The Caveman In All of Us

Imagine that you saw this advert in your local paper…

“Wanted: Woman who will carry Homo neanderthalensis embryo to full term, giving birth to the first Neanderthal in over 30,000 years.”

Well apparently this may actually happen in the future according to a professor at the Harvard School of Medicine, George Church, who played his part in the Human Genome Project and who has been working on the recreation of Neanderthal DNA from fossilised remains. Here’s a report on it in the Telegraph.

This news has caused something of a stir within the scientific community, with many (including myself) drawing inevitable comparisons with Jurassic Park. But this is dealing with our cousin, a former member of the now ultra exclusive Homo (immature people…stop laughing) genus club.

Were we really that different from the Neanderthals, who are quite wrongly assumed to be the grunting cave dwellers that they’re been made out to be? So they may have made their homes in caves and wore animal skins, but so did Homo sapiens (a.k.a modern humans, we still do the latter today, to the annoyance of PETA). The Neanderthals had already  colonised Europe way before we did and survived harsh, cold conditions, possibly explaining their large noses. They may have lived in decent family sized groups, with their rudimentary tools and hunting techniques, however National Geographic explain that all family members had to take part in hunting and that they didn’t have the sophisticated diets of their African cousins. It seems that Neanderthals were only hunters, with no gathering instincts.

Sadly, Neanderthals are no longer with us, and we will never fully understand their lives, society or extinction. The most likely theory for their extinction is that we simply out competed them with our superior intellect, even though Neanderthals did have large brains and may have been capable of speech, despite there being varying evidence of the correct anatomy required for human communication. (Here’s a video explaining why we are the dominant species on Earth nowadays, not Neanderthals).

But fear not, for many humans who aren’t from classed as African have up to 4% of Neanderthal DNA within them. Is it because of having a shared ancestor, in the same way that we are related to chimps and the other great apes? Or could it be due to something much more complicated, such as interspecies “socialising”?

English: neanderthal modern human comparison
Human on the left, Neanderthal on the right. Bit of height difference… (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well it’s certainly possible that this 4% could be down to both reasons. Members of the same genus can mate with one another, for examples lions mating with tigers to produce ligers and tions or wolves mating with dogs (my cousin has a wolf/husky hybrid, she’s awesome). So why not Neanderthals and Humans? It’s highly unlikely that we and our cousins had regular social events, but it is possible that some breeding did occur.

So whilst we may never fully understand our distant relatives, and one day we may be actually able to bring them back to life, maybe we should just look at ourselves, for there may be a bit of the caveman in all of us. Haven’t you ever seen men standing round the barbecue? They act as if they’ve gone out and killed the cow themselves with some spears.

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3 Comments

  1. It isn’t likely that the 4% of Neanderthal DNA comes from a common ancestor with them. When tests are done to compare people of European and Asian descent to Africans, it is the former groups who share so much DNA with our extinct cousins. Africans (at least those of the sub-Saharan region) don’t have that same DNA because Neanderthals were largely out of Africa by the time we began intermingling with them.

  2. Sorry about the first comment my iPod freaked out. I think my boyfriend and one of his good mates definatley have a bit of Neanderthal in them. They are both tough mountain climers with moody dispositions and like wearing the trousers in a relationship and naturally take the lead in a crisis. I think if their (possible) Neanderthal ancestors would be proud of them! lol

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