Say "Neanderthal" and images of grunting, stoop-shouldered cavemen clad in bearskin loincloths and brandishing clubs come to mind.
But new research indicates that these early humans who roamed Europe and parts of Africa and Asia more than 150,000 years ago were far from dim-witted brutes.
Burial sites in Spain, Croatia, Israel and elsewhere suggest that Neanderthals were sensitive, thoughtful beings 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.
More than a few scholars say Neanderthals would probably blend in fairly well in a contemporary crowd.
"Neanderthals were highly resourceful, highly intelligent creatures," said Fred Smith of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. "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 in 1856. At first they thought this curious creature was the so-called "missing link" between humans and apes. Others thought it was a misshapen freak from the Middle Ages.
Scientists suspect that Neanderthals emerged as a distinct human form some 230,000 years ago in Europe. Skeletal remains show that they were stocky, robust and muscular, traits that helped them adapt to long periods of glacial cold in northern Europe.
Their brains were larger than more advanced humans who moved into Europe about 50,000 years ago, but Neanderthals were deficient in tool technology, art and other customs associated with enlightened humans.
Neanderthals were nomad hunters. They ranged as far north as Britain and as far south as Italy and Spain, probably in bands of 30 or fewer. From the Rhine River in Germany they spread toward Central Asia, finally reaching Israel and other locations in the Middle East.
Some Neanderthals lived in caves. Others established campsites along animal migration routes, digging holes or trenches for shelter. Never numerous, their total population probably numbered only in the tens of thousands.
Early Neanderthals were scavengers and probably competed with wolves, lions and hyenas for food. As hunting skills improved, they went after bigger game - bison, elk, even mammoths. Evidence found at some sites leads to speculation that these "Dawn Age" people might have practiced cannibalism on occasion.
Neanderthals did not die out immediately upon the arrival of clever newcomers called Cro-Magnon. Anthropologists have found abundant evidence to suggest that Neanderthals were around as recently as 33,000 years ago in Croatia and 30,000 years ago in southern Spain. Apparently, 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 in battle.
Many scientists now believe that Neanderthals intermingled with the superior group and were absorbed.
Others disagree. "They were a different species," argues Fred Spoor of University College in London. "There is no convincing evidence of interbreeding on any significant scale."
Some scientists contend that Neanderthals were an evolutionary dead-end, destined to become extinct in humanity's long evolutionary march upward. Perhaps the newcomers on the scene - smarter, taller, more artistic and technologically dominant in every way - simply outclassed these enigmatic, stoop-shouldered creatures from the past.
Author and syndicated columnist Randall Floyd's latest book is 100 of the World's Greatest Mysteries: Strange Secrets of the Past Revealed. He can be reached at Rfloyd2@aol.com.