Most of Us Are Part Neanderthal

Field Museum Library/Getty Images
A diorama of a Neanderthal family cooking mussels near the Devil’s Tower rock shelter at Gibraltar, on the Mediterranean Sea; from the Field Museum, Chicago, early 1970s

My wife has always worried about me going bald, because I have a bump on the back of my skull that if exposed would make me look like a Neanderthal. Common knowledge still maintains that Neanderthals were rather stupid when compared to Homo sapiens, the species we all belong to today. There is, or was, a “gap” between them and us, rather like the gap that Thomas Suddendorf writes about when comparing the mental abilities of modern humans and the great apes. When I used to lecture on human evolution, my hand would involuntarily stroke my head to feel my “occipital bun” just as I mentioned those words to describe a key anatomical difference between Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis. Should I just offer myself as a live demonstration?

My wife need worry no more and my students have had a lucky escape. By finding the lost genome, the Swedish biologist Svante Pääbo has discovered that we are all part Neanderthal—except those with an entirely African heritage. So I now feel like shaving my head to celebrate the interspecies engagement of 50,000 years ago, whether or not it is the ultimate cause for the oddity of my skull and my occasional acts of stupidity.

Archaeologists and physical anthropologists have long debated the evolutionary relationship between modern humans and Neanderthals, relying on the similarities and differences between their designs of stone artifacts and the shapes of their bones, with little real understanding of how these might have arisen. Interminable academic arguments have been swept away by the revolution in studies of ancient DNA, led by Pääbo (now at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig) and brilliantly recounted in his new book, Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes.

Pääbo has provided us with a fabulous account of three decades of research into ancient DNA, culminating in 2010 with the publication of the Neanderthal genome. It’s a story seen through his eyes. He describes how he began with secretive attempts to explore whether DNA would survive in an artificially mummified calf’s liver, and how he led a multimillion-dollar global research project to ascertain the genomes of ancient organisms.

Pääbo’s book has to be compared to The Double Helix (1968), James Watson’s brilliant but controversial account of how the structure of DNA was discovered. When taken together they provide an insight into how biomolecular science has both changed and remained much the same during the last half-century. Both are strong personal accounts of scientific discovery, exposing how science is driven as much by passion, ambition, and competition as by rational thought and the sharing of knowledge. In both books the reader is gripped by life stories of far greater interest…

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