KRAPINA, Croatia (Reuters Life!) - Forensic science and computer simulations are just a couple of the high tech tools used to explain one branch of the evolutionary tree at a new museum in Croatia.
The Neanderthal Museum opened last week and was built on the site where scientists have found the greatest concentration in Europe of Neanderthal remains, the bones, skulls, tools and other effects of an extinct offshoot of mankind who inhabited parts of Asia and Europe until 30,000 years ago.
The museum's concept -- which sums up evolution in a 24-hour period displayed on a winding track along the museum's two floors -- highlights the late starting time of 23:52 for the first appearance of any of mankind's relations.
The museum, built with help from U.S. and British natural history museums and others, displays many of the bones and artifacts excavated here in the late 19th century.
"At that time scientists were looking for the missing link, half-man, half-animal, and the Neanderthals were portrayed as hairy, dull-looking savages who couldn't walk upright," said paleo-anthropologist Jakov Radovcic.
But the museum's painstakingly recreated life-size Neanderthal figures tell a different story.
"Today we look at the Neanderthals as humans. They had emotions, helped the weak and the sick, we have found indications of burying rituals and established that they had the speech gene just like ours," Radovcic said.
Findings throughout Europe show that the Neanderthals painted pictures, probably engaged in some sort of tribal dancing or music, and even cleaned their teeth.
"Even if they were not our direct ancestors, they were very close relatives to our ancestors, which again makes them our ancestors," Radovcic said,
He said scientists were still particularly intrigued -- and divided -- by the period when Neanderthals lived side by side with modern humans for several thousand years, before their final extinction.
"I believe, and there is some scientific proof, that they mixed with humans, that there had been exchange of genetic material. Some recent findings from Portugal also prove that the contact of the two populations was possible," he said.
Visitors can touch parts of a digital Neanderthal body to get a medical explanation of their diseases and ailments - most of them very similar to our own, like knee and shoulder problems at a later age.
The central scene -- a big Neanderthal family gathered in a cave around the fire -- is particularly impressive because of the accompanying acrid smells of sweat and burning meat, and sounds meant to recreate those typical of the Stone Age.
Reporting by Zoran Radosavljevic, Editing by Paul Casciato