Last week – amid all the interest in Lincoln’s 200th birthday (not to mention the fuss over the Stimulus package), there was a piece of scientific news that I thought was pretty cool. A group from Germany released a draft report on the genome of Neanderthal.
Now, if there was ever a group that gets a bad rap, it’s Neanderthals. To call someone one is to suggest that that they’re stupid and “sub-human” – but Neanderthals had brains as large as contemporary Homo sapiens, they were stronger, had mastered fire, made tools, probably had language and performed ritual burial of their dead. Archaeological evidence points to the last Neanderthals dying out about 25,000 years ago near Gibraltar.
One interesting question over the years has been whether Neanderthals were just a different type of Homo sapiens or a different species altogether. Genetic data from the last decade suggests the latter – that modern humans and Neanderthals split somewhere around 500,000 years ago (and so are not descended from one another) and are not the same species. The initial genome analysis suggests that modern humans and Neanderthals were ~99.5% identical genetically* – but despite this similarity there is little in the DNA record to suggest significant intermingling of populations (sorry Clan of the Cave Bear).
To me, the most remarkable conclusion of this is when modern humans pushed out of Africa and finally reached Europe (around 40,000 years ago) that for 10000 – 15000 years where there were TWO sentient, tool-wielding, clan-forming “human” species in the same place at the same time. Wow.
So this week I’ve been asking a couple of questions about our lost cousins
a) Why us and not them? A lot of hypotheses have been offered for Neanderthal’s demise — from climate change, to diseases brought on by incoming modern humans, to direct out-competition (and even extermination) by them. We’ll probably never know for sure, but it’s a little disturbing to know that in the long list of species that H sapiens has driven to extinction, that our closest relative may have been the first.
b) If you’re a religious type and you believe that man was made in God’s image (free will and intelligence) – what does this say for Neanderthal? Did people 30000 years ago have souls? If so, wouldn’t a Neanderthal have one? When we get to heaven, will there be a little cluster of Neanderthals there and will you have to have that awkward “Hey, no hard feelings?” conversation?
*Interestingly, the data also suggests that they were lactose intolerant and had a tendency towards having red hair. FWIW, I am not lactose intolerant.
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