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!
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!
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