Are We the Last Neanderthals?

Summary: Dr. John Hawks was the speaker. He summarized a lot of research about Neanderthals, much of which is not so different from what we know about the ancestors of humans: they used tools, cooked meat and grains, decorated themselves with feathers, used shells as beads, made string, participated in trade, and had skulls not so different in form from our own. Neanderthals even lived alongside Homo sapiens and interbred at Mt. Carmel. One hundred thousand years ago, Hawks claims that three percent of our ancestors were Neanderthals, and he examined which continents’ populations are most closely related to Neanderthals: Asia, then Europe, and Africa far less so.

One recurring theme throughout Hawks’ lecture was the difference in research methods of the past and present. When only anatomical evidence could be observed, our data pool was much smaller. Additionally, many fossils were thrown to the side because they were anatomically useless. But now that scientists can extract information from genetic material, previously useless items are now valuable evidence, and the majority of our data comes from DNA. Comparing DNA from fossils to that of living humans gives us an opportunity to discover relationships. For example, a specific glucose transporter active primarily in the brain is more concentrated in humans than other animals such as monkeys, and fossil DNA shows that Neanderthals may share the genes that increase that concentration. Other than DNA, we can now analyze particulates found on tools and on the teeth of Neanderthal skulls. Previously, tools and artifacts were cleaned for the sake of presentation in museums. Now, more than noting that soil is foreign, we can trace the path of a given artifact, and in so doing, scientists have discovered that Neanderthals likely participated in trade. Analyzing the tartar in teeth has showed that Neanderthals ate plants, and even cooked grains. Before advancements in technology, scientists assumed that they were carnivores simply because the evidence they had was limited to teeth marks on animal bones.

What to do with a growing picture of how Neanderthals were more like humans than we used to think? As an anthropologist, Hawks made a very interesting statement about the distinction of what we call “Neanderthals.” He refers to them as “Neandertals” because the original name comes from Neander’s Valley (“Neandertal”) where the first bones of one were discovered. In his opinion, the more common name of “Neanderthal” shows that we think of them as a separate, different species. He chooses to call them “Neandertals” instead to describe them based on where they came from instead. In the same way, we humans categorize ourselves as “Americans,” “Asians,” “Africans,” et cetera.

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