The Mysteries of History

Dear 7Y,

Congratulations on navigating your way through the first days and weeks at our school.

Sometimes the school buildings seem to me like an old city that grew organically, without any architectural planning and forethought. That’s why they sometimes strike me as a friendly set of rabbit burrows, with little holes and passages leading to unexpected nooks and crannies. If you are well on your way to discovering where everything is, then you should feel proud of your accomplishment. I’m still hoping one day to discover a Room of Requirement…

This blog is for my history students in Year 7 and 8. If you cycle through the posts that I’ve written since 2009, when I started the blog, you will see the kind of work I have set my students over the years.

The first task, below, is one of my favourites, because it deals with a group of people, of hominids, of extinct human beings, who have often been denigrated; yet they represent one of the abiding enigmas of historical enquiry. Over the many years since I began teaching history (I’m becoming an artefact myself), the knowledge about Neanderthals has changed. For instance, most scientists now believe, thanks to the revolution in our understanding of the human genome, that some of our genes do indeed come from Neanderthals. Even 20 years ago, that was still uncertain.

I wish you the very best for your studies at our school and look forward to hearing and reading your comments, which I am sure will be witty, quirky, insightful and enlightening.

Kind regards,

Ms Green

A Mystery from History

Here’s a mystery from history for you to contemplate. How come the Neanderthals died out or became extinct? They had already survived the most life-threatening conditions you could possibly imagine. They were strong and well adapted to the cold. Their brains were larger than any other hominid’s, before them or since. That includes us!

There are many questions that surround the Neanderthals’ existence and their premature departure from this earth. For instance, scientists have been trying for many years to determine whether modern humans could have interbred with Neanderthals. The Max Planck Institute in Germany found evidence of Neanderthal genes in our genome in 2010. Only recently, however, another group of scientists have cast doubt on the theory that Neanderthals could have interbred with Homo sapiens. You can read information on these topics by clicking on the links below.

An artist's rendition of life on earth 60,000 years ago, showing a Neanderthal family on the frozen tundra of northern Europe - provided by Wikipedia Commons (public domain image)
An artist’s rendition of life on earth 60,000 years ago, showing a Neanderthal family on the frozen tundra of northern Europe – provided by Wikipedia Commons (public domain image)

It seems to me that the Neanderthals were tantalisingly similar to us, yet mysteriously different as well:

♦They didn’t farm, but then neither did we at that time in our past. No one farmed until 10,000 years ago. By then the Neanderthals had been gone for over 20,000 years.

♦They didn’t create rock art (at least to the best of our knowledge).

♦Yet they buried their dead and looked after their old and infirm. There is evidence to show that they were already burying their dead 120,000 years ago.

♦You might even assume that they should have been more likely to survive than we were. For instance, they were better adapted than Homo sapiens to a frozen world. They survived thousands of years of Ice Age. Their bones were far stronger than ours. Our bones are finer, more fragile, much more breakable. They would have won a wrestling contest with us easily.

So why did they, around 35000 to 30000 years ago, become extinct?

Words for possibilities
Not to mention: speculation, surmise, belief, point of view, judgement, conjecture and suspicion…

Here’s your chance to plumb the depths of this mystery and go back to the time before Homo sapiens were the only human beings on the planet. Have a look at each link below to view some fascinating speculations about Neanderthals:

Of course, many of these ideas are theory or speculation rather than fact.

After you have read and discussed these sites, write a comment about the Neanderthals. It must be written in correct English. What do you find interesting about them? What information have you gleaned from your reading? What are the factors that might have made the Neanderthals vulnerable to extinction? 

Kind regards,

Ms Green.

In case you lose your “Possibility Words” handout: A Mystery of History – Neanderthals

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32 Replies to “The Mysteries of History”

  1. The first days at Box Hill have been amazing, but we are still nervous about getting lost and forgetting our teachers names. We are very excited for this year.

  2. High school is fun but I am still a bit nervous about making the right friends. I feel ecstatic to come to school every day and I am extremely enthusiastic about this year

  3. I have always feared high school…but now, I feel great! High school is so interesting that it feels that there is not enough time for school. There is always something new to learn and the teachers here are fabulous. I just need to know all the routes around school and every class.

