The SciHawk: The Neanderthal in all of us

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Recent studies show that modern humans share a portion of their DNA with Neanderthals, a primitive hominoid species that thrived during the last Ice Age. 

Dana Weber | Contributing Writer

When you think of a Neanderthal, what do you imagine? Many of us have become familiarized with the idea that Homo neanderthalensis, a primitive species of hominoid from the last Ice Age, was a clumsy, unintelligent being. However, evidence now suggests that Neanderthals may actually have been much more intelligent and cultured than we give them credit for, even though their interaction with humans likely caused their extinction.

While modern humans do not directly descend from Neanderthals, we do share about 99.5% of our DNA and a common ancestor. In some ways we are different, but in many others we are very much like our long-lost relatives. Evidence suggests that Neanderthals were cultured in ways very similar to how modern humans are today.

Dr. Patricia H. Kelley, a former professor with the Department of Geography and Geology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, states, “Most people think of Homo neanderthalensis as vastly inferior to Homo sapiens in intelligence and skills, and yet evidence increasingly indicates that Neanderthals were large brained and had their own culture – complete with abilities to communicate with one another and represent ideas symbolically.”

Neanderthals may have also been similar to modern humans when it came to their appearance. “They decorated their bodies with makeup and feathers and were altruistic, caring for the injured,” says Kelley.

Furthermore, in accordance with what the fossil record depicts, Neanderthals were “able to adapt to a wide variety of ecological zones, and capable of developing highly functional tools to help them do so. They were quite accomplished,” physical anthropologist Fred H. Smith said in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine. This adaptability allowed them to not only survive, but thrive during the Ice Age.

So, if Neanderthals were so successful, why did they go extinct? When the earth’s climate began to cool, Neanderthals and humans were faced with the necessity of venturing out to find food and resources. Interaction between Neanderthals and humans likely increased drastically during this period, and recent studies show that the two species began interbreeding.

Svante Pääbo, an evolutionary geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, says that Neanderthals “had even less variation [in their genome] than present-day humans, who are already known to have less than chimpanzees and most other apes.” If interbreeding did occur between Neanderthals and humans, it is extremely possible that the small amount of variation in the Neanderthal genome may have been wiped out by the modern human genome, according to Brian Handwerk in his National Geographic article, “Sex with Humans Made Neanderthals Extinct.”

While Neanderthals may have been a well-functioning, intelligent and capable species, the reason for their extinction may have been because their genome just could not compete with our own. Even if that is the case, it is safe to say we have a very complex line of ancestry behind us that got us to where we are today. There is no denying that Homo neanderthalensis was an incredibly intelligent species, and we should be less quick to think of them as feeble minded, cumbersome beings. After all, evidence shows we are more similar to them than we may have thought.