Sunday, February 7, 2010

Neanderthal thoughts

Do you wonder what ever happened to the Neanderthal? I do. In fact, the question keeps me up at night sometimes.

We don’t know much about them. They were squat, big-boned, large-headed -- think linebackers, but smarter -- nicely adapted to the cold of the Pleistocene over 200,000-250,000 years. But they went extinct -- or is the phrase “were extinguished” more appropriate? -- something like 20,000-30,000 years ago. Lots of debate on the dates. Were they a subspecies of Homo sapiens, or, as most now believe, a separate species, Homo neanderthalensis? Was there any mixing of the two groups genetically after H. sapiens sapiens moved into Eurasia? The Basques, for instance, were once claimed as their descendents. Sure, every once and while I see someone on the subway who would perfectly fit the old give-him-a-shave-and-put-him-in-a-suit notion, but there is no DNA evidence to suggest an admixture as far as I understand current thinking.

They’ve been culturally defined since those bone fragments were first found in the Neandertal Valley in 1856: the Victorians had their savage ape-man, the Sixties their flower children (residue of flowers having been found in Neanderthal graves.) Scraped bones suggest cannibalism, but that isn’t unknown amongst our crowd in extremis (and I always say, “don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!”).

The big question is did our ancestors kill them off? Considering how we have been known to treat out-groups, based on extremely superficial categories, of our own, it’s certainly not improbable. Considering our heedless slaughter, intentional and unintentional, of so many animals, why not one more? Is there a connection to the extinctions of the large ice-age mammals? Were Neanderthals as hairy as mammoths, bears, dire wolves? Did they hibernate?

Biologist and, not coincidentally, long distance runner, Bernd Heinrich suggest that we became hairless because of our need to maintain temperature regulation while hunting animals by foot in perpetual summer. An “endurance predator” he calls our ancestor. Hunting by day, so as not to compete with the bigger crepuscular and nocturnal mammals, and sweating profusely, something we’re very good at. Some of his evidence? The DNA of lice; we humans (speak for yourself) are unique in having three species of lice -- head, body (in clothing), & pubic; other mammals and birds have one individual lice species that specialize on them. Head and body lice diverged from a common ancestor into separate species about 114,000 years ago (pubic lice are much older; aren’t you glad somebody else does this kind of science?). We were moving out of Africa then, we’d already shed our fur, and as we moved north, away from the tropics, we needed other furs to keep warm. New habitat for the lice, that clothing. An interesting notion, one of quite a few offered over the years as to how we got to be where we are.

But back to the Hairy Ones and the Naked Ones. They probably didn’t “meet cute,” as they say in Hollywood.

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