I can't help it. I am a bit of a Neanderthal

A 45,000 thighbone has kicked up a storm in the archaeology of our earliest ancestors. The bone was found in Siberia and then analyzed by the master of ancient genetics Dr Svente Paabo of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig. The results? The bone from Ust’-Ishim sets a new record for the earliest find outside of Africa and the Near East of a modern human. Homo sapiens sapiens. That’s you and me.

The genetic material from the femur provides more support for Paabo’s earlier, stunning, argument that your and my modern human ancestors interbred with Neanderthals. In fact, there is a little bit of Neanderthal in all of us, about 2% or 3%. Before Paabo’s work archaeologists had thought that Neanderthals died out around 40,000 without mating with our modern human ancestors. Wild stories (in both the academic literature and in popular novels) proposed that Neanderthals died out as a result of violent conflict between them and us. A more balanced, though currently reconsidered view is Neanderthals lacked particular cognitive abilities that they would have need to avoid extinction.

What’s so important about all this? Well, beyond the scientific advance in knowledge, there may be a broader significance. So much of historic and modern conflict, discrimination, war and social disparity finds its basis in our ideas of what racial, linguistic, and cultural communities we are part of: German vs. French; Arab vs. Israeli; Russian vs. American. In reality, we all are from one big community, and we all share a common prehistoric ancestor. If anything we are closer to each other than we think. Putting archaeological discoveries into modern, relevant contexts is one of the things that we do in the Anthropology Department at SFSU. If this is what you want to do, then join us. We are accepting applications for entry into our Master program. 

Other important recent sources for information about the Neanderthal / Modern Human debate include the following:

  1. Missing links. Neanderthal Man (New York Times)
  2. Toe fossil provides complete Neanderthal genome. (New York Times)
  3. Prüfer, K. et al. 2014. The complete genome sequence of a Neanderthal from the Altai Mountains. Nature 505: 43-49
  4. DNA clues to our inner Neanderthal. (Ted Talk)