What if there were animals that were genetically close to modern humans, but startlingly different?

January 27, 2009 | By | 4 Replies More

What if there were animals that looked very much like modern human animals and they were almost identical genetically, yet they differed from us in notable ways?  Would their discovery shock and horrify people?  Quite likely.  Wouldn’t it also make many people start thinking deeply about the fact that modern humans themselves are animals?  You’d hope so.  Wouldn’t this discovery make us intensely curious about our own origins?  Remains to be seen.  What follows is a true story.

The evidence is overwhelming that large numbers of Neanderthals roamed Eurasia for 200,000 years.  The evidence is also clear that Neanderthals differed from the modern humans in genetically small but socially and physiologically significant ways. This incredible story can be found in the October 2008 edition of National Geographic, in an article entitled “Last of the Neanderthals.”   This article is a must-read article for anybody who wants to peer into the not-so-distant past in order to learn about his or her bipedal cousins. The article is filled with incredibly lifelike modeling of the Neanderthals.  It is also filled with detailed information about Neanderthal physiology, as well as clues to Neanderthal lifestyle.

Neanderthals had large brains and enormous strength, but when the climate changed, modern humans appeared on the scene and the numbers of Neanderthals dwindled to zero about 28,000 years ago (carbon dating was applied to embers from Neanderthal fires).  Neanderthals dominated Eurasia for 200,000 years. They settled from Spain to as far east as Siberia.

During that time, they poked their famously large and protruding noses into every corner of Europe, and beyond-south along the Mediterranean from the Strait of Gibraltar to Greece and Iraq, north to Russia, as far west as Britain, and almost to Mongolia in the East. Scientists estimate that even at the height of the Neanderthal occupation of Western Europe, their total number probably never exceeded 15,000. Yet they managed to endure, even when a cooling climate turned much of their territory into something like northern Scandinavia today — a frigid, the barren tundra, it’s bleak arise and broken by a few scraggly trees and just enough lichen to keep the reindeer happy.

From 45,000 years ago to 28,000 years ago Neanderthals and modern humans overlapped throughout Eurasia, the Neanderthals eventually dwindling to small pockets before their complete demise. Many people have wondered whether modern humans interbred with Neanderthals. That issue has been settled by Svante Paabo, who examined the DNA from an arm bone of the Neanderthal man. The answer is in the negative:

Paabo and his colleagues were able to extract it tiny 378-letter snippet of mitochondrial DNA (a kind of short genetic appendix to the main text in each cell) from the 40,000-year-old specimen. When they read out the letters of the code, they found that the specimen’s DNA differed from living humans to a degree suggesting that the Neanderthal and modern human lineages had begun to emerge long before the modern human migration out of Africa. Thus the two represent separate geographic and evolutionary branches splitting from a common ancestor.

As is typical for National Geographic, this article involves top-notch graphics to illustrate the well-written text. Those illustrations depict those long and low Neanderthal skulls which held brains which were actually a bit larger than those of modern humans. The Neanderthal bones clearly indicate that their “wide bodies conserved heat in cold climates, while a large cortical rib cage housed big lungs needed for high levels of activity. . . . [Their] sturdy, heavily muscled limb bones evolved in response to a demanding lifestyle [and] large muscles positioned to maximize leverage resulted in exceptional strength.”

It makes my head spin to imagine modern humans emerging from Africa into Eurasia only 45,000 years ago, only to suddenly encounter Neanderthals. If only I could be transported back in time to observe those interactions!

The two species were 99.5% genetically identical, but the differences (as described above) were notable. Consider further that while the modern human adult needs 2,200 calories per day to survive, the Neanderthal adult needed more than 4,000 calories per day.  Perfect teeth from a recently discovered 42,000-year-old jawbone indicate that Neanderthals had a shorter childhood than modern humans, “and less time for brains to develop in the context of the social group.”  Some Neanderthals had red hair.  It is possible, though not certain, that they had the ability to speak.  Lumps of pigment suggests that Neanderthals valued art.

