Blog Six: The Contribution of the Neanderthal

The discovery and study of Neanderthals further assists in learning about the evolution of modern humans.

As we learned last week, evolution works on a mosaic scale – as in, different parts of the human body evolved at different times and in different species before coming together to reproduce the human being as it is today.

With the Neanderthals being one of the closest relatives to us, it’s interesting to see the minute differences and similarities between us.

The differences we do have between each other are mainly due to the adaptations Neanderthals developed due to living during the ice age. For example, the smaller although more robust bodies helped them to survive the harsher conditions in the outdoors.

What is interesting is the fact that the Neanderthals were one of the first hominid species to develop a large brain similar to ours, accommodating a very similar skull size as well – save for the “occipital bun” that humans lack.

Other characteristics and traits such as smaller teeth and bigger faces bring us nearer to this species than any other hominin species.

Paleoanthropologists have not only found the skeletal remains themselves interesting, but also where they’re located. When they are lucky enough to be found in a cave which keeps the remains well preserved, they are sometimes found with early stone tools (Oldawan) or more modern, complicated tools (Mousterian) which can help indicate the level of development of that individual.

Going beyond the physical remains, anthropologists have further studied the Neanderthal by piecing together pieces of their culture from clues they find around the remnants of the species.

Finding the skeletal remains in caves was a huge point to their culture in that the Neanderthals probably did not live in much different structures. There was also evidence to indicate that there was perhaps a burial culture at the time of the Neanderthal. And one of the most interesting pieces of information of all, was the discovery of the healing of old wounds on the skeletal remains, indicating that the Neanderthal was capable of compassion and care for his fellow man.

The striking similarities we share with our hominid cousins have caused anthropologists to dig deeper into the Neanderthal DNA for more answers to questions – how related are we to the Neanderthal? And do we still have traces of Neanderthal DNA in us today?

It turns out that several humans still hold some mitochondrial DNA that came from our evolutionary cousins and in May of 2010, scientists even completed a reconstruction of the Neanderthal genome.

The discovery and study of the Neanderthal has greatly contributed to the study of human diversity in showing that, while extremely similar, we do not come directly from the Neanderthal and in fact, have ancestry in a variety of different hominin species. All over the world, humans from different parts of the world have traces of the mitochondrial DNA of the Neanderthal which further points to the fact that the human race today is exactly that – just the one race, a result of the combination of a variety of different hominin species. The Neanderthal helps us understand more about the adaptations and characteristics that make us what we are today.

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