Mettmann, Germany: Learn about our distant relations at Neanderthal Museum

There's something uncanny about the man in a suit as he leans on a concrete wall. No matter how much I try to focus on the museum's exhibits, my eye is drawn back to him. It's as if my brain can't believe that he's real.

And that's fair enough, for the figure in a business suit is a dummy and not quite human – or at least, not human as we think of it today. He's a Neanderthal, a member of the species Homo neanderthalensis, which disappeared from the Earth about 40,000 years ago. For millennia they shared Europe with the later-arriving species Homo sapiens: that's us, modern humans.

Why is the Neanderthal Museum located here, in the countryside east of the German city of Dusseldorf? The answer is in the museum's name.

In 1856, just three years before Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution, a group of workmen happened upon a mysterious fossilised skeleton in a cave in the Neandertal, or Neander Valley in English. In German "tal" means valley, so the place granted its name (with an additional old-fashioned "h" in its spelling) to this previously unknown type of human.

The museum stands near the site where the fossils were discovered. From the outside it's a sleek oval-shaped lozenge of glass and steel, designed to hint at the DNA double-helix as visitors walk along its internal sloping ramps.

Entering, I find figures representing humans and their predecessors, over a time span of three million years. At one end is us and our Neanderthal cousins, at the other is Lucy, the pre-human Australopithecus afarensis whose remains were discovered in Ethiopia in 1974. There's a charming audio recording presented as if from Lucy herself, explaining where her bones travelled after their famous discovery.

The next section, Life and Survival, explains how, prompted by climatic changes, our pre-human ancestors came down from the trees and adapted to walking across open country. Two million years ago, the early humans known as Homo erectus left Africa for the first time, and Neanderthals evolved from them.

Displays point out the similarities and differences between Neanderthals and ourselves, the former having bigger brains, more powerful bodies, and heavier brows. Contrary to popular belief and dated television programs, Neanderthals were likely just as intelligent as we are, and could speak as easily.

There's a lot more to see in the museum, the most moving being a series of Neanderthal figures, including children, dressed in capes, animal skins and furs. And there's the provocative Neanderthal in the suit. He makes me wonder what our 21st century world be like if the Neanderthals had survived the brutal series of Ice Ages that contributed to their disappearance?

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It's a thought that persists as I follow a walking trail from the museum to the discovery site, where those remarkable bones were found. The cave no longer exists due to quarrying and the space has been laid out as a park, with poles marking the approximate location of the find.

I'm alone on a cool afternoon, as I sit on a bench and think about what I've seen and learnt. My biggest take-aways are that a changing environment can be harsh, and that survival is not guaranteed no matter how big your brain. There's a lesson there for us all.

THE DETAILS

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of the German National Tourist Board.

MORE

traveller.com.au/germany

duesseldorf-tourismus.de

FLY

Emirates flies to Dusseldorf via Dubai. See emirates.com

STAY

Me And All is a cutting-edge hotel with Asian-influenced decor. Rooms from €109 a night. See duesseldorf.meandallhotels.com

TOUR

The Neanderthal Museum is in Mettmann, an easy day trip from Dusseldorf. Admission €11. See neanderthal.de

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