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, 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