Who Were The Neanderthals?

Christopher Butler

The Neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis) was humans’ closest relative. We are so incredibly similar that scientists have considered grouping modern humans and Neanderthals together under one subspecies– I challenge you to distinguish between a Siberian and a Bengal tiger, which is an equivalent relationship. No doubt we too looked and acted very similar to a Neanderthal. Recent evidence points towards their ability to utilise fire, build tools and perhaps most impressively – bury their dead. It seems only a shame that Neanderthals are now extinct.

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siberian_tiger_at_colchester_zoo_uk-_5755163592wikimedia

Sub-Species: The Bengal tiger (1) and the Siberian tiger (2) are an example of a subspecies. So may be Homo sapiens (3) and Homo neanderthalensis (4).

liujiang_cave_skull-a-_homo_sapiens_68000_years_oldwikimedia

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Image Credit: Pexabay, Wikimedia commons

It is believed that the last resting place of H. neanderthalensis was on the island of Gibraltar, where they feasibly became extinct as recently as 28,000 years ago. Their decline coincides with a time in which humans were migrating out of Africa. Many scientists conclude that our ancestors simply outcompeted our close relatives. But what attributes did H.sapiens possess which Neanderthals lacked during this evolutionary arms race? Professor Chris Stringer; who works for the Natural History Museum London, believes he has found the answer. Analysis of skull properties has indicated how Neanderthals have larger eye sockets, which presumably allowed them to see during our gloomy European winters. Conversely H. sapiens; which originate in sunny Africa, could afford to have significantly smaller eye sockets. Stringer argues how this anatomical set up may have allowed H. sapiens to develop large frontal lobes; areas of the brain associated with “high level processing”. This allowed our ancestors to develop complex speech patterns giving them the ability to organise themselves into efficient social groups. Essentially, Stringer believes that H.sapiens were able to out-think and therefore out-compete the Neanderthals. Underlying Stringers’ theory is a more universal message: working together is usually a more successful strategy than working alone.

Events in human history which occurred earlier than the Neanderthal Extinction (~28,000 years ago):
  • The invention of the flute.
  • The invention of a bow and arrow, replacing spears as a method of hunting food.
  • The domestication of dogs
  • Cremation acts during rituals
  • H. sapiens had migrated out of Africa and had already settled in far reaching locations; such as Sydney, Australia.

It’s important to note that we did not evolve from Neanderthals, but we both evolved from a common ancestor. Whilst Neanderthals may be extinct now, for many years they coexisted with our ancestors. This period of time lead to genomic introgression: essentially genetic material from Neanderthals was transferred to H. sapiens and visa versa through sex. As a result, the current global human population carries approximately a fifth of the Neanderthal genome, which makes up around 1-3% of our genome. What genes are Neanderthal in origin but currently reside in modern humans? And are these genes considered a hindrance or an advantage when considering our modern way of life?

  1. Straight hair. Genetic analysis has revealed that the mutation which allows keratin to form straight, thick hair is Neanderthal in origin. This makes sense – as modern humans migrated out of Africa we needed to adapt to colder environments. Straight hair is typically oilier and therefore more insulating.
  2. Freckles. The gene BNC2 is Neanderthal in origin and causes its owner to develop freckles and paler skin. Fair skin is of benefit of populations where light levels are limiting as it allows more efficient production of vitamin D.
  3. Red hair. The gene which causes ginger hair is Neanderthal in origin.
  4. Blood clotting. A gene variant that speeds up the process of blood clotting is considered Neanderthal in origin. Whilst this trait is largely adaptive in preventing infections, it does have further complications amongst modern humans such as increasing stroke vulnerability.

There have been lots of other human traits which have been proposed as Neanderthal in their origin. Some of the more bizarre include vulnerability to depression and nicotine addiction. These findings always bring about great excitement amongst the scientific community and the general public alike. There is something curious about studying our closest set of ancestors. This is only heightened in the case of the Neanderthal because they have long been extinct, living on in our own DNA.

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