The next time you call your husband a Neanderthal, you might be accurate. Actually not. Just kidding. Genetic testing tends to suggest that in the human genome there is little if any trace of the Neanderthal in us. But that doesn’t negate that he was a close relative albeit now extinct.
Let me explain. Nova has been doing a three part series on what makes us human. It has been fascinating, as all such things are to me. Like any science, there are always questions unanswered, and competing theories around the edges. This is what drives science in general and frankly we cannot expect or want certainty. For then we admit there is nothing more to learn.
In the last several years, questions remain and have been looked at afresh about how we came to be us. Exactly how and why did we evolve away from our chimp and ape cousins? I have spoken on this before, but frankly it has always been something of a mystery what happened to the happless Neanderthal. At least now, we have some good theories.
The amazing thing in the area of paleontology, is that like many other disciplines, there is a lot of overlap. This seems obvious when you think about it, since the planetary development of Earth makes it an organic whole. It stands to reason and would be a serious problem should archaeology, geology, astronomy and so forth, not tend to support each other in conclusions which touch them both.
And that is where real progress has been made. It seems that Neanderthal was part of that initial migration out of Africa. They settled mostly in the northern European lands and frankly soon were busy fighting the climate. Ice ages came and went, and Neanderthal became adept at living in this harsh environment.
From where came this homo sapien then? Well it seems that climate change in Africa, meant the reduction and almost total elimination of the rain forests. Our remaining ancestors, perhaps down to as few as 800 breeding individuals were forced from the in lands to the sea shores around the continent.
Here they learned new techniques. Their tool making became refined, they clearly turned to eating seafood. They adapted to new conditions. And it appears that genetic changes conducive to such adaptation, worked to enlarge our brains, at least as to the cognitive parts.
An amazing thing can be done with bones these days. We are actually what we eat. It is exactly true. What we eat is translated into our bones in terms of chemical trails. We can now test Neanderthal bones and determine their diet. It was almost exclusively meat. Although their environment contained both eatable plants and berries, they eschewed such fare in favor of meat.
This may be because of all the food available, meat was by far the most numerous and most plentiful, given the harsh climate. Meat provided the fuel necessary to survive.
What happened when the omnivorous creature, Homo sapien entered the picture, having now decided to explore himself? No doubt confrontations occurred between the two groups. In the past, theories abounded that Neanderthals were either killed off by superior weaponry or inbred with the sapiens, and thus disappeared.
Such seems not to be the case. No trace of Neanderthal DNA is apparent in the human genome as I said.
Most all the bones of Neanderthals found show multiple fractures. Life was harsh and dangerous for this group. Their weapons were spears and they they were not throwing spears. They got up close and personal with game, and no doubt suffered grievous injuries. Few lived beyond their 30’s.
It is now thought that Neanderthals were basically pushed out of the way, much as American Indians were pushed out of their lands by the white settlers in the US. Finally they were confined to the Rock of Gibraltar, and there they died out. They may have been forced to the extremes of their climate.
Much of this work has been done by the Max Planck Institute in Germany, a premier science institute in paleontology research. There, scientists are working multi-disciplinarily to uncover the rise of humanity.
It seems that the cell deteriorates at a fixed rate, and based on this, we can determine with some clarity when the two, Homo Sapien and Neanderthal had a common ancestor. That appears to be around 200,000 years ago.
Little by little, we are learning why we stood up, how our thumbs became specialized, how our brains grew, and how we adapted to various climate conditions. They are what drove us upward and onward. Near, at one point, to extinction ourselves, we held on, adapted to new conditions, and ultimately flourished. Perhaps we have kind of over did it now, as our very numbers now threaten the well-being of our planet.