Neanderthals really get a bad rap these days. Characterized as overly aggressive, they’re seen as uncouth and uncultured louts of the worst sort. Definitely more the heavy metal than the classical music type. The men especially have a reputation for uncivilized behavior, such as dragging women into caves by their long hair, and continually fighting among themselves for no apparent reason. Sort of like modern man, only without the weapons of mass destruction.
For those who think their ancestors were more blue-blood-than-thou, there’s bad news: it seems that most of the human race has traces of neanderthal DNA, including the British royal family. That’s what scientists at the University of Montreal’s Department of Pediatrics and the CHU Sainte-Justine Research Center have recently discovered. Their findings are reported in the July issue of Molecular Biology and Evolution.
One of the scientists, Damian Labuda, who had already suspected that something was amiss with our genetic blueprint, said in a press release that his team’s work “confirms recent findings suggesting that the two populations interbred.” Probably in the Middle East, though how they can pin down the exact location is beyond me. Some intermingled thigh bones, perhaps? Or “My other half is a Neanderthal” tee-shirt found at grave sites?
It’s not surprising really: apparently, one branch of our human family, the ancestors of the Neanderthals, left Africa, which is widely considered the birthplace of our species, about 400,000 to 800,000 years ago, eventually settling in what is now France, Spain, Germany and Russia. As they were dying off about 30,000 years ago, they encountered a fresh group of humanoid folks coming out of Africa and invited them back to their caves for a drink.
How does Labuda know this for sure? About a year ago, researchers were able to extract about 60% of the DNA sequence from the remains of three 38,000-year-old Neanderthal women found in Croatia. That sequence was compared by Labuda and his team against the DNA of people living all around the globe today.
Their findings: except for folks in sub-Saharan Africa, people throughout the world have evidence in their DNA (which never lies apparently) that their ancestors and the Neanderthals were doing more than exchanging recipes for barbecued mastodon.
None of this should come as any surprise. While much is known about where we came from, all of the pieces of the puzzle called human evolution have not yet been found. There are huge gaps in our understanding of how we went from tree-swinging monkeys to skyscraper-building homo sapiens.
One thing's for certain, things are not always as they appear. New evidence shows that the Neanderthals were far more advanced than we previously believed. They had music (as evidenced by bone flutes); they buried their dead (family graves have been found); and they probably spoke, not in that deep brutish voice we hear in TV depictions, but with a higher pitched sound.
It's time we accepted the Neanderthals into our family trees.