The more we find out about our extinct cousins the Neanderthals, the more we discover just how similar we are. Based on DNA evidence, it’s thought that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals (technically Homo neanderthalensis or Homo sapiens neanderthalensis) diverged to go their separate ways about 270,000 to 440,000 years ago, becoming two different branches on the hominid tree. But the story isn’t that simple. It’s now clear that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals interbred much more recently than this, and it’s becoming more obvious just how alike we are.
Heidelberg Man (Homo heidelbergensis) first appeared around 600,000 years ago, and then disappeared around 300,000 years ago, but not before possibly giving rise to Homo sapiens and Neanderthals. It’s been recently proposed that Neanderthals and early humans had similar cognitive abilities and culture; indeed, our last common ancestor, likely Heidelberg Man, may have already developed speech and language similar to what we have today. And, appearance-wise, we may not have been so different either. Neanderthals had similar brain sizes and body weights. However, they were likely paler, with blue or hazel eyes and red or blond hair, and had a stockier appearance, with deep chests and short fingers. Neanderthals also likely ate more meat, though they also enjoyed eating different cooked plants, and may have even used some medicinally. All in all, they definitely weren’t just some simple-minded brutes.
Around 100,000 years ago, Homo sapiens started living in caves in the Middle East. Sometime between 37,000 and 86,000 years ago, Neanderthals and Homo sapiens may have lived together in these caves and interbred, for as long as 10,000 years. After this time, Homo sapiens left Africa for Europe and Asia. (And Neanderthals went extinct about 30,000 years ago.) This could explain why genome comparisons have found that Europeans and Asians share 1% to 4% nuclear DNA with Neanderthals, while Africans do not share these similarities.
So while we often like to think of ourselves as superior to, and very different from, the extinct Neanderthals, just imagine that some of our ancestors may have been living with, and breeding with, Neanderthals for 10,000 years – for an idea of just how long that is, 10,000 years ago human civilization didn’t exist and saber-toothed cats were just becoming extinct!
For further reading:
- Phys.org’s article “Neanderthals shared speech and language with modern humans, study suggests”
- ScienceDaily’s article “Neanderthals in Northern Spain had knowledge of plants’ healing qualities, study reveals”
- ScienceDaily’s article “Dating between modern humans and Neandertals”
- Science Magazine’s Special Feature: The Neandertal Genome