Our Long Lost Cousins
Our last remaining cousins, the Neanderthals, died out approximately 35,000 years ago. What a loss!
They were the second to last surviving bipedal apes before vanishing into the mists of time. We, homo sapiens, are the last ones standing. And, we are the final race of humans from early hominid groups now estimated to be around 23 in total. This number, however, is constantly being revised as anthropologists make greater inroads into understanding the science and history of bones.
When the first discovery of Neanderthal skeletal remains was made in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856, the initial determination was made that the bones were from some early “caveman” and unrelated to modern humans. But, within a few years, it was determined the remains were those of an extinct form of a human.
Over the early years after the discovery, the researchers wrongly concluded they were a big, slow-witted form of human, lacking in the intelligence and sophistication of homo sapiens. They were often depicted in cartoons as brutish; dragging females around by their hair and swinging clubs.
The latest research has now revealed the Neanderthals to be as sophisticated as their homo sapien cousins in having elaborate burial ceremonies, making primitive jewelry, and creating cave art. The oldest known cave paintings are in the Maltravieso cave, Cáceres, Spain. It has been dated using the uranium-thorium method to older than 64,000 years and is now conclusively determined to have been made by a Neanderthal.
Ther were skilled hunters and foragers and generally lived in groups of 30 or so. It is believed they migrated from Africa around 400,000 years ago, living transient lifestyles as far north and west as what is now Britain, through part of the Middle East, to Uzbekistan and as far south as Spain.
Most researchers agree that modern humans and Neanderthals interbred, though many believe that sex between the two species occurred rarely. These matings introduced a small amount of Neanderthal DNA into the human gene pool. Today, most people living outside of Africa have trace amounts of Neanderthal DNA in their genomes from between 1% to 4%.
People of European and Asian descent have an estimated average of 2 percent Neanderthal DNA. Indigenous Africans may have little or no Neanderthal DNA. That’s due to the two species not meeting and mating until after modern humans had migrated out of Africa. Some of the Neanderthal genes that persist in humans today may influence traits having to do with sun exposure. These include hair color, skin tone, and sleeping patterns.
Neanderthals had been living in Europe and Asia for hundreds of thousands of years before modern humans first arrived. Neanderthals were already adapted to the climate of Eurasia, and some experts think Neanderthal DNA may have conveyed some advantage to modern humans as they exited Africa and colonized points north.
A new discovery seems to indicate they did care for each other. Some Neanderthal bones have now been discovered that reveal bad breaks and diseases. The persons with these afflicted bones could not possibly have survived without care. Neanderthals could also speak like modern humans, a further study suggests. An analysis of a Neanderthal’s fossilized hyoid bone; a horseshoe-shaped structure in the neck suggests the species had the ability to speak. This has been suspected since the 1989 discovery of a Neanderthal hyoid that looks just like a modern human’s.
Why did the Neanderthals die off? There have been a number of opinions and theories on their fate that include violence from encroaching anatomically modern humans, parasites and pathogens, competitive replacement, competitive exclusion, extinction by interbreeding with early modern human populations, natural catastrophes, and failure or inability to adapt to climate change. The latest hypothesis to arise seems to indicate it’s possible they simply couldn’t reproduce fast enough to keep up with the modern humans moving into Europe around that time.
Like modern humans, Neanderthals probably descended from a very small populace with an effective population of between 3,000 to 12,000, therefore a healthy number of females who could bear children. Even so, it seems Neanderthals maintained a very low population, proliferating weakly harmful genes due to the reduced effectivity of natural selection. Various studies, using microconidia DNA analysis, yield varying effective populations of between 1,000 to 25,000 steadily increasing up to around 50,000 before declining until extinction. However, all agree on a low population, which may have been up to 10 times smaller than contemporary human populations in Western Europe possibly because Neanderthals had much lower fertility rates. The Homosapien population at that time was estimated at anywhere between 50,000 to100,000.
I often wonder what the world would be like today if the Neanderthals were still amongst us. Would they be treated like zoo animals? Or, would we recognize them as our family cousins? Would they have been regarded as children of god? What must it have been like for the last, solitary Neanderthal? I don’t think anyone could be as lonely as that last Neanderthal alive.
According to some reports, a Neanderthal male with a haircut and a shirt and suit, a tie, and shoes would not look too different from a modern male. Yes, the Neandtherals were stockier and heavier than us but looking around at all the obese people in this modern world, they would not draw any undue attention.
A book you might want to read is “A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived.” by Adam Rutherfurd.
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