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And even once the antiquity of the remains was established, many scientists refused to accept that Neandertals could be closely related to modern humans, depicting them instead as brutish and apelike.
This interpretation reflected the prevailing prejudices about human ancestry, and was supported by misinterpretation of the remains of the "Old Man of La Chapelle", whose skeleton was warped by arthritis.
But at that time this view was anathema to many, since the majority of people still accepted the concept of special creation. Rather than accept the fossil as the remains of a human ancestor, the distinguished German scientist R.
Virchow described it as the skeleton of a diseased Cossack cavalryman.
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Our knowledge of human evolution is changing rapidly, as new fossils are discovered and described every year.
Thirty years ago, it was generally accepted that humans and the great apes last shared a common ancestor perhaps 16-20 million years ago, and that the separate human branch was occupied by only a few species, each evolving from the one before.
Now we know, through a combination of new fossil finds and molecular biology, that humans and chimpanzees diverged as little as 7 million years ago, and that our own lineage is "bushy", with many different species in existence at the same time.
The scientist Ernst Haeckel, for example, was convinced that humanity's nearest common ancestor was the orang-utan, and that humans evolved in Asia.
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The oldest remains of this species, belonging to the subspecies kadabba, are from Ethiopian rocks dated at between 5.2 and 5.8 million years old.
More recent Ardepithecus ramidus remains are dated at 4.4 million years.