“I am sitting on a large limestone boulder facing the Tyrrhenian Sea. Behind me lies the cave of Cape Circeo, frequented by Neanderthals, where we have been working for decades...” With these words begins a dream, an imaginary encounter between a paleoanthropologist and the last of the Neanderthals. The former shares his scientific skills with his exceptional companion, describing his group’s origin, biological traits, and behaviours. The latter tests them against the life he has lived and the emotions he has experienced. The end result is the fascinating story of a species which is similar to humans’, but also profoundly different due to hundreds of millennia of evolutionary separation. But this is not just a story of competition. Genetic proximity facilitated crossbreeding, which has left enduring traces in the Homo sapiens genome. Today, thanks to fossil remains and the DNA extracted from them, we know that Neanderthals are still here: together with us in deep time and part of us forever.
Giorgio Manzi teaches Anthropology at the Sapienza University in Rome, where he heads the Giuseppe Sergi Anthropology Museum. He was formerly the general secretary of the Italian Paleontology Institute and the director of the Sapienza Museum System.