Ancient Ancestors

By Stephen

A few years ago GEICO, famous for their funny commercials, embarked a series that labeled getting insurance from their company was “So easy a caveman could do it.”  While America was laughing, scientists were trying to figure out what happened to the real cave men, the Neandertals (Homo neanderthalensis),  and determine if are they close cousins to us (homo sapiens)?   Did Neanderthals become extinct on their own, or did some of them inter-bred with humans and pro-create? Some scientists claim to have found NeanderthJuan Lal DNA in the Human Genome.

As is so often true in the world of science, research and  theory sparks debate.   The research over the fate of the the Neandertals is no different.   As far I can determine, there are two contentious  theories about the Neandertals:  how they became extinct and whether or not they breeded with homo sapiens.  Furthermore, are they distinct  species or an ancestor of the homo sapiens?

Would you recognize a Neanderthal man or woman if they were walking down the street towards you, dressed in modern clothes?  Based the skeletons found and identified as a Neanderthals, they were shorter than modern humans, more muscular, and stronger.  With our diverse society nowadays, I doubt they would have much of a problem of  blending in.

Much the research done about the origins of humans is related to DNA.  Most of us are familiar with DNA if we crime shows on tv.  David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, postulates Homo Sapien ancestors evolved in East Africa, then spread out through other continents where they lived together with other hominins, including Neanderthals, who disappeared about 30,000 years ago.   It was first thought homo sapiens, or modern humans if you like, were much more adaptable than their new neighbors and took over Neanderthal territory and sources of food, causing the Neanderthal to become extinct.  But Reich and his colleagues, after they found Neanderthal DNA in the human genome, contend the species inter-bred to some extent .*

Two years ago, “Nova” produced a three part series entitled “Becoming Human.”  The web site for these programs is full of good information for viewers to follow up on  what they  saw on  the videos.

*Carl Zimmer, “Interbreeding with Neanderthals,” Discover, March, 2013 (Vol. 32, no. 2), pp. 38-44.  Accessed on Academic Search Complete, 10/05/13.

Listed below are resources available at your local library on this subject:

Juan Luis Arsuaga, The Neanderthal’s Necklace:  In Search of the First Thinkers.

Paul Jordan,  Neanderthal:  Neanderthal Man and the Story of Human Origins.

James Shreeve, The Neandertal Enigma:  Solving the Mystery of Modern Human Origins.

Jan Tattersall.  The Last Neanderthal:  The Rise, Success, and Mysterious Extinction of Our Closest Human Relatives .

Jan Tattersall, Masters of the Planet :  The Search for Our Human Origins.

Nova, Becoming Human (Video)