The Neanderthal was not a brutish subhuman, a stocky stub on our ancient family tree. Instead, the Neanderthal was a near relative, who shared more than 99 percent of the genetic material modern humans carry, and who contributed useful genetic material to our evolution. So says a new study.
“Those of us who live outside Africa carry a little Neandertal DNA in us,” says biologist Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute in the press release that announces his study’s striking findings. Everyone who is not of purely sub-Saharan origin bears a genetic heritage that may be up to four percent Neanderthal.
Many thoughtful researchers have long believed that Neanderthals died out without contributing to the modern human’s makeup. Some thought that a Neanderthal was so genetically different from a human that a human/Neanderthal mating could not produce offspring. Others believed that contact between the two groups was so limited that mating was rare or nonexistent.
They seem now to have been wrong. When early humans moved out of Africa, the Neanderthals were already in place in Eurasia. They were better adapted to the cold, more strongly built, and knew the territory. Possibly, according to the research of Dr. Paabo and his collaborators, these two groups interbred in the Middle East. Scientists are not sure where contact took place, how long it lasted, or what its nature was. However, our genome, the map of our inheritance, seems to prove our Neanderthal heritage.
Modern humans and Neanderthals shared living space for perhaps 95,000 years, according to an earlier study by Patrick D. Evans and others. Titled “Evidence that the adaptive allele of the brain size gene microcephalin introgressed into Homo sapiens from an archaic Homo lineage,” the study examines genetic evidence. A gene that improved the regulation of human brain development most likely entered the human genome through a non-human ancestor, possibly the Neanderthal, during this period, according to this study.
The May 10, 2010 online edition of the journal Science contains a wide variety of materials related to Dr. Paabo’s groundbreaking research, including a brief video of him discussing his project.
Four percent is a substantial amount of genetic material. More research will certainly follow, and more reports of current research. Meanwhile, learning about this work expands our ideas of what a human being is, and, for me, helps counter the idea that we are somehow a special creation, separate from all the other animals. At any rate, we now know that the Neanderthals are not gone. As Dr. Paabo says, “They are not totally extinct, in some of us they live on-a little bit.”