any differently. Classifying them as as separate species from ourselves and downplaying their cognitive achievements is wholly untenable, it is as antiquated as Creationism. None of them ever went extinct, or their genes would not be in our living bodies to be found. They merged with other strains to make us what we are today. We are their living descendants as much as we are of many another population of the day, and they live on in us.
They may not have been quite as nimble-fingered or as intelligent as their sapiens contemporaries or as the average human today, but there is a spread in any population and I know many people today whose craft skills and intellectual capacity are no better. Compare the intellectual capacities of a bulldog and a border collie and you will soon see what I mean. We do not deny our mentally challenged friends their humanity; to deny the Neanderthals and Denisovans theirs is nothing short of chauvinist racism, a nasty feature of Western civilisation which still lingers and is equally unpleasant to see in the minds of modern palaeontologists.
It is high time we rewrote our family tree to include H. sapiens neanderthalis and H. sapiens denisova alongside ourselves, H. sapiens sapiens. That we ultimately survived suggests only that the H. sapiens sapiens of the day was a rather different breed from ourselves, lacking as it did the various benefits brought to us by our Neanderthal and Denisovan heritage. Perhaps we need to recognise an H sapiens transientis who was their contemporary and shared with them our common ancestry.