• Robb G. Best

Are You a Little Bit Neanderthal?

40,000 years ago, the story goes, there were two kinds of early humanoids roaming the land. There were the Homo Sapiens, our noble early ancestors. Then there were the savage, brutish knuckledraggers called the Neanderthal, destined to die out, unable to compete with their more enlightened Homo Sapien cousins.

Turns out the truth is more complicated--and much more interesting.

Check your family tree: if you're of European or Asian descent, there is a possibility that you've got a trace of Neanderthal in your past.

Using 44,000-year-old fossil bone fragments found in a cave in Croatia, scientists at Max Planck Institute were able to extract enough DNA to sequence the Neanderthal genome.

(Editor's note: anyone else sensing a Jurassic Park spin-off? Just me? Okay.)

Based on comparing the sequencing with modern humans, some scientists suggest that between 1% and 4% of modern Asian and European DNA might have come directly from Neanderthals. So far, the same can't be said of people descended more directly from Africa. Either the sampling was too small, or more probably, the Neanderthal-Homo Sapien crossbreeding only happened with a group of Homo Sapiens who had wandered north of the continent.

Still, that leaves a lot of us with knuckledragger DNA kicking around inside us. No doubt you'd always suspected it was true about your boss, or that irritating neighbor down the street. But the reach is a little wider than that.

If you're one of those Neanderthal mixes, don't feel ashamed of your past just yet. Neanderthals weren't exactly the same as Homo Sapiens, but all evidence suggests they were incredibly brave, fighting ferocious animals up close and personal with handheld weapons. Their skeletal structure suggests that males could probably have benchpressed as much as 300 to 500 pounds, and at the very least they were smart enough to survive two ice ages.

So why do we picture Neanderthals moving like zombies and talking like Frankenstein's monster? That mis-information can be traced back to 100 years ago, when a rookie palentologist examined the bones of a severely arthritic Neanderthal male, made a series of uninformed assumptions, and didn't get called on it. The stereotype stuck.

We don't know if Neanderthals had the ability to produce modern speech. Their genome mapping suggests that their genetic markers for vocalization were similar to ours. Yet, it appears that their larynxes were different, according to Chip Walter, author of Last Ape Standing, so they probably wouldn't have been able to make all of the same sounds. (No Neanderthals were available for comment by the publishing of this article, so the mystery remains.)

So what happened to the Neanderthal? Scientists have several theories about their extinction. A prominent explanation is built on the idea that Homo Sapiens migrating into Europe in vast numbers simply overwhelmed them. Through crossbreeding, the Neanderthals and their gene pool were eventually swallowed up, much like dropping a tiny bit of salt or sugar into a gallon of water, where only a trace of seasoning shows up in the final tasting. (In this case, 1-4%)

Another possibility: when you're built to benchpress 300 to 500 pounds, you need an astounding number of calories to sustain yourself--something that becomes a little harder with all these scrawny little Homo Sapiens running around, snatching up all the good kills and the tastiest vegetables.

Additionally, it's possible that Neanderthal brains lacked mirror neurons, making it much harder to pass on new skills to their offspring or create stable societies.

It's hard not to root for Neanderthals a little. At some point, haven't we all felt like the older, less popular breed of caveperson? Still, it's a moot point to root for the underdog here. The battle's already been decided.

Modern humans, 7 billion. Neanderthals, 0.

Unless you count your boss, your neighbor, and well... a little piece of a lot of us.


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