The story ends 28,000 years ago in a cave on the island of Gibraltar, where scientists have now demonstrated that a small group of Neanderthals built a fire. “Their charcoal and stone tools are the last known signs of Neanderthal life.”


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Category: Evolution, Human animals, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Your Neandertal Ancestors | Dangerous Intersection | May 23, 2010
  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    Speaking of evolution, the current issue of Scientific American is dedicated to the subject, in honor of Darwin's 200th birthday. Lots of good reading! For example, one thing I didn't know is that Darwin predicted that human ancestors likely came from Africa, despite the fact that during his lifetime the only known proto-human fossils were in Europe.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Svante Pääbo on Neanderthals, from Edge.org:

    [W]e are extremely closely related to the Neanderthals. They're our relatives. In a way, they're like a human ancestor 300,000 years ago. Which is something that leads you to think: what about the Neanderthals? What if they had survived a little longer and were with us today? After all, they disappeared only around 30,000 years ago, or, 2,000 generations ago. Had they survived, where would they be today? Would they be in a zoo? Or would they live in suburbia? These are the questions I like to think about.

    And it's the question and not the answer that's interesting because these questions have no answers . . .

    [I]f the Neanderthals were here today, they would certainly be different from us. Would we experience racism against Neanderthals much worse than the racism we experience today amongst ourselves? What if they were only a bit different from us, but similar in many ways — in terms of language, technology, social groups? Would we still have this enormous division that we make today between humans and non-humans? Between animals and ourselves? Would we still have distanced ourselves from animals and made this dichotomy that is so strong in our thinking today? These things we will never know, right? But they are fascinating things to thnk about.


  3. A romanello says:

    Erich you ask questions of wether we would or not be less racist within your hypothesis … yet go on to have such a narrow minded interpretation of catholic people … religion in all its manifestations has a core of pro life, practices that may have helped Neanderthal survival in an extreme scenario e.g few left and they are gay for instance … I am Catholic and have gay friends that i love and value as i do all other humans, please don’t leave me with only prayers to give me hope in shedding you of your ignorance.

    Is it not possible that the genetic matter in common between Neanderthal and Modern Man is a result of interbreeding as I have been presented in other description of our scientific understanding to date? In this I may be wrong or misinformed. Recently the BBC in the United Kingdom illustrated that we all have differing degrees of Neanderthal within us, omitting only a predominance of non presenting DNA remanence in Sub Saharan Africans. So there are apparently humans that do not present evidence of Neanderthal DNA. Could Neanderthal fleeing to warmer climates come across Modern Man and simply did not get as far as they needed. I see no difference other than the one therefore that we look for or perhaps want to see. What if Neanderthal man could not breed with Modern Women successfully but they could in reverse, perhaps Modern Human Females could not not give birth so easily to what may have been a much denser and larger more developed new born child fathered by Neanderthal males, additionally it would have possibly required a lot more resource that the body aside from birth may have had difficulties with. When i ponder these arguments leaving out time scale; that even in writing this i have lost sense of, that there are truths in the bible that we are simply too distant from to glean. I mean Nephilim etc what could have been giants to them. Consider disparity in height, consequences of interbreeding, think about it, there are things we know that they could have never known for sure but there are things that we should open our minds to otherwise we will never appreciate what is the greatest of literary efforts in our modern manifestation. Lost in translation.

    If you don’t believe you will lose weight the chance is that that you won’t, faith has been an intrinsic facet of our survival and success as an entity on this planet, i believe i will finish the Marathon and i do and be what it may that one calls upon to do so then thanks be to God that the concept of faith is something that helps all greatly even if we could not get our heads around the things that, when in the face of adversity we call upon all our strength to succeed, but we also may call on whatever support we may get from the cosmos wherever it may stem from, simply believing will help in such cases. I guess there are limits to all phenomena including belief and your interpretation of a particular faith though. Notwithstanding i accept that had Neanderthals resorted to prayer they would not be in existence all the same.

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