What does study about Neanderthals tell us about our human ancestors?

Even though we might think our ancestors have done nothing remotely interesting, but our prehistorical ones have certainly done. The death of the Neanderthals is one of the greatest mysteries about the origin of human species. They were co-existing with our direct ancestors, maybe 100,000 years ago. Their distinct physical appearance may have created some bad reputation for them being short, heavily browed, and stocky. But all these traits are nonattractive in our context in the same way a chimpanzee might not fancy an orangutan!

Researchers have found out through genetic analysis that in terms of behavior, Neanderthals and humans share many characteristics. It is a well-known fact that they buried their dead ritually, made tools, and explored from Europe, as well into Asia. They were thought to be capable of speech, as their genetic characteristics suggest.  Some even suggest that they had fair skin and ginger hair.

So the main mystery here lies what fate brought the Neanderthals to be extinct? Genocide is one of the many theories which stands out as being distinctly modern.

Some evidence suggests that humans hunted their low-browed cousins into extinction. It is not difficult to argue that humans are an unusually aggressive species. At that time, there was no doubt that they were certainly better toolmakers and better hunters than Neanderthals. Maybe we had to compete for the same resources and shelter. Wiping out similar species would have been an easy job.

Words like “genocide” should be used carefully. It is tempting to speculate about this aggression in our ancestors as if it tells us something about our present. Genocide is a modern concept that is set in history rather than prehistory. To speculate about a Neanderthal genocide is purely misleading. Neanderthals probably lived in very small groups and may have existed in global populations of as little as 10,000 at any one time. It looks like the arrival of modern humans in their habitat speeded up their demise, but genocide suggests some sort of strategic planning for which there is no evidence.

This is what our evolutionary origin tell us about ourselves today

There are some things that we can understand, such as how western obesity is an artifact of our evolutionary past. Very quickly and recently, social development has led us to spend a lot of time eating pizzas and hanging around on the internet. But our bodies are still stuck in a time when salty foods and fatty foods were hard to come by and therefore were sought out. Now, they are everywhere, and our bodies cannot cope.

This is why genealogy and paleoanthropology are so popular. The search for human evolution is a tricky matter, and the evidence is always less forthcoming. But eventually, the drive is the same: a curiosity about our past. Except that it is not really our past, and what both tell us about our own lives is limited.

Human evolution is the branch of science that provokes genuine amusement. The Neanderthal genome project is truly a scientific and technological marvel. It will reveal many incredible things about an important species. But just as knowing something about who your great great great grandmother’s brother married is finally a matter of idle curiosity, that won’t tell us that much about ourselves now.

The original article was first published in 2008 in the Guardian

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