On Darwin’s birthday last month, Svante Paabo announced that his work at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig had mapped 60% of the genetic code for Neanderthal man.
Why is this so fantastic? Because Neanderthal man, who became extinct about 30 thousand years ago, is the nearest relative of Homo sapiens. Even the incomplete code answers some questions we’ve been asking ever since the first Neanderthal fossil was founder in the Neander Valley in Germany:
- When and where did the Neanderthals live? In Europe and western Asia from beginning about 400,000 years ago. Homo sapiens originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago, but did not arrive in Europe until about 40 thousand years ago – just before the Neanderthals died out.
- Did the Neanderthals interbreed with Homo sapiens, or do the two species have similar ancestors? The genetic code suggests that very little interbreeding, if any occurred between the two human species. But both descended from Homo erectus.
- Why did the Neanderthals die out when Homo sapiens didn’t? We still don’t know. Some anthropologists speculate that it was the arrival of Homo sapiens. Perhaps Homo sapiens hunted them for food, or simply competed with the Neanderthals for a decreasing supply of wild food provided by hunting-gathering methods.
Or perhaps the ice age which also coincided with the Neanderthal demise changed the conditions in which the Neanderthals thrived, and they could not adapt.
- Did the Neanderthals talk to each other? Not sure yet. They did possess a gene which humans must have in order to talk, a gene which chimpanzees don’t have. If they did talk, their mental abilities were unquestionably greater than the cartoon Neanderthal would suggest.
The chances are that the insult to intelligence as “Neanderthal” is misplaced. They survived for at least 375 thousand years. Thus far, Homo sapiens has survived for about 200 thousand.