  4. High school is a new experience. I need to wake up early to get here on time. Also it is much more interesting work and I am mutual with high school and primary school!

  5. At the start of Grade 6, I was greatly anticipating Year 7. As the end of the year drew closer, I realised that I was really nervous about starting High School. I had very few friends, and I hardly knew my way around the school. Now, I enjoy every day here at High School. I just need to remember my classes and which equipment to bring…

  6. I love it here.
    High school is way better that primary school because I do so many more subjects that are way more interesting and important.
    Primary school was fun though

  7. Yes, it is pretty tricky at the start, isn’t it, especially since our school is laid out like a kind of maze. You seem to be doing very well, Cynthia!

  8. Dear Chloe,
    I am not quite sure what you mean by the phrase “I am mutual with high school and primary school”. Do you mean that you feel positive about both experiences? At any rate, I am glad that you are finding the work interesting.
    Kind regards from Ms Green

  9. Dear Dylan,
    I am so pleased that your fears about high school have turned out to be groundless. Yes, finding your way around the school is very tricky. The other day a student asked me where H7 is and I really didn’t know. So I asked a Year 11 and she couldn’t tell me either! But after we’d talked about it for a while, we figured it out together. The original student was quite shocked that even a teacher didn’t know – and I was a bit embarrassed myself.
    Kind regards,
    Ms Green

  10. Hi Hita,
    I am sure that your enthusiasm will lead to many new and lasting friendships.
    Kind regards,
    Ms Green

  11. Dear Aurelia and Kylie,
    We teachers find it hard at the start of the year to remember all the names too. Getting lost is perfectly understandable and I’m sure that no teacher will be tough on you if you arrive late. I hope that the excitement soon outweighs the nerves!
    Kind regards,
    Ms Green

  12. One of the greatest and unsolved mysteries is the Mystery of the Neanderthals, an ancient mystery, like the question about the extinction of the dinosaurs. Could it be they were massacred by a larger population from another species? Maybe it was a disease like the great plague, maybe even a failure to adapt. It is a possibility that the Neanderthals were wiped out by a war that led to both sides being crippled but with the time spent burying the dead they had less time to spend on more productive jobs like hunting and crafting weapons. They also had major childbirth problems which may have eventually led to the Neanderthals leaving the face of the earth.

  13. A possible explanation as to why the Neanderthals died out 40,000 years ago is that the temperatures could have drastically begun to change. The Neanderthals were extremely sensitive to the suddenly warmer climate and the differences really affected them. As it got warmer, it is possible that they found it difficult to adapt in time and began to perish. The temperature changes would have also affected their food sources because plants could have grown differently to what they used to and particular animal species could have died out or behaved differently. Life had always been a fight for survival but if the temperature were to suddenly change it would have become so much more difficult.

  14. The Neanderthals’ extinction has remained a huge mystery to scientists since the Neanderthals were first discovered. This version of humans disappeared from the face of the earth about 35000 years ago. Many theories were soon then made about how and why the Neanderthals died out.
    One possible cause for their sudden decreasing could have been birth problems. Scientists have created a virtual version of Neanderthal skeletons. They found out that Neanderthal women’s pelvises were more narrow. This would mean that the Neanderthal baby’s head would have to turn by a quarter. This would then slow the birth process down which would mean more loss of blood which would increase the risk of dying during childbirth. With a decrease of women, there would be less reproduction. Less reproductions equals fewer babies.

  15. The Neanderthals died out 35,000 years ago, but why? What happened to them? How did they die out? We still don’t know exactly, but that doesn’t stop people making countless great theories, some better than others.

    There are many factors that may have contributed to them dying out. Such as a baby’s head would have had to turn a quarter in order to get through the narrow lower pelvis. Another factor could have been them being more sensitive to climate change. A big similarity between them and us is that we have the same distribution of hair/skin color.

    Even though we still don’t know exactly what happened, we are still discovering more about them. As science and technology progress, we discover more about them. In the future, we may know everything about them, but for now, there are many theories.

  16. One possible explanation as to why the Neanderthals died out is probably because of the small population of Neanderthals. I consider it probable that it would be hard for a species to survive in only a number of small groups /communities. When major changes came, such as the ice age and climate change, it might have been hard to adapt to different weather and ways of living. Gradually, individuals would have passed away, leaving a smaller population of Neanderthals which would have less chance of their kind surviving.

