Neanderthals were able to 'develop their own tools'
Neanderthals were keen on innovation and technology and developed tools all on their own, scientists say.
A new study challenges the view that our close relatives could advance only through contact with Homo sapiens.
The team says climate change was partly responsible for forcing Neanderthals to innovate in order to survive.
The research is set to appear in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory in December.
"Basically, I am rehabilitating Neanderthals," said Julien Riel-Salvatore, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado in Denver, who led the seven-year study.
"They were far more resourceful than we have given them credit for."
Neanderthals were first discovered in Germany's Neander Valley in 1856.
It is believed that they lived in Europe and parts of Asia. Close examination of the found fossils shows that they shared 99.5-99.9% of modern humans' DNA, which makes them our closest relatives.
They had short, muscular bodies, large brains, prominent facial features and barrel chests.
Neanderthals split from our evolutionary line some 500,000 years ago, and disappeared off the face of the Earth about 30,000 years ago.
Since the first discovery, anthropologists have been trying to crack the mystery of the vanished culture, also debating whether or not Neanderthals were evolving on their own or through contact with Homo sapiens.
During the research, Dr Riel-Salvatore and his colleagues examined Neanderthal sites across Italy.
About 42,000 years ago, Homo sapiens and Neanderthals were already living in the northern and central parts of the area.
At that time, an entirely new group appeared in the south.
The researchers believe that the southerners were also Neanderthals, of a culture named Uluzzian.
Dr Riel-Salvatore's team was astonished to find quite a few innovations throughout the area, even though the Uluzzians were isolated from Homo sapiens.
They discovered projectile points, ochre, bone tools, ornaments and possible evidence of fishing and small game hunting.
"My conclusion is that if the Uluzzian is a Neanderthal culture, it suggests that contacts with modern humans are not necessary to explain the origin of this new behaviour.
"This stands in contrast to the ideas of the past 50 years that Neanderthals had to be acculturated to [modern] humans to come up with this technology.
"When we show Neanderthals could innovate on their own, it casts them in a new light.
"It 'humanises' them, if you will."
The researchers believe that one reason that forced Neanderthals to innovate was a shift in climate.
When the area where they were living started to become increasingly open and arid, they had no choice but to adapt - or die out.
"The fact that Neanderthals could adapt to new conditions and innovate shows they are culturally similar to us," said Dr Riel-Salvatore.
He added that they were also similar biologically, and should be considered a subspecies of human rather than a different species.
"My research suggests that they were a different kind of human, but humans nonetheless.
"We are more brothers than distant cousins."