Blog 6: Neanderthals

The discovery of Neanderthals highly affected how scientists thought about the fossil record and human evolution. The Neanderthals were important because they had developed a set of very distinctive features that distinguished them from any species that had come before them and modern Homo sapiens. However, the features of the Neanderthals disappear by 30 kya meaning some part of their anatomy or environment led to their extinction. Because this species became extinct, they did not directly have a part in human evolution but because the were a branch of the “homo” species and evolved parallel to Homo sapiens, many similarities can be seen and can illustrate how human evolution developed.
The main feature of the Neanderthals which is really interesting in comparison to Homo sapiens is the brain size. Species before Homo sapiens were distinctive because their brain size was much smaller. For example, homo heidelbergensis, a species that came a little before Homo sapiens, had a brain size of 1200 ccs. Modern humans have a brain size of 1400 ccs. In comparison, Neanderthals had a brain size of 1520 ccs! This is really interesting because up until this point every species had very small brain size. This meant that the Neanderthals were probably more developed and more complex than modern humans. Further evidence such as the Neanderthal child from devil’s tower, Gibraltar, supports this. This child’s growth of teeth and cranial anatomy are not similar to the modern human and therefore researchers predicted that Neanderthals develop faster than contemporary humans and they have more precocious brain growth. Through this more developed brain researchers assume things about Neanderthal behavior. This includes the fact that, because the bones around the larynx are anatomically similar to humans, Neanderthals could most likely speak and because of their more complex brain they could use speech to hunt better. Also, a gene was found in Neanderthal DNA that is related to the speech gene in humans which further proves that because of the Neanderthal’s more developed brain.
In looking at human evolution and the fossil record of modern humans in comparison to Neanderthals, the reconstruction of the Neanderthal genome is incredibly important. When paleoanthropologists were studying the fossilized remains of the Neanderthals, they used the remains to extract DNA. In May 2010, the entire genome was reconstructed and it showed the ways and the extent to which the modern human is similar and dissimilar to the Neanderthal. Paleoanthropologists have learned a great amount from these remains. The similarities in the Neanderthal genome compared to the human genome suggest the last common ancestor of the Neanderthals and modern humans lived between 700 and 516 kya. Researchers can definitely use this to trace the evolution of humans and traits that might have developed in Neanderthals versus Homo sapiens and how and why they evolved this way.
In my opinion the biggest contribution these findings have made to the study of human diversity is they have shown how similar Homo sapiens were to species that evolved in parallel to them. I think this, in addition, can illustrate the kinds of evolution that might occur to the human race over time.

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