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Am I a Neanderthal?
August 4, 2011 - Stephen Browne
Well, some have said so - and now it turns out perhaps they're right, after a fashion.
The question is basically, were Neanderthals human (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis) or another species (Homo neanderthalensis) entirely? The critical difference is, different breeds within the same species can mate and produce fertile offspring, different species cannot.
The debate about the nature of Neanderthal Man has see-sawed back and forth between two positions, lately averaging about once a year. One side argues that Neanderthals were human, but a different race. They had more extreme physical differences than exists betweem any human populations today, but the differences smoothed out when they bred back into the main human line. The other side asserts Neanderthals were a different species, and did not interbreed with early modern humans.
The latter position is profoundly disturbing to many. An intelligent species which made tools, art, and buried their dead with obvious religious symbolism - went extinct.
Some skeletons recovered in Spain appeared to be Neanderthal-human hybrids, but a Swedish paleontologist suggested they could have been sterile "mules."
I'm happy to say recent genetic evidence from fossil DNA has swung the debate back towards Neanderthals interbreeding with early modern humans, and my own personal crackpot theory is viable again. The DNA analysis shows that modern humans who are not of African descent have up to 4% Neanderthal heritage.
To me that makes perfect sense. Current evidence show the latest migration of all our ancestors out of Africa occurred about 80,000 to 50,000 years ago. When they penetrated into Europe and Asia, they came into territory already inhabited by descendants of an earlier migration who stuck around when the ice came down from the north. (This is highly simplified due to space considerations, bear with me.)
So what's my crackpot theory?
I think Neanderthal traits survive in the white skin and light eyes of European-descended peoples. These are genetic traits conveyed by an extremely small number of genes, compared to the total. Four percent is more than enough to explain them, when you consider the genetic difference between humans and chimps is only around two percent.
The delicious irony of this is for years popular depictions of Neanderthals and Cro-magnon (early modern humans) tended to stereotype Neanderthals as brutish slope-browed - and dark-skinned. If the latest interpretation of the evidence continues to hold, the truth is the precise opposite! Cro-magnon men would have been dark-skinned, the Neanderthals were the pale faces.
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