Dumb and Dumber; Were Neanderthals Our Ancestors or Just a Bunch of Evolutionary Deadbeats? the Evidence Is Coming In
Pepper, Tara, Newsweek International
Byline: Tara Pepper
They vanished from the earth 35,000 years ago but Neanderthals continue to prowl through our imaginations, clad in fur and wielding clubs. Since the skeletal remains of these archetypal cavemen were discovered by limestone miners in Germany's Neander Valley in 1856, scientists have quarreled over whether Neanderthals were a distinct species (now extinct) or an earlier form of modern humans--embarrassing ancestors nobody wants at the evolutionary dinner party. Over recent years a spate of research has only stirred up fresh controversy over the relationship between our direct ancestors--the anatomically modern humans, called Aurignacians, who began to disperse from Africa across Asia and Europe 150,000 years ago--and the Neanderthal populations with whom they coexisted in some regions of Europe for 8,000 years.
After a flurry of research in the last few years, a bigger picture is beginning to emerge--and it leaves Neanderthals out in the cold. That's the main point of a Cambridge University archaeologist Paul Mellars, writing in last week's issue of the journal Nature. Genetic research, he says, has now disproved the notion that Aurignacians and Neanderthals interbred, making us all at least part Neanderthal. And it's brought to light a crucial gene that may have given man an evolutionary edge and may also have helped drive Neanderthals to extinction. The FOXP2 gene endowed Aurignacians with greater language abilities that are not present in other species. And although Neanderthals were more intelligent than previously thought, the evidence falls short of showing that Neanderthals were in the same class as the sophisticated Aurignacians.
How cozy did humans and their Neanderthal neighbors get around the prehistoric campfire? "All the new genetic evidence supports the idea that Neanderthals were a separate biological species," Mellars says. "Even if there had been one interbreeding event in a thousand, we would have picked up on it by now. The evidence argues powerfully against the idea that Neanderthals contributed anything to Homo sapiens. " Although earlier research found no similarity between Neanderthal DNA with that of modern-day humans, some researchers still argued that genetic differences may have existed between Neanderthals and Aurignacians. The most recent DNA study, from the remains of seven Neanderthals and five anatomically modern Aurignacians, shows the Neanderthal specimens were radically different from ancient humans, too. …