Neanderthals were as formidable as the Ice Age environment they lived in.Their short squat physique was an ideal body shape for conserving heat. But despite their small stature, they had big, powerful muscles - a sign of the demanding lifestyle they led.
They looked out at their harsh world from under a bony ridge that arched across their foreheads. Set in the middle of their long faces was a long projecting nose that distanced the delicate tissues of the brain from the frozen Ice Age air.
They were skilled hunters, cooperating together in hunting parties. Neanderthals exploited the natural landscape to surround their quarry and make a kill at close range. This hunting practice left many Neanderthals with painful injuries.
Neanderthals were capable of speech, but their communication skills were not as advanced as our own. They also seemed to lack an understanding of abstract concepts such as art
How did they survive the Ice Age?
During the Pleistocene, the polar ice caps were locked in a cycle of retreat and advance. When they retreated, temperatures climbed and deciduous forest covered Europe. When the ice caps advanced, temperatures plummeted and the landscape turned into snowy tundra. In order to survive these ice ages, heidelbergensis evolved physical adaptations to the cold, and became the Neanderthals.
The Neanderthals lost the tall, strapping physique of heidelbergensis and developed a short, stocky body that was an ideal shape for conserving heat. They were also extremely muscular in order to cope with the demands of a gruelling Ice Age lifestyle. This physique developed early in childhood.
"An eight-year old Neanderthal is at the same developmental stage as a 12-year old modern human," says Christoph Zollikofer, an anthropologist at the University of Zurich.
The Neanderthals were committed carnivores, and in order to obtain enough animal meat to survive, they needed to be skilled hunters. Neanderthals hunted bison, auroch (an ancestor of living cattle), deer, reindeer and musk ox, to name but a few.
Neanderthals slaughter a mammoth in a hypothetical hunting scenario
They probably trapped their prey in bogs or on deep stream banks before closing in with their spears and making a kill at close range. A high rate of head and neck trauma in Neanderthals matches the pattern seen in present-day rodeo riders suggesting that, like these sportsmen, Neanderthals were tackling big animals up close and getting thrown off them.
"They do seem to have gone in for a much more in-your-face culture. That was reflected in the way they went in for the food quest. It was the same sort of pattern," says Gamble. "This applied to the way they built their societies, which I think were based on face-to-face interaction."