The Legacy of the Neanderthals
The Neanderthals are the nearest species preceding modern man.
By JD Adams
The Neanderthals are the nearest species preceding modern man. Recent research from different teams
has converged on the finding that most of us have at least 1% to 4% Neanderthal DNA, and
probably more, according to anthropologist Eric Trinkhaus. The results of genetic testing
reveal that Neanderthal DNA is 99.7 % similar to modern humans. By comparison, the
DNA of chimps is 98.8% similar. The Neanderthal DNA is present in all ethnic groups,
except for those of African descent, suggesting that these trysts occurred after human
ancestors migrated from Africa. Despite the fact that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens coexisted
in Europe, the genetic evidence points to the Middle East as the origin of the interbreeding
about 60,000 years ago. Like the parents of star-crossed teenagers, some scientists have
long suspected this was the case, but lacked solid evidence to back it up.
The first Neanderthal bones were found in 1856, three years before Darwin's
"On the Origin of Species" was published. Since then, the scientific community has gone
back and forth on the issue of whether the Neanderthal is a separate species, or a
sub-species of modern man, Homo sapiens. Also, since the Neanderthals mysteriously disappeared
some 30,000 years ago, and Homo sapiens obviously proliferated, the question as to the
fate of the Neanderthals had been fiercely debated. In older texts, modern man is referred
to as Cro-Magnon, but this term has fallen out of favor with scientists. Two schools of
thought exist, that the Neanderthals were replaced by our Homo sapien ancestors, essentially
conquered or out-competed, or that they were absorbed into the population of Homo sapiens.
The two theories are not mutually exclusive, and some anthropologists suggest that a
combination of influences caused a decline in the already small populations of Neanderthals
that varied according to location, as they were spread out thinly from Gibraltor to eastern parts of Asia.
The early years of paleo-anthropology were marked by errors in judgment with researchers
who wrongly concluded that the Neanderthals were primitive, slouching beings that represented
the missing link between humans and lower primates. Subsequent findings revealed that
although the Neanderthals had a stocky, muscular build suited to colder climates,
and a pronounced brow ridge, they walked upright and exhibited many traits associated
with modern man. In fact, the brain case of the Neanderthal is 20% larger than modern man,
and they possessed the genes for advanced speech. Even with modern genetic analysis, the
enigma of the Neanderthal is yielding different interpretations.
Scientist are not divided on the archeological evidence that points to an extended overlap
of the Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon populations in time and geographic locations in Europe,
and this is why the possibility of interbreeding has been suspected. Now, with the near
completion of the Neanderthal Genome Project, we have evidence that Neanderthals did
interbreed with the Cro-Magnon, but the actual way this played out is still being debated.
The techniques of DNA mapping and the associated statistical analysis have been a disruptive
technology in the sense that it has both confirmed and disproved theories that had achieved a
consensus among scientists. In the same manner that DNA testing has freed numerous men wrongly
convicted in prisons, the technology will reveal the bias, racism, and corruption of the
scientific method in many studies.
Of particular interest is the large brain of the Neanderthal. What capacities might they
have had? There are many types of intelligence, but it is notoriously difficult to relate
to anything but the realm of one's own experience. In addition, we can only act on our
sensory input, but different species possess vastly different sensitivities. We each
live in our own worlds and are isolated by our limitations, even if possessed of
advanced knowledge, if it has bred arrogance and inflexible thinking to the extent
that problem-solving is actually compromised.
The known archeological evidence indicates that the Neanderthal lived in smaller
groups than the Cro-Magnon, and hence social skills and vocalization might have been different,
but no less crucial to survival. Some anthropologists theorize that the Neanderthals
possessed marginal extra-sensory abilities.
Nobel-prize winning author William Golding, best known for his novel
'The Lord of the Flies' created a semi-fictional work based on the interaction of the
Neanderthals and the Cro-Magnons titled 'The Inheritors'. At the beginning, the
story is told from the perspective of the Neanderthals, who possess a different
form of consciousness, where time is experienced only in the present, and
communication is partly telepathic. As the story unfolds, the conflict intensifies,
and the perspective shifts to that of the inheritors of the new world.
Why might the author have chosen this scenario?
One has only to look at the Australian Aborigines to find evidence of these abilities
that survive to this day. Their entire world is based on a religion of the dream-state,
and they have no word to express time as we know it. Their concept of time is
only in the present, with the past lying thinly underneath it. Moreover, studies
have proven the Aborigines to possess ESP, which they use to communicate over
long distances. How fortunate we are that this ancient race of people has survived
to give us insight into the lost abilities of humankind. The migration path of early
man is believed to be out of Africa and then splitting west to Europe, and east to
Asia and possibly beyond. DNA analysis reveals it's not unlikely that there is some
distant connection between the Neanderthals and Aborigines, as some geneticists believe.
More food for thought about our inner Neanderthal – the fact that the two species
interacted in the Middle East is intriguing. Is our connection to this land, known
as the 'cradle of mankind', much deeper than we realize? Considering the ongoing
conflict, our species could be genetically hardwired to battle over this area
owing to the legacy of the Neanderthal – Cro-Magnon overlap.
If you have seen pictures of a developing human fetus, you know that lurking in our
DNA are creatures from the primordial past. Everything that we have been in our
evolutionary history has left a fleeting imprint upon us. The study of evolution
is a world of turbulent consensus, fraught with secrets yet untold, and within
us are silent entities who speak without words.
The above story was written and submitted to us by J.D. Adams. You can send him a comment or read other stories by