Think about "Neanderthal," and images of grunting, stoop-shouldered cavemen clad in bearskin loincloths and brandishing clubs come to mind.
However, new research indicates that this big-brained ancestor who roamed Europe and parts of Africa and Asia more than 150,000 years ago was not the dim-witted brute of yore.
In fact, burial sites in Spain, Croatia, Israel and elsewhere suggest that Neanderthals were sensitive, thoughtful creatures who looked after their sick and wounded and tenderly cared for the dead, as evidenced by flowers and other personal items found in some graves.
Scholars have said these enigmatic ancestors would probably blend in fairly well in a contemporary crowd.
"Neanderthals were highly resourceful, highly intelligent creatures," says Fred Smith, a Neanderthal specialist at Northern Illinois University. "They were not big, dumb brutes by any stretch of the imagination. They were us -- only different."
Scientists have learned a lot about these prehistoric people since the first fossilized remains were discovered in Germany's Neander Valley (hence the German name, "Neandertal" or Anglicized Neanderthal) in 1856. At first they thought this curious creature was the so-called "missing link" between humans and apes.
The origins of Neanderthal are uncertain, but scientists suspect they emerged as a distinct human form roughly 230,000 years ago in Europe. Skeletal remains show they were stocky, robust and muscular -- traits that helped them adapt to long periods of glacial cold in northern Europe.
While their brains were larger than those of more advanced humans who moved into Europe about 50,000 years ago, they appeared to be deficient in tool technology, art and other customs typically associated with enlightened humans.
Neanderthals roamed far and wide pursuing game and avoiding ice sheets. They journeyed as far north as Britain and as far south as Italy and Spain, probably in small bands of 30 or fewer. From the Rhine River in Germany they spread toward Central Asia, finally reaching Israel and other places in the Middle East.
Some Neanderthals lived in caves. Others established camps along animal-migration routes, digging holes or trenches for shelter. Never numerous, their total population at any one time probably numbered only in the tens of thousands.
Early in their development, it appears that Neanderthals were scavengers and probably competed with wolves, lions and hyenas for food. Later, as hunting skills improved, they went after bigger game -- bison, elk, even mammoths.
Contrary to earlier views, Neanderthals did not disappear immediately upon the arrival of Cro-Magnons. Anthropologists have found abundant evidence suggesting that Neanderthals were around as recently as 33,000 years ago in Croatia, 30,000 years ago in southern Spain. In other words, these two early human groups -- Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon -- co-existed for more than 10,000 years.
Until recently, the common view was that Cro-Magnon, the more advanced group, used refined weaponry and superior tactical intelligence to simply exterminate their slower-moving neighbors.
What happened to these wandering people thousands of years before the birth of civilization?
Perhaps they were an evolutionary dead-end from the beginning, destined to become extinct in humanity's long evolutionary march upward. Perhaps the newcomers on the scene -- smarter, taller, more artistic and technologically dominant -- simply outclassed these enigmatic, stoop-shouldered creatures from the past.
Author and syndicated columnist Randall Floyd can be reached at Rfloyd2@aol.com.