You may or may not know this about me, but I’m obsessed with archaic Homo sapiens.
“What are archaic Homo sapiens,” you ask? (Or maybe you didn’t, but I’m going to tell you anyway)….
Archaic Homo sapiens (or archaic humans) are considered all species of the genus Homo between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens sapiens (us!).
That would include Homo sapien neanderthalensis (Neanderthals).
Whenever a new story about these pre-historic human-ish creatures makes its way into the news, I get kind of excited.
Okay, I get really excited.
Lately, Neanderthals have been having their (much deserved) moment in the news.
The Human-Neanderthal Relationship
During the last twenty years or so, all research has suggested that Neanderthals mated with humans. Humans of Asian and European descent can share up to 4% of their DNA with Neanderthals. If the mating theory proved true then many humans (aside from those of solely African descent) would essentially be a low-percentage Neanderthal/human hybrid.
As interesting as that may be, the latest news is that we didn’t mate with Neanderthals. Cambridge University researchers published their latest research in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The reason we share up to 4% DNA with Neanderthals is now pointing to a common ancestor from 500,000 years ago.
Also, we may be to blame for the Neanderthals going extinct. There are theories that the extinction of the species was caused by the Ice Age, exposure to diseases, interbreeding with humans (which is now looking slightly less likely), and more recently that we (humans) massacred the species into extinction. There is also a less accepted theory that we killed and ate Neanderthals into extinction.
What does all of this conflicting information mean? Not much at the moment, unless you’re an anthropologist. However, it is fascinating, and sometimes entertaining. Here is a very unscientific article written by a scientist about why he believes humans did not mate with Neanderthals.
Breastfeeding and Weaning
The researchers were able to detect the age the Neanderthal was exclusively breastfed, introduced to solid foods, and weaned. This particular Neanderthal was breastfed exclusively for seven months and completely weaned (abruptly) by 14 months. To me, this either shows that the barium levels they are using to distinguish weaning times are harder to detect and unreliable when young primates begin to breastfeed less often (after 14 months, breastfeeding generally starts to taper). However, the samples taken from macaques would potentially reveal if there was a flaw, and possibly the human samples depending on the weaning age of the samples taken. Either that, or the history of the one sample of a young Neanderthal tooth was not typical of the species. Abrupt weaning is not common for most Great Apes and there is probably more to the history of this particular Neanderthal.
Even if it was typical for the species, they need to keep going with the research in order for it to be helpful information for modern-day humans. As of now, this research is very cool, but that is about it.
What is exciting is that this new research is indeed more broad than this one Neanderthal tooth. The goal is to create an “evolutionary map” of breastfeeding practices of primates. That would include many more Neanderthal teeth to be studied, as well as other species. [Source]
Jurassic Park- Neanderthal Style
And finally, Neanderthals may be resurrected.
The technology isn’t quite there yet (or inexpensive enough for the inevitable countless tries and fails that will happen), but scientists are getting closer.
The idea is in the works, but many are voicing ethics concerns that go beyond bringing back an extinct species. Neanderthals are so close to human beings, from their physical appearance to their ability to think abstractly and use language, that there would be issues of essentially cloning an archaic human and using him or her as the ultimate (and most-likely fatal) science experiment.
What do you think? Should we resurrect the Neanderthal?