Neanderthals appear in the fossil record around 230,000 years ago and, at their peak, these squat, physically powerful hunters dominated a wide range, spanning Britain and Iberia in the west to Israel in the south and Uzbekistan in the east.
Our own species, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa, and displaced the Neanderthals after entering Europe about 40,000 years ago.
Carved animal bone with two holes, suspected to be an ornament or a musical instrument. Found in a Neanderthal site dating to approximately 60 kya.
The Neanderthals were a powerfully-built species who evolved to cope with the challenging climate of Ice Age Europe. While their brains were bigger than our own, Neanderthals never developed the sophisticated culture and technology that became the hallmark of their modern human contemporaries.
Researchers from Britain, Gibraltar, Spain and Japan obtained radiocarbon dates on charcoal from ancient hearths unearthed deep inside Gorham&undefined;s Cave on Gibraltar, a mountainous peninsula on the southern tip of Iberia.
The charcoal comes from ground layers in the cave where archaeologists previously dug up stone tools of a type made exclusively by Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis).
The earliest samples of charcoal date to 33,000 years ago, while the youngest date to 24,000 years ago - much more recent than anyone could have imagined. But evidence for a presence 24,000 years ago is limited, so the researchers can only say with confidence that Neanderthals were in the cave until 28,000 years ago.
Gibraltar may have been home to the very last of their kind (Image: Gibraltar Museum)
A study in Nature magazine suggests the species may have lived in Gorham&undefined;s Cave on Gibraltar up to 24,000 years ago.
The cave has given up a range of Neanderthal artefacts (Image: Gibraltar Museum)
"It shows conclusively that Gorham&undefined;s Cave today was the last place on the planet where we know Neanderthals lived," said lead author Professor Clive Finlayson, director of heritage at the Gibraltar Museum.
Scientists have recovered DNA from a Neanderthal that lived 100,000 years ago - the oldest human-type DNA so far. It was extracted from the tooth of a Neanderthal child found in the Scladina cave in the Meuse Basin, Belgium. The DNA came from the molar of a 10-12 year-old child.
The study, reported in Current Biology, suggests our distant cousins were more genetically diverse than once thought. Their diversity had declined, perhaps because of climate change or disease, by the time modern humans arrived in Europe about 35,000 years ago.
Neanderthals "mated with modern humans"
A hybrid skeleton showing features of both Neanderthal and early modern humans has been discovered, challenging the theory that our ancestors drove Neanderthals to extinction.
The skeleton of a young boy was found in Portugal. Scientists say it shows for the first time that Neanderthals, who became extinct tens of thousands of years ago, mated with early members of our own species. The scientists believe that the offspring of the interbreeding could be ancestors of modern man.
"This skeleton, which has some characteristics of Neanderthals and others of early modern humans, demonstrates that early modern humans and Neanderthals are not all that different. They intermixed, interbred and produced offspring," said Erik Trinkaus of Washington University.
The skeleton, thought to be that of a four-year-old boy, was found when an archaeologist explored a rabbit hole near the coast north of Lisbon. The child had been given a ritual burial, with red ochre and pierced shells. He had the pronounced chin and teeth of modern humans, but his sturdy limbs were more characteristic of the Neanderthals.
Chris Stringer, an expert on Neanderthal man at the Museum of Natural History in London, said he expected the find to make a "major contribution" to the debate on how the Neanderthals died out.
The hybridisation theory has been difficult to prove because only fragments of skeletons have previously been found, Dr Stringer said.
"The Iberian peninsula is an area where there was a significant overlap in time and space between Neanderthal and modern man. They could have coexisted for as long as 10,000 years," he said.