There are considerable differences between humans and our closest relatives, chimps and bonobos. It might not always seem like it at a kids party or on the night bus, but there are. They are smaller, in general, and hairier. They are less organised. There are plenty more differences, despite the surprising similarity of our genetic make-up. So it's perhaps only natural we're so keen to find out about our long-lost cousins, the Neanderthal. Someone much more like us.
I've bemoaned the Neanderthal's poor reputation before, but they seem to have been experiencing a gradual rehabilitation as we learn more. Public perception always takes a little while to catch up to the current thinking of those working in the field, of course, and we now know our close relative wasn't the club-wielding, grunting imbecile we had painted him. They used advanced tools, hunted large herbivores, and even cooked their meals. Neanderthal survived in Europe, often in harsh climates, for hundreds of thousands of years. So why, at sometime around 30,000 years ago, did this competent cousin of ours disappear?
There's a conference in London this week to try to get to the bottom of it all. Of course we're curious - can you imagine how Possibly the key question is the level of our own culpability. Was Neanderthal just a species ill-adapted to its time and environment or did Homo sapiens play a part in their downfall? We await the verdict.