  17. Dear Ms Green,
    Here is the Neanderthal task:

    – Sandra

    A popular theory on why the Neanderthals died out is that they gradually interbred with new arrivals, and their genes just faded out. Studies of DNA extracted from Neanderthal fossils have so far failed to come up with a definite answer: some researcher claim the DNA is too different from that of humans to permit interbreeding, while others disagree. Another theory is that they fell victim to climate change. There is evidence for dramatic ‘cold snaps’ around 25,000-40,000 years ago – roughly coinciding with the extinction of the Neanderthals. But some palaeontologists claim that the physical build and clothing of the Neanderthals suggest they were able to cope with the conditions.

    They may, however, have found themselves in a violent struggle for resources, losing out to the cunning of Homo Sapiens. And of course, the real cause of their disappearance may have been some combination of all of the above.


  18. Some evidence suggests that one of the reasons that the Neanderthals died out was because it was harder for them to give birth than for Homo sapien women, as the female Neanderthals had a narrow lower pelvis. The Neanderthals also had a significantly larger forehead. This extra complication might have influenced the population of the Neanderthals. The eruption of Campi Flegrei (Volcano) may also have been a breaking point for the Neanderthals, causing them to die out completely.
    Another theory is that because the Neanderthals lived through such cold climates when the Ice age finally ended, the dramatic climate change threatened the survival of the Neanderthals and minor dangers that they faced in everyday life that wouldn’t have affected them before became much more dangerous especially with a smaller population.

  19. I believe that the reason that the Neanderthals died out was their very small population. There is evidence to support this view because we believe that Neanderthals moved around in very small groups as they are easier to support. With constant challenges in everyday life and most not living over the age of 30, it would not take much for their population to dwindle and finally disappear. Apart from that, evidence also suggests that disease could have been a possibility. As the population was so small a disease would easily be able to wipe out the community. The final reason is that Neanderthals may have struggled with child birth. Their foreheads were 20% larger than ours. This may have caused difficulties in childbirth.

  20. I find it interesting that the Neanderthals could have looked like the Weasleys! (I’m a huge Harry Potter fan). As they survived the Ice Age, I feel that possibly they couldn’t adapt to the new environment. But possibly other factors contributed to their extinction. Could it have been a mixture of problems that could have led to their extinction? Some examples could be that the population decreased after the Ice Age and then because of their bigger heads and the women’s narrower pelvises, it was harder for them to give birth.

  21. The Neanderthals (Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis) died out at around 40,000 years ago, leaving modern historians with a great mystery – what happened? Many theories have been put forward, including the end of the ice age, which they were adapted to, and rivalries with modern humans (Homo Sapiens Sapiens), and even an insufficient genetic pool. However, I myself feel the most likely theory is extinction through the end of the ice age. Goodbye.

  22. You can never pinpoint why exactly Neanderthals vanished from the face of Earth. There are many possible theories, some unwritten.
    I think they vanished because their population dropped very low, with limited resources to continue their life. Furthermore, it was hard to compete for the limited food resources. They were smart, but also oblivious to many things. They could not face the Homo sapiens and diseases may have been spread. There is evidence to support the view that their lifespan was quite short. Although they were clearly intelligent beings, perhaps they lacked the adaptability of the Homo sapiens. Even though the Neanderthals had bigger brains, it is possible that the Homo sapiens had brains that were more efficient in some vital way. There was also a limited Neanderthal gene pool, and many women died while giving birth. One possible hypothesis is that natural disasters, such as famine and cool temperatures, might have deeply affected their lives. With low food supplies, their hunting skills might have also let them down. The Homo sapiens also had better techniques, shown in many articles. Neanderthal clans might have also been too small to survive. They might have been overthrown. The Homo sapiens surpassed them in hunting skill and adaptability; that’s one possible theory.
    Kylie Choi

  23. Today humans roam the vast planet, but who came before us? The Neanderthals used to be our human comrades on Earth but the question is, why did they die out? They seemed like the prime survivors for Earth as they had a larger brain capacity and overall a stronger physical wellbeing. One hypothesis is that the Neanderthals could not support the abnormally large Neanderthal offspring head size. Some evidence supports this view but this is not the only theory we have about the Neanderthals. We have even found Neanderthal DNA in humans and people believe that Neanderthal genes are represented in the genotype of modern Homo Sapiens. Their death is still a mystery to us and may forever be unsolved.

