My Neanderthal fascination

I’ve been fascinated by the Neanderthals ever since I read Clan of the Cave Bear as a teenager. Even more so since recent scientific discoveries seem to show that Neanderthals not only co-existed with our direct ancestors but almost certainly interbred with them.

Genetic evidence suggests interbreeding took place with Homo sapiens (anatomically modern humans) between roughly 80,000 and 50,000 years ago in the Middle East, resulting in 1–4% of the genome of people from Eurasia having been contributed by Neanderthals. [Source: Richard E. Green et al (2010) “A Draft Sequence of the Neanderthal Genome”, Science 328 and Rincon, Paul “Neanderthal genes ‘survive in us'”, BBC News via Wikipedia]

Which you have to admit is fascinating, even if also a little unnerving.

I mean, what we were taught about Neanderthals when I was growing up was that they were primitive, hairy, stocky, brutish, unintelligent ‘cave men’ who swiftly died out to make way for their more advanced, tool-using, higher-browed – and better-looking – cousins, us. We can all picture a Neanderthal in our minds, right?

And, wtf? Interbreeding? Eeeew.

But then I saw this:

and this:

and, really, they don’t look very different from us, do they? I mean, the furs, dirt and stone tools tell us they’re a ‘cave’ woman and man, but if you cleaned them up and put them in modern clothes, would you look twice at them on the street?

Luckily for me, someone else wondered the same thing and so they used computer graphics to create these two images of anatomically accurate Neanderthals in more familiar dress:

Hell, I’m pretty sure I’ve actually dated the guy in the white shirt…

Anyway, now I want to write a novel set in the not-too-distant future based on the premise that Neanderthals did not die out 30,000 years ago, but survived in isolated pockets and are part of modern society, an ethnic minority proud of being the original Aboriginal culture of Europe and finding their more robust musculature and larger brains giving them a Darwinian edge as we face the crises of climate change and the end of fossil fuels.

I rather like the thought that up to 4% of my genetic material links me with the Neanderthal people who hunted mammoths, cave bears, rhinoceros and aurochs in Europe and Asia’s distant past.


Image copyright: Tom McHugh/Photolibrary (Neanderthal male reconstruction); National Geographic Magazine (female Neanderthal with red hair and fair skin); Neandertal Museum, Mettman, Germany (Reconstruction of male Neanderthal with skins); Neandertal Museum, Mettman, Germany (Older Neanderthal male smiling); Volker Steger/Science Photo Library (Neanderthal in check shirt); Smetek/Science Photo Library (Neanderthal in white business shirt).

More info on Neanderthals from – who else – National Geographic

This entry was posted in oh I don't know, just stuff and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to My Neanderthal fascination

  1. David says:

    This cracked me up.

  2. bigbadjohnnyp says:

    I have been hearing about this lately as well. I had always “known” that one of the key factors in speciation was that species can’t interbreed (well not producing viable, fertile young anyway), so presumably we weren’t a different species from Neanderthals then.

  3. sledpress says:

    I’ve always had a similar romantic notion about Neanderthalers, though it came from reading the rather pessimistic William Golding novel “The Inheritors.” (He was not complimentary to the Cro-Magnons.) Now I’m straining to see if I resemble the redheaded woman at all. Probably not.

    I’ve never dated any of the guys pictured, but I think the white-shirted fellow is one who’s been on my table a couple of times; he’s a professional chef and meat-cutter and engaged to one of my regular clients. Seriously..

  4. modestypress says:

    Good to hear from you. At the moment, I am meditating about the relationship between chickens and dinosaurs. A scientist is considering genetic-modification to backbreed a dinosaur from a chicken. Even if we don’t actually have Neanderthals among us, perhaps we can identify people with some Neanderthal genes and back breed back to the pure thing. Nevertheless, I am wondering why there is nothing in any of the images you have presented showing what a Nean woman might have looked like. I am pretty straight; a Nean man does not make my heart go pitty-pat. Please provide an image.

    • Woo says:

      ah, the close-up pic of the Neanderthal with the fair hair is a woman, from the National Geographic Magazine recently. I think she’s lovely in a robust and outdoorsy kind of way 😉

    • Woo says:

      Goodness. I suspect my English upbringing is causing my knee-jerk reaction of dislike to those pictures of women with guns, even if they are strong and capable women. We simply don’t do guns in the UK, other than a tiny minority of country-based and generally upper-class people who have rifles and shotguns for shooting ‘game’ birds, rabbits or stalking deer – none of which I want any part of.

  5. Now you are touching on interests I have had for years. Yes, they were intensified by Ayla’s adventures. Should you want a half-intelligent pre-reader for your book I am available. 🙂

  6. Actually, they went on to star in Geico commercials.

  7. Joakim Juti says:

    If you are fascinated on Neanderthals, just like I am, this will give you something to think about, or go to YouTube and type “Neanderthal: profile of a super predator”. It is really fascinating.

  8. RichardR says:

    Nice posting, nice white-shirted guy 😉

    About your (still coming? ) novel; don’t bother to explain surviving pockets of Neanderthals. Then it becomes some sort of Bigfoot-thing, which will undermine the intellect of your characters. If I were you I’d set up a story expanding sixty years across or so about a running wild DNA-experiment. Two experiments actually; one in the US, the other in Russia. Two story lines, both with full-Neanderthal individuals and several (older) halfbreds, Maybe add some Denisovans and Red Deer Cave people too.
    Both tales working their way up to an eventual meeting, with social-psychological side-plots such as ‘blending in today’s society’ or not’, merging the nowadays “prepper-trends”, some going to work for NASA to search for habitable nearby planets and some starting a tribe in the Siberian and Alaskian wilderness.

    That would be something I’d like to read.


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