New evidence is causing us to rethink the role of Neanderthals in human evolution, and with some startling possibilities being proposed.
Until recently, it was believed that Homo sapiens had little in common with the Homo neanderthalensis. Their species of hominid migrated from Africa to Europe and Asia at least 200,000 years or more before the first true humans arrived in those regions.
Characterized as big-boned, small-brained louts, Neanderthals were thought to be unsophisticated and barbaric. They supposedly lacked language skills and survived on a diet made up primarily of meat.
But new studies suggest that their way of life may not have been as rugged or as different from ours as previously thought. In fact, their predisposition for creature comforts and other similarities may seem exceedingly familiar.
In 2008, the teeth of a 50,000-year-old Neanderthal skeleton were unearthed in Iraq. Microfossils of plant material were discovered in the dental plaque, indicating that at least one of our brutish cousins had a taste for veggies.
By 2010, National Geographic reported evidence that the Neanderthal diet indeed included a rather diverse mixture of plants. What’s more, they actually cooked some of the grains they foraged.
“Cooking something like oatmeal is not what we would have imagined,” said John Hawks, paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Pointing out that there were no pots in the Stone Age, Hawks suggested that the Neanderthals may have cooked inside leaves, creating something that “starts to sound like cuisine.”
Other findings indicate that Neanderthals may have used pigments to adorn themselves and their surroundings. They made jewelry and even created some complex tools. And we now know that they buried their dead, demonstrating a level of civility previously unexpected.
When Homo sapiens arrived in Neanderthal lands about 60,000 years ago, the residents were already well adapted to their surroundings. They had survived many major climatic changes, including cold and harsh glacial periods.
Anthropologists believe the period of interaction between the two species was quite brief—no more than 25,000 years and perhaps as little as seven millennia. But it was long enough to learn a few survival skills as well as for some interbreeding.
Under the direction of Svante Pääbo, geneticists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology have found that 2.5 percent of the genome of an average human living outside Africa today is made up of Neanderthal DNA. By contrast, the average modern African has none.
Some researchers believe that Neanderthal DNA may yield useful scientific secrets, from new perspectives on neuro-diversity to advances in synthetic biology and perhaps even a cure for autism.
In the brief 150 years that we have known of Neanderthals’ existence, much has been learned of our closest cousins. Despite their extinction, they may still be able to teach us a little more about ourselves, too.
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