Beleaguered Neanderthal Within Us
By JD Adams
The Neanderthals are the nearest species preceding modern man. Recent research from different teams has converged on the finding that most of us have at least 1% to 4% Neanderthal DNA, and probably more, according to anthropologist Eric Trinkhaus. The results of genetic testing reveal that Neanderthal DNA is 99.7 % similar to modern humans. By comparison, the DNA of chimps is 98.8% similar. The Neanderthal DNA is present in all ethnic groups, except for those of African descent, suggesting that these trysts occurred after human ancestors migrated from Africa. Despite the fact that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens coexisted in Europe, the genetic evidence initially pointed to the Middle East as the origin of the interbreeding about 60,000 years ago, but other findings indicate a wider dispersion and a much earlier timeline. Like the parents of star-crossed teenagers, some scientists have long suspected this was the case, but lacked solid evidence to back it up.
The first Neanderthal bones were found in 1856, three years before Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" was published. Since then, the scientific community has gone back and forth on the issue of whether the Neanderthal is a separate species, or a sub-species of modern man, Homo sapiens. Also, since the Neanderthals mysteriously disappeared some 30,000 years ago, and Homo sapiens obviously proliferated, the question as to the fate of the Neanderthals had been fiercely debated. In older texts, modern man is referred to as Cro-Magnon, but this term has fallen out of favor with scientists. Two schools of thought exist, that the Neanderthals were replaced by our Homo sapien ancestors, essentially conquered or out-competed, or that they were absorbed into the population of Homo sapiens. The two theories are not mutually exclusive, and some anthropologists suggest that a combination of influences caused a decline in the already small populations of Neanderthals that varied according to location, as they were spread out sparsely from Gibraltor to eastern parts of Asia.
The early years of paleo-anthropology were marked by errors in judgment with researchers who wrongly concluded that the Neanderthals were primitive, slouching beings that represented the missing link between humans and lower primates. Subsequent findings revealed that although the Neanderthals had a stocky, muscular build suited to colder climates, and a pronounced brow ridge, they walked upright and exhibited many traits associated with modern man. In fact, the brain case of the Neanderthal is 20% larger than modern man, and they possessed the genes for advanced speech. Even with modern genetic analysis, the enigma of the Neanderthal is yielding different interpretations.
Scientist are not divided on the archeological evidence that points to an extended overlap of the Neanderthal and Homo sapien populations in time and geographic locations in Europe, and this is why the possibility of interbreeding has been suspected. Now, with the completion of the Neanderthal Genome Project, we have evidence that Neanderthals did interbreed with the Homo sapien, but the actual way this played out is still being debated.
The fact that the two species interacted in the Middle East – is our connection to this land, known as the 'cradle of mankind', much deeper than we realize? Our species could be genetically hardwired to battle over this area owing to the legacy of the Neanderthal / Homo sapien overlap.
The techniques of DNA mapping and the associated statistical analysis have been a disruptive technology in the sense that it has both confirmed and disproved theories that had achieved a consensus among scientists, in the same manner that DNA testing has freed numerous men wrongly convicted in prisons.
Of particular interest is the large brain of the Neanderthal. What capacities might they have had? There are many types of intelligence, but it is notoriously difficult to relate to anything but the realm of one's own experience. In addition, we can only act on our sensory input, but different species possess vastly different sensitivities. We each live in our own worlds and are isolated by our limitations.
The known archeological evidence indicates that the Neanderthal lived in smaller groups than the Homo sapien, and hence social skills and vocalization might have been different, but no less crucial to survival. The large 1600 cc braincase of the Neanderthal has led to some informed research about potential mental capacities; possibly motor development contributed to the larger brain: Geist (1978), Geist hypothesizes that “If great strength, agility, and precision and speed of bodily movements were required for such a hunting technique, those parts of the brain controlling motor functions in the hunter had to be greatly developed. Neanderthal possessed a massive cerebellum and motor cortex compared to modern humans.”
The distributed nature of the Neanderthal social structure coupled with their large brain case has led to popular speculation that the Neanderthals possessed extra-sensory abilities in the form of remote vision. What’s certain is that every year, new evidence is being uncovered that the Neanderthals created art, jewelry and complex tools that were borrowed by Homo sapiens. History has been as unkind to the Neanderthal species as it has been to the Etruscan culture.
Nobel-prize winning author William Golding, best known for his novel 'The Lord of the Flies' created a semi-fictional work based on the interaction of the Neanderthals and the Homo sapiens titled 'The Inheritors'. At the beginning, the story is told from the perspective of the Neanderthals, who possess a different form of consciousness, where time is experienced only in the present, and communication is partly telepathic. As the story unfolds, the conflict intensifies, and the perspective shifts to that of the inheritors of the new world. In this manner the reader experiences the awareness of the emerging generation.
One has only to look at the Australian Aborigines to find evidence of these abilities that survive to this day. Their entire world is based on a religion of the dream-state, and they have no word to express time as we know it. Their concept of time is only in the present, with the past lying thinly underneath it. Moreover, studies suggest Aborigines possess ESP, which they use to communicate over long distances, and other studies also confirm the power of ESP. How fortunate we are that this ancient race of people has survived to give us insight into the lost abilities of humankind. The migration path of early man is believed to be out of Africa and then splitting west to Europe, and east to Asia and possibly beyond. DNA analysis reveals it's not unlikely that there is some distant connection between the Neanderthals and Aborigines, as some geneticists believed, and now proven with a completed Aboriginal genome.
Neanderthals genetics has unfolded as a study of introgression. In researching this article I’ve found several dated websites missing the point about the complexity of the Neanderthal extinction. What the Neanderthals and Homo sapiens were both competing against was a hybrid form that combined fortuitously as a more robust species. The end result was the proliferation of a Homo sapiens species that had never been given proper recognition by the scientific community for its Neanderthal genetic input.
If you have ever seen pictures of a developing human embryo, you know that lurking in our DNA are genetic influences from the primordial past. Our evolutionary history has left a fleeting imprint upon us. The study of evolution is a world of turbulent consensus, fraught with secrets yet untold, and the Neanderthal within still whispers to us from a million years ago.
© 2011 – 2016 by JD Adams