On Mondays I go learn about Neanderthals at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. I get so excited when I learn something that challenges my perspective. Before this class my assumptions about Neanderthals were largely based on the Geico Caveman.
This evening we learned about Neanderthal genetics. Our presenter went through the history of studies published in journals like ‘Nature’ since 1987 and the challenges to each conclusion. Things really began to get exciting in 2006 when analysis of the Neanderthal genome began got underway. Genetic material was found in common with modern humans. Neanderthals had the FoxP2 gene, possibly the ‘software’ for language. We had learned last week that they had the hardware: the hyoid bone and nerves in the mouth. Red hair showed up with a mutation of MCR1 - although a different mutation than the one expressed as red hair in modern humans. Finally in 2010 the fist Draft Sequence of the whole Neanderthal genome was published. Of the genes that make us distinctly human, we share from 1 to 4 percent with Neanderthals.
But then it got even crazier. There is evidence that 40 thousand years ago there were up to four different hominids wandering the globe at the same time: Early Modern Humans, Neanderthals, Denisovans (found in Siberia) and Floresiensis (found on the island of Flores). All distinctly different from each other, but all shaping stone tools. Both Modern Humans and Neanderthals were using fire, living in organized social groups of up to 16 individuals, constructing shelters, practicing sophisticated pyro-engineering to create birch pitch tar, used to haft handles to stone points. They cared for the sick and old, buried their dead in shallow graves and covered them with flowers.