Neanderthals: Man's Unfortunate Cousins

By Branden Holmes (Surroundx) on November 26, 2010

The first Neanderthal remains discovered were a child’s skull in Engis Cave, Belgium, in 1830, and a woman’s skull from Forbes Quarry, Gibraltar, in 1848. But they weren’t recognized for what they were until decades later. Instead, the first Neanderthal remains uncovered and recognized as a new species of human were the third discovered, in 1856 in the Neander Valley (Feldhofer cave), Germany, from which Neanderthals derive their name. But the scientific description and classification, by Irish anatomist William King, came only in 1864, 8 years after their discovery. Neanderthals were morphologically distinct from ourselves, and on average only a few inches shorter than us (men were 5ft 6in; women were 5ft 3in), but much stockier with much thicker bones, owing to the colder climate in which they lived (we see the same sort of adaptations in modern Inuit’s). These much thicker bones meant that the attachment point where ligaments and tendons attached to the bone, were also proportionally larger. This means that even Neanderthal women would have been incredibly strong; almost as strong as any human male.

The Neanderthals suddenly appear in the fossil record 130,000 years ago, even though they diverged from us more than half a million years ago. This means that for more than 370,000 years they are almost unaccounted for. We don't know much about where they were or what they were doing in evolutionary terms, but we do have some bones of the ancestors of Neanderthals, which clearly show Neanderthal-like traits. The earliest undoubtedly fully Neanderthal fossils have been dated to around 130,000 yBP. Their exact relationship to ourselves is currently unknown, though a number of scenarios have been created. According to mtDNA comparison, our lineage diverged away from that of the Neanderthals approximately 516,000 yBP. Though as with everything anthropologically related, other dates have been proposed. Most of these are not too dissimilar to the date just quoted (derived from a paper published in Nature), but at least one claims a date of 800,000 years. Whether 516,000 years is sufficient time to consider them a separate species from ourselves remains to be seen. Especially given that our genetic distance from them is skewed by the fact that we have relatively little genetic diversity, which has lead many geneticists to conclude that we went through a population bottleneck approximately 100,000 years ago. The draft of the Neanderthal genome (60%) has recently been completed. With four billion nucleotide bases from 3 individuals to analyse, our exact relationship will soon be clarified. But two of the things that we already know from previous genetic studies of their DNA, is that it is likely that the red hair gene was existent in the Neanderthal gene pool. And, Neanderthals also possessed the same state of the FOXP2 gene as us, providing compelling evidence that they could talk just as well as us. The remnants of pollen in quantities too great to be wind-blown have also been found at Neanderthal burial sites. They were as caring and human as us. They were not brutish apes, but in all probability quite civilized. Civilized enough, and obviously quite similar in appearance, for them to interbreed with humans. But their culture was virtually static for about 100,000 years, from when they appear to when they disappear, except in areas where they shared the environment with Homo sapiens, whose tools and culture they mimicked (recent evidence however, suggests that their culture may have evolved in at least some areas, independent of H. sapiens influence). The generally accepted terminal date for Homo neanderthalensis is 30,000 years ago (28,000 BC). However, as is to be expected given the competitive nature of anthropologists, a number of claims exist of evidence of Neanderthals surviving significantly later than this. Most of these, however, are indirect evidence such as stone tools and evidence of occupation, which carries slightly less weight. But in a sense it doesn’t matter whether Neanderthals became extinct 30,000 yBP or 22,000 yBP, because they are certainly now extinct one way or the other. The debate has relevance only in an academic setting. But remarkably there are still traces of their existence in side some of us: Europeans. A recent paper (May 6, 2010) claimed to show that there was significant levels of interbreeding between Homo neanderthalensis and H. sapiens in the Levant approximately 80,000 years ago. But this also has implications for the "Out of Africa" theory, which claims that humans only left Africa a maximum of 60 or 70, 000 years ago (possibly 75,000 years ago). If the author is right, then the dates of the exodus out of Africa will need to be revised in light of this evidence. It would also disprove, in a single stroke, the Mount Toba Catastrophe hypothesis.

Related articles:
Evolution, neanderthals

About Branden Holmes
I am an amateur evolutionist interested in the theoretical side of the subject.

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