  24. Why I think the Neanderthals died out – Dylan
    I believe Neanderthals may have died out because of various reasons…
    Firstly, during the Ice Age, Neanderthals limited the amount of reproduction because it is difficult to collect and hunt sufficient amounts of food. After the Ice Age was over, the Neanderthals had adapted to cold temperatures and perhaps did not know how to cope with the new conditions. Moreover, their babies’ heads were possibly significantly larger than a Homo sapien’s heads. And this only makes it hard for mothers to give birth, leading to situations in which babies might die in their mothers’ stomachs, mothers dying in pain in order to give birth, both dying or both making it through. Though this is all theory based on evidence and artefacts collected so, what is the real reason? We may never know, but it is fascinating to speculate.

  25. Hello reader,
    I have created a hypothesis on why the Neanderthals died out. This is my theory:
    Scientists have proposed that the Neanderthals were more sensitive to climate change. They estimated that the Neanderthal populations dramatically decreased, around 50,000 years ago, due to climate change. But there may have been other groups of Neanderthals that helped re-expansion.
    Another possibility is that Neanderthals had a bigger head which would have probably caused birthing problems. This would then decrease the population as women may have died in the process of having a baby. When the population was really small, anything could have made the Neanderthals perish; weather change, lack of food, an animal attacked, etc.
    Thanks for reading,

  26. A Mystery of History

    I think the Neanderthals died out while just living their daily lives rather than because of a major crisis. It could be that simple. Based on the evidence from the Oxford University scientists led by Tom Higham, a Neanderthal could die from just merely choking or freezing to death, from injuries, old age, childbirth, environmental calamity, food and water shortages, weapons not being good enough, the effects of environmental calamity, or sickness. They would have been lucky to reach 30. Their lives were simply hazardous.

    Another factor could be there was not enough girls left to give birth. What if girls just weren’t being produced or born? Who could provide the bloodline?

  27. Mysteries of history-The Neanderthals
    Our cousins were more successful during the long, freezing ice ages. They had brains 100 cubic centimetres bigger than ours, and were able to talk, or so evidence suggests. So what made our cousins die out?

    Evidence suggests that the level of adaptability may have been a lot lower than that of our direct ancestors, as they had evolved in the frozen earth so much that the dramatic climate changes which reduced their forest hunting grounds and made the open plains available to our adaptable ancestors. The old hide-and-stab strategy could not be used in the open grounds, which may have reduced the Neanderthals ability to find food.

    Thus, our close cousins died in the summer of the world, as the winter slowly ebbed away; they were used to winters that lasted for centuries, not only a few months each year.

  28. a) Similarities and Differences
    · Neanderthals were significantly shorter and stockier than modern humans, with much broader rib cages.
    · The average height for a man in the USA is 1.76 metres. Conversely, based on the fossil records available, the average height for a Neanderthal was just 1.6 metres.
    · Neanderthals had stronger bones and larger skulls with a receding chin
    · Neanderthals were generally much smaller than average men and their bodies were much stockier
    · Neanderthals may have had a more effective immune system than modern humans
    · Neanderthals had stronger teeth
    · Neanderthals were mainly based in Europe while modern humans lived in Africa before travelling to Europe
    b) Shared DNA?
    2.5 percent of the genome of an average human living outside Africa today is made up of Neanderthal DNA. According to a new study that analysed traces of Neanderthal DNA in present-day humans, Asian and South American people possess an even greater percentage of Neanderthal genes.
    Interbreeding would have taken place when early modern humans were migrating.
    c) Possible reasons for the Neanderthals’ extinction:
    They could have interbred so much that there were no full Neanderthals left and all that remained was their DNA inside the early modern humans.
    Neanderthals were ambush hunters and when the forests receded, it is possible that they had to recede with them because they could only hunt in the forests and so their population became smaller until they became extinct.
    They were probably not as agile as Homo sapiens because they had shorter bodies and so it was harder for them to hunt on the plains.
    It was also harder for them to move to follow the forests, which in turn contributed to them dying out.

    Careful reading, Rupert and Che(?) – well done!

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