Not Just Knuckle Draggers: Are We the Last Neanderthals?

I will be the first to admit that when I stepped in to the lecture hall for “Are We the Last Neanderthals?”, the picture I had in mind for these mysterious fellow members of the genus Homo was less than flattering. Loincloths, cheetah print furs, and big barbaric clubs were all included. However, the enthusiastic and ever-humorous John Hawks thoroughly convinced me otherwise. I was fascinated to hear someone so obviously interested in these mysterious organisms describe them to me as so much more than a stereotype that has been developed by commercials and television shows. As a visual learner, I especially appreciated the analogies that Hawks made to explain the appearance of the Neanderthals—not as gorilla-like creatures who dragged their knuckles, but as stocky, wiry, and built like wrestlers. However, my Classics (and therefore largely archaeological) background meant that the most interesting part of the lecture for me was Hawks’s description of artifacts left behind by the Neanderthals. Shells scraped of their pigment, remnants of cooked food left in calculus, and innovative tools were all suggestive of Neanderthals as having civilization no more or less complex than that of the first “genuine” humans- that is, either Homo sapiens sapiens or Homo sapiens idaltu. This eye-opening experience fascinated me, and gave me interest I had never had before in this extinct, enigmatic group.

However, speculation still exists over whether the Neanderthals are an entirely separate species from Homo sapiens or merely a subspecies. Hawks’s personal belief seemed to fall on the side of subspecies, but he never truly explained the distinction. As the lecture went on after his first mention suggesting the Neanderthals were not entirely separate, I found myself wondering what being the same species would mean. From what I learned in our evolution unit, I knew that if Neanderthals and humans as we know them were truly the same species, they would be able to successfully interbreed—that is, give forth fertile offspring if a Neanderthal and a “traditional” human mated. I assumed that this meant different subspecies would be able to interbreed as well, and upon further research, I found that I was correct. This information, sparked from what I learned during this course, sent me on a speculative journey. I began to think that if a fossil were found of an organism that seemed to be the result of a Neanderthal-other Homo sapiens subspecies mating, one would be able to definitively say the Neanderthals are a subspecies of Homo sapiens—provided that the result of the mating was fertile, of course. In fact, when I researched later, I found that genetic evidence from the Max Planck Institute exists that suggests people today carry Neanderthal DNA from early Homo sapiens-Neanderthal interbreeding—which indicates the Neanderthals are, in fact, the same species.

Although some scientists may still be arguing otherwise, it seemed to me that more and more studies are suggesting that the Neanderthals are really just “one of us.” After my own research and the enthusiastic lecture of John Hawks, I was convinced the Neanderthals are far, far more just the cavemen of car commercials. I look forward to investigating further the newfound interest I found in these organisms—organisms whom I have begun to think are really just humans.

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