“Are We The Last Neanderthals?” – Neanderthal or Neandertal?

This lecture was much more straightforward and easy for me to follow than Neill Schubin’s, but it in no way was any less mind-blowing at the end. My admittedly ruggedly minute understanding of “Neanderthals” was essentially thrown out of a window in this lecture and I now have a much better understanding of this curious extra-human human species, correctly pronounced “Neandertal”. John Hawks talked about the ideas that most of us have about Neanderthals, and then went into a detailed discussion of Neandertal origins and genetics. After this, he began to disprove the most common misconception about Neandertals: their lack of intelligence.

Again, I will begin by mentioning the most obvious connection to class that I gleaned from this lecture: mitochondria have DNA! All of the genetic information that we have about Neandertals – currently 180 billion base pairs worth of knowledge – comes from their mitochondrial DNA. This, naturally, jumped out at me because we had just learned about the characteristics of mitochondria and chloroplasts that make us believe they were once prokaryotes, one of the main reasons being that they each have their own set of DNA.

Another major class connection that I spotted was Hawk’s comment about blood types. While talking about the similarities between Neandertals and humans, he used blood type to give an example. Neandertals have blood types O and A, so if a human – for example, my mother – has blood type O, he/she will have more in common with a Neandertal than with a human with blood type A – for example, my father – when it comes to blood type, and this pattern is true for many other genes. My mother’s blood type is closer to that of a Neandertal than that of her husband. Isn’t that crazy?

One of the most mind-blowing aspects of Hawks’s talk was the part where he mentioned how we can learn which foods they ate. There are small particles of their food embedded in the tartar (or calculus, as Hawks called it) on Neandertal teeth. Because this tartar can be preserved, the food particles were also preserved. In those particles, researchers found evidence of starch loosening, which means that Neandertals cooked grains. Because they did not have pots, they must have stuffed the grain into animal stomachs or wrapped them in leaves to cook them – an ingenuity far beyond the media’s perception of Neandertal intelligence.

Other evidence for the intelligence of Neandertals includes creation of bone tools, collection of shells with holes in them to string together, decorations from feathers, trading fossil shells over long distances, and making string from plant fibers. This last piece of evidence, making string from plant fibers, really stood out to me. For most of my life, I have attended a Native American/Aborigine survival camp in the summer in Ivoryton, Connecticut. One of the simplest yet important primitive skills that we learn there is the art of cordage, or making rope from a weaker substance. The way we do this at my camp is by pounding yucca leaves or splitting dried dogbane to isolate the fibers and then twisting them in a pattern to create a rope. I am currently using this technique to create palm raffia string from which I will weave fabric and make a dress for my sculpture 20-hour project. It is extraordinary for me to think about how one of the small skills that I practice on a daily basis was also practiced by the Neandertals. Now I agree with Hawks, not just on an intellectual basis but also on a personal level, that perhaps we are not so different from the Neandertals.

Hawks also mentioned how we can use Neandertal genes to show where people come from. By comparing the genetics of a particular human with that of different Neandertals, we can see the origins of that human. To me, this is incredible. The fact that we can compare ancient mitochondrial DNA of an extinct species with DNA of our own species and correctly identify the geographic origins of that organism is fascinating. It is not intuitive; I would never have guessed that this is possible, yet it is.

The last bit of his lecture that truly resounded with me was the part about the glucose transporter in the brain. There is one gene that codes for a glucose transporter in the brain, which is correlated with increased brain activity and cognition. This gene, as can be seen through the human genome project, is extremely prevalent in both humans and Neandertals but not in any other primates. Most humans today will think that they are more closely related to other primates than to a Neandertal, when, in reality, it might be the opposite.

Finally, Hawks’s last point was that the least anatomically “Neanderthal” Neandertal was found in a place where Neandertals and humans are thought to inhabit the same region. This could be the evidence of interaction and mating between the two – if they were ever at one point a completely different species, perhaps now we are all part Neandertal.

Having had a few days to think about the lecture and let it all sink in, I noticed something funny about the title. Hawks titled his lecture “Are We The Last Neanderthals?” using the “th” spelling while his slides all used the “t” spelling of “Neandertal”. He mentioned in the beginning of his lecture that using the “th” denotes that you think they are a different species from us, while using simply a “t” denotes that you’re not sure and it’s quite possible that we are the same species. And because those who use the “th” tend to think of Neandertals as ignorant beings, perhaps Hawks was playing on the phrase and implying that if we think of them as a different species, we are, in fact, the ignorant ones.

After an hour of an amazing lecture, I have concluded that I will permanently use the spelling and pronunciation “Neandertal” instead of “Neanderthal”. Though it may take more time and evidence for the entire world to take this view, I, for one, am convinced that we may very well be “the last Neandertals”.

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