Yes, I know Neanderthals are a species of human (depending on how you define human). And some of you may prefer not to think of humans as animals. That's a debate I'll avoid. But by any biological definition, all species of humans (including Homo sapiens and many more that are now extinct) are firmly in the order, Primates. And all primates are firmly in the class, Mammalia. And all mammals are firmly in the phylum, Chordata. And all chordates are firmly in the kingdom, Animalia.
And so Neanderthals are animals by biological definition. If you prefer, you can just imagine that I titled this post: Awesome Human: Neanderthals.
Why am I featuring the Neanderthal in this post? Two reasons. First, because Neanderthals make an appearance in my soon-to-be-released novel, Bridgers.
Second, because today I received my results from 23AndMe, an ancestral DNA testing service that Trish and I recently used. Guess what? I learned that I have more Neanderthal DNA than 98% of all the other people who have used this service!
And besides, Neanderthals are just plain awesome!
So what the heck is a Neanderthal?
Neanderthals are a species of humans closely related to Homo sapiens that went extinct about 40,000 years ago. Compared to Homo sapiens, Neanderthals were physically shorter, with shorter legs and a bigger (and probably stronger) body. Neanderthals are named after the site where their bones were first identified in the Neander Valley, Germany. This is why the name Neanderthal is capitalized, by the way.
Amazing facts about Neanderthals
Neanderthals are closely related to modern humans. In fact, some scientists consider them to be a subspecies (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis), although the majority consider them a separate species (Homo neanderthalensis). We (modern humans) share 99.7% of our DNA with Neanderthals, which means they are much more closely related than our nearest non-human relative, the chimpamzee (we share 98.8% of our DNA with chimps).
It is now widely accepted that humans interbred with Neanderthals, probably in the range of 50,000 to 60,000 years ago (but possibly as long ago as 100,000 years). How do we know this? The Neanderthal genome project, founded in 2006, has successfully sequenced the Neanderthal genome (a genome is the genetic material of a species). By 2010, it was shown that nearly all modern humans have a small amount of Neanderthal DNA material. For people of non-African descent, this varies from 1% to 4%. It is actually much lower in people from African descent. Why? Because it is believed that Homo sapiens did not interbreed with Neanderthals until after leaving the African continent and migrating into Europe.
Yours truly (that's me) is more closely related to Neanderthals than most other people. As I said above, this is news I just got today. And I think it's really cool!
The above screenshot shows that I have 326 of the 2,872 Neanderthal genetic variants 23andMe tests for. The highest person they've tested had 397 of these variants, so I am pretty close to the top. The vast majority of people have less than 2% of their ancestry from Neanderthals. But for me, it is almost 4%!
So how did this happen? According to the most recent evidence, Homo sapiens and Neanderthals are descended from a common ancestor, Homo erectus (or perhaps Homo heidelbergensis). From at least 700,000 years ago until about 200,000 years ago, erectus lived throughout Africa and much of Europe. But those in Europe became isolated from those in Africa and eventually became Neanderthals (with a body shape more appropriate for a colder climate). Those that were in Africa became Homo sapiens. About 55,000 years ago, some of the Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa and interbred with Neanderthals, and then eventually spread throughout the rest of the world, carrying Neanderthal DNA with them from that point on.
Before you think, "That's gross... humans interbreeding with another species," remember that Neanderthals did not look all that different from humans. See the digital creation of a Neanderthal male above and female below. It is quite possible that if you met a Neanderthal on the street today, and it was wearing typical human clothes, you may not even notice. And so it doesn't take too much imagination to see how these interbreeding events could have taken place 55,000 years ago. Although it is pure speculation, it could have happened through peaceful exchanges of partners, or perhaps one group raiding another and stealing females (chimpanzees do that), or perhaps adopting abandoned or orphaned babies. Who knows?
Neanderthals were probably intelligent. Although brain size doesn't always equate to higher-level thinking, it certainly helps. Neanderthals had larger brains than modern humans (1600 cubic cm for males, 1,300 cubic cm for females, whereas for modern humans the average is 1,250 to 1,400 cubic cm). There is a general consensus among scientists that Neanderthals made stone tools, used fire, and were hunters. And many studies show that they might have had symbolic thought (art and adornments), but most of these are from isolated finds and are often disputed. So we simply don't know.
As you would expect based on the explanations above, modern humans of non-African descent have probably acquired some physical characteristics from when those early humans migrated to Europe and interbred with Neanderthals. For example, Neanderthals had mutations of the genetic material leading to pale skin and a high variation in hair color (pale blonde, to red, to brown). In other words, interbreeding with Neanderthals could be the reason these characteristics are now so widespread in modern humans of European descent. By the way, the Neanderthal model above is supposed to be a male in his 20s. Yeesh! I'd hate to see what a Neanderthal my age would look like.
Check out this National Geographic video that provides a brief summary of Neanderthals
So, the Neanderthal deserves a place in the A.A.H.O.F. (Ambrosial Animal Hall of Fame). Or if you prefer, the A.H.H.O.F. (Ambrosial Human Hall of Fame)
FUN FACT: The word ambrosial originated over 400 years ago, in the late 1590s. Originally it meant exceptionally pleasing, particularly in flavor or smell. But that's kind of weird when applying it to Neanderthals, so I am using the other meaning, which is somewhere between delightful, heavenly, charming, or luscious. Okay, so it's still a little weird. Nevertheless, it is another way to say awesome!
Everyone needs a creative outlet. That's why I write.