Popular myth holds it that modern humans are descended from Neanderthals. This is demonstrably false. Neanderthals were a different hominid species from Homo sapiens, or modern man. The two species existed side by side as late as 24,000 B. C., but the Neanderthals lacked either the technical sophistication or the cultural and artistic dispositions of their human contemporaries. In essence, Homo neanderthalensis was a “dead end” species in the scheme of evolution; both the Neanderthals and modern humans had the same common ancestor, but are divergent branches of the evolutionary tree.
Neanderthals did not display any signs of a symbolic life. Though they buried their dead, they did so haphazardly. In contrast, throughout the past 50,000 years, modern men buried their dead with great care and ceremony, indicating their value for human life and their grief over its loss. In the realm of tool-making, Neanderthal technology was far more primitive and less efficient. Neanderthals wielded heavy stabbing spears that did not require any fine craftsmanship to manufacture and possessed a far smaller range than the versatile throwing spears of modern men, which often required great mastery and time to construct.
Whereas there is no evidence of systematic teaching in Neanderthal communities, and it was likely that every generation had rediscovered the same primitive technologies, modern humans, from their beginnings, passed on to their offspring the technical skills that would eventually dominate the planet. This communication of skills and techniques also contributed to the evolution of language and firmer social bonds, as those facilitated more effective creation and use of tools.
The significance of shell beads and ornamentation from 35,000 to 43,000 years ago in Turkey, the oldest decorations of this manner, is that they were not created with any explicitly utilitarian purpose. Not usable in hunting or gathering, they were an expression of individual creativity and identity unseen in any other animals, including the hominids that preceded modern man. Their existence signified an evolution of a hitherto nonexistent facet of consciousness. Homo sapiens created such works of art, whereas their ancestors and hominid contemporaries could not have.
Though they were genetically close, Neanderthals and modern humans were a wide gulf apart in terms of their mental faculties and creative abilities. This dramatic difference explains the natural selection that occurred in favor of modern humans, whose increased adaptability to hostile environments and ability to improve upon their surroundings proved a decisive advantage over the Neanderthals.