By any measure, the Neandertals have suffered a bad rap. Historically portrayed as dim-witted and brutish, it made perfect sense to scholars of yore that these ancient humans eventually disappeared from the European landscape, outcompeted by anatomically modern invaders. But recent research has revealed a more refined Neandertal--one that was a lot like us--making the demise of this group harder to explain.

New findings further blur the distinction between Neandertals and moderns. According to one school of thought, Neandertals may have lost out to our kind in part because they lacked the manual dexterity necessary for crafting sophisticated tools--an assertion based on earlier studies of the anatomy of the Neandertal thumb and forefinger. Researchers writing today in the journal Nature have reached rather a different conclusion. Wesley A. Niewoehner of California State University at San Bernardino and his colleagues studied the range of movement of the Neandertal thumb and index finger with the help of a three-dimensional computer simulation (see image). They found that even if Neandertals had only a small range of movement relative to what moderns have, they would still have been handy. Indeed, the scientists suggest that these hominids were probably just as nimble-fingered as we are, capable of the tip-to-tip contact that gives us our all-important precision grip.

Taking the new results into consideration along with archaeological evidence that later Neandertals used tools made in an advanced style known as the Chatelperronian, the team argues that these archaic Europeans did not vanish as a result of an inability to make or utilize fancy implements. Exactly how modern humans got the upper hand remains a mystery, however.