Proud to be a Neanderthal?

Did you catch the first part of the BBC2 documentary Prehistoric Autopsy last night with Professor Alice Roberts and Dr George McGavin?

It was fascinating stuff as the experts took us through the process of how they examine ancient and often incomplete skeletal remains to determine what their owners once looked like and how they might have lived. We were also treated to the unveiling of a fleshed-out model of a Neanderthal, who looked uncannily like a scruffy Chuck Norris!

Chuck or Neanderthal man?

Anatomy ace Alice is currently the Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham, which is coincidentally the same institute where I completed my PhD studies and have also lectured on evolutionary genetics. While doing some research on the origins of modern humans I came across the following Neanderthal facts I thought I would share with you:

  • They were short

You would probably have towered over a Neanderthal, who were generally much shorter than modern humans, and more thick set and stocky.

  • They were redheads

Genetic research on DNA extracted from the remains of two Neanderthals has shown they carried a particular version of a gene called MC1R that leads to red hair. This is not a version that is seen in modern humans though, so no reason to believe redheads are any more Neanderthal than the rest of us!

  • They could talk like us

Genetic research has also confirmed that Neanderthals shared a gene called FOXP2 with us, a gene associated with speech and language in modern humans. Humans differ from chimpanzees at two key points in the FOXP2 gene but Neanderthals shared these same variations. “There is no reason to believe they couldn’t speak like us,” said Prof Svante Pääbo, the man behind the research.

  • We probably bred with them

Researchers have compared the DNA of modern humans with that of the Neanderthals. The results show that people of European and Asian origin have more DNA in common with Neanderthals than people from Africa do. The most likely explanation for this is that mating occurred between Neanderthals and the ancestors of present-day Eurasians. This must have taken place just as people were leaving Africa, while they were still part of one pioneering population, most likely in North Africa, the Levant or the Arabian Peninsula.

  • They so nearly made it

The Neanderthals finally died out around 28,000 years ago, just a blink of an eye in geological time. The most recent population we are aware of were found around caves near Gibraltar, perhaps driven south by the harsh glacial weather.

Thanks to popular culture, the typical view of a Neanderthal is that of the dim-witted knuckle-dragging brute. Yet Neanderthals were no doubt ‘another kind of human’ with a culture not so different to our own. They made advanced tools, prepared and wore clothing, and there is evidence to suggest they were among the first humans to bury their dead. So why did the Neanderthals die out, while we went on to conquer the earth? This is a question that may never be answered, but is likely due to a whole host of factors including climate change and increased competition from modern humans. Maybe it was just pure luck that we survived and they didn’t.

We can’t wait for episode two tonight, when the experts will be reconstructing one of the earliest humans, Homo erectus!

-Dr Sam

If you missed it, you can catch up on BBC iPlayer here: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00xfdmt

Want to know more about Neanderthals? I’d recommend a great book by Clive Finlayson, poignantly called ‘The Humans Who Went Extinct’: http://goo.gl/hWzfJ

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4 Comments

Filed under Science

4 responses to “Proud to be a Neanderthal?

  1. Good post. Agreed. It’s fascinating stuff. CHeck this out if interested …
    http://sciencedevil.wordpress.com/2010/03/10/cracking-an-ancient-code/

  2. Voltaire

    I didn’t know much about Neanderthals or “archaic” humans until recently. Now that I do know a little, I disagree with the “genocide” theory and think the hybridization is closer to the reality. Most people are never educated about the migration of Indo-European peoples from Central Asia because it involves the forbidden “A” word I won’t mention here which is all but removed from encyclopedias and history books despite the fact that prior to the 20th century it had an actual meaning associated with these people who (for whatever reason, probably drastic climate change due to catastrophe) migrated. This migration didn’t happen 30k years ago though. But if you follow the evidence, it was a series of migrations.

    Neanderthals were the original Europeans, no doubts there. Hybridization did occur whether people want to believe it or not. But there is also the “domestication” factor. As in we were “domesticating” ourselves. Cave art dating to Neanderthal times along with musical instruments and evidence of burying dead with flowers exists. It is vilified in mainstream sources for whatever reason. Red hair was common among Thracians and Greeks living among Scythia (Budhini). It’s common among the Irish and Scots. Basically it’s common among Celtic peoples whose range aligns with the Neanderthal range. Neanderthal is our ancestor with a mixture of Cro-Magnon. I’m sure of it. As for Homo Erectus, I am not so sure. I feel that “Peking Man” evolved separately in much longer isolation and was treated as a predator to our peoples.

  3. Chuck or Neanderthal man? LOL

  4. Hi Voltaire, thanks for your very interesting comment. I am not an anthropologist by training but I do have an interest in human evolution, particularly in regard to genetics.

    It’s only relatively recently scientists have developed the techniques to be able to extract and analyse DNA from ancient remains – and even now we can only do this on extremely well preserved samples where the DNA is not completely degraded. One of the great shames of recent human origin studies is that we are unable to analyse the DNA of the recently discovered Homo floresiensis (http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/homo-floresiensis) due to the fact these skeletal remains were found in the hot humid climate of Indonesia and so were too degraded for DNA analysis. A quick look at its DNA sequence would almost certainly have cleared up the controversy over whether this was indeed a new human species or just a group of microcephalic H. sapiens.

    You’re absolutely right (in my opinion!) that Neanderthals were the first Europeans. The recent genetic evidence also suggests that we (modern homo sapiens) did breed with them – great shared chunks of DNA between modern humans of northern European origin and the ancient Neanderthal DNA are a big clue there. The fact that these same regions are missing in humans of more southernly origins (particularly native African groups) also backs this up.

    However the red hair is a bit of a red herring (no pun intended!) as, as I mentioned in the post, the mutation which causes this in modern red-headed humans is a completely different one to that in the Neanderthals, neatly explained here: http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/genetics/ancient-dna-and-neanderthals/neanderthal-genes-red-hair-and-more. Red hair goes hand in hand with pale skin, an advantage in the cold northern climate because of the ability to synthesize vitamin D. It’s more likely that this was an adaptation that evolved independently in both populations (a process called convergent evolution), the same way that flight evolved independently in birds and bats. Plus, (and this is a bit of speculation) when I think of the Celts or the Gaels I think of warrior races, whereas the Neanderthals were, it is surmised, a peaceful race. Saying this, I am sure (from the genetic evidence) that we ‘northerners’ do all have a bit of Neanderthal in us.

    What else might be alongside it I couldn’t say without doing some more reading of my own, but as you can tell, you’ve piqued my interest again! If I come across any more I shall add another comment, but I’ve probably gone on too long and am boring you by now 😉

    Thanks again for your comments, it’s great to be able to discuss such a fascinating subject!
    – Dr Sam

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