Neanderthals as living breathing people

January 2, 2011 | By | 1 Reply More

What follows below is an audio version (with slides) of a presentation given at the Yale Medical School by science writer Carl Zimmer. His lecture starts with the discovery of the first recognized Neanderthal bones, and brings us up to modern times. The general theme of the talk is that those beings who have been recognized to be different have traditionally been characterized as barbaric and inferior. This theme holds true regarding Neanderthals, who have been traditionally characterized as brutish and uncivilized. Zimmer’s talk includes numerous vivid reconstructed images, and the evidence on which they are based, suggesting that Neanderthals looked and acted quite human, indeed.

The emerging truth is that Neanderthals were big-brained hominids who lived across great expanses of Europe from 200,000 to 20,000 years ago. They were prolific tool-users: For example, they made stone tools such as spear tips and bows and arrows; they cleaned hides and fashioned clothing. they lived in communities where they would have specialized areas for storing and preparing food. It appears that they left flowers at their burials sites. They made jewelry out of painted shells, suggesting that they were self aware.

The Red Headed Neanderthal from Carl Zimmer on Vimeo.

Starting at the 20 minute mark, Zimmer discusses the work of Svante Paabo of the Max Plank institute, which recently completed its analysis of DNA found in the bones of Neanderthals. Neanderthal skeletons that appeared to be hybrids provoked researchers to obtain an entire Neanderthal genome. Researchers then found that the Neanderthals have the same FoxP2 gene that we do, suggesting that they might have had language.

The elephant in the room is that Neanderthals are no longer here and we are. But they are still living on in one sense, as Zimmer explains at the 41 minute mark. The Planke institute determined that between 1-4% of non-African DNA is Neanderthal.

How’s that for humanizing Neanderthals?



Category: Cultural Evolution, Evolution, Human animals

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. Erich Vieth says:

    And now it appears that “we” are the results of other inter-breedings, including with our Denisovan cousins.

    “Thanks to DNA evidence, it’s now well-established that humans interbred successfully with Neanderthals and another contemporaneous group, the Denisovans – so much so that it’s now arguable whether Neanderthals should even be considered a separate species. Unfortunately, it’s a lot harder to know about possible interbreeding that happened before Homo sapiens left Africa.”

    For more on Denisovans, see here:

    This interbreeding brings me back to this article by Lynn Margulis:

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