The birth of culture? The strange world of neanderthal man

Neanderthals first appeared in Asia and then spread northward and westward into Europe as the weather permitted, even crossing to Britain where the remains of a jawbone in Kents Cavern, Torquay, have been found dating back as recently as 35,000 years ago.

Neanderthals have had a bad press. To call someone a "Neanderthal" is usually meant as an insult, implying that they are thick, old-fashioned or brutish. Pictures of Neanderthal people were, until recently, more like apes than men. They were shown walking with a stoop and bent knees.

This is wrong. Neanderthal brains were at least the same size as those of modern humans, if not a touch bigger. They also walked as upright as we do, although they were more hairy and usually shorter. They were stronger than us, with broad noses and foreheads that jutted out above the eyebrows. Almost all these adaptations helped to reduce the surface area of these early humans, helping them conserve heat in the bitterly cold Ice Ages.

Neanderthals were highly skilled at using tools. Recent archaeological evidence shows that their hands were at least as nimble as ours. The most famous site where tools have been found is at Le Moustier in the Dordogne, France. In 1909, archaeologists found an almost complete Neanderthal skull there, less than 45,000 years old. Hundreds of sharp, skilfully crafted stone tools were found alongside the bones.

Neanderthals used some of these as weapons. Their spears were not designed to be thrown, but were used for stabbing and clubbing. Stone tools helped them build impressive shelters – the first human houses – and they are the first people known to have buried their dead, often leaving ornaments in the graves of those they loved to help them on to the next life. This means these people almost certainly had beliefs, perhaps religions, and developed societies where some individuals were thought to be more important than others.

Perhaps the most significant discovery of all was dug up in 1995 by Dr Ivan Turk, a fossil-hunter from Ljubljana, Slovenia, next to a fireplace in a Neanderthal house. He found a hollowed-out bear bone with several holes bored out in a straight line. This could be a fragment from the world's oldest known musical instrument – a Neanderthal flute.

What tunes were played on this prehistoric pipe? It's hard to say, because no one knows for sure how long the original flute was, or how many holes it had, as only a small section remains. Some researchers believe it would have played what we would recognise as a minor or "blues" scale today, with a flattened third note.

In 1983, a Neanderthal bone was found in a cave in Israel which is almost identical to a bone in modern humans called the hyoid, which connects our tongues to our throats. This means that Neanderthals almost certainly had the capacity to speak. Also, the size of openings in Neanderthal vertebrae for the nerves that control the tongue for speech are about the same as in modern humans – unlike Lucy's people – meaning that they could produce a wide range of sounds.

Music, ceremonies, weapons, tools and conversation are the stuff of people possessing intelligence, brains, culture and an appreciation of beauty. The Neanderthals were certainly big and burly enough to cope with the hardship of living in caves through an Ice Age, but there's nothing to suggest that they were any more brutish than us.

What happened to these strong, intelligent, well-adapted folk? To understand this, we must look at ourselves properly in the mirror – and ask, as we will be doing tomorrow, what it is about modern human beings that makes us special?