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Neanderthals are a Separate Species
Copyright © 2003 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
Nebula Award-winning science-fiction writer
Robert J. Sawyer
writes and presents a weekly science column for
the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's CBC Radio One.
The columns, which have the umbrella title
Science FACTION: Commentaries from the Cutting Edge of Science,
are produced by Barbara Saxberg in Toronto, and
syndicated to local CBC Radio stations across Canada.
Recorded 23 June 2003
Host: Ever call somebody a Neanderthal? It's a common
insult, but, until recently, we thought it also might have had a
grain of truth in it. Now we know better. Here's science-fiction
writer Robert J. Sawyer with the lowdown on our extinct
Music: Opening strains of The Flintstones:
Flintstones, meet the Flintstones
They're the modern stone-age family ...
Robert J. Sawyer: It's been called the biggest question in
anthropology: what happened to the Neanderthals? Those burly,
browridged relatives of ours disappeared from the fossil record
about 30,000 years ago.
Some say they went extinct, pushed that way by us modern
Homo sapiens, which was already around back then. Others
say we interbred with them, and so rather than dying out, we
absorbed their genes into our own gene pool meaning that
we all have a little Neanderthal in us.
The key, as to so many problems these days, is DNA just
how different is the Neanderthal genetic code from our own? A few
years ago, we finally recovered some Neanderthal DNA, and, of
course it was promptly compared to ours. The results showed that
Neanderthal DNA was quite different from the stuff we have.
Sounds like conclusive proof that we and Neanderthals aren't
closely related, doesn't it?
But no, it wasn't proof of that at all. As Milford Wolpoff, an
anthropologist at the University of Michigan, and many other
anthropologists pointed out, all that had been done was comparing
ancient apples with modern oranges. That is, testing DNA from
Neanderthals that were many tens of thousands of years old
against that of people living today was pointless. The real test
should be comparing Neanderthal DNA to that of ancient Homo
sapiens our undisputed ancestors who lived at the same
time as the Neanderthals. Until such a test was done, the jury
could remain out.
Music: Jurassic Park theme
Unfortunately, doing that test was easier said than done. Despite
what we all think we know from Jurassic Park, it's
actually very difficult to recover ancient DNA, and it was only
this year that we managed to get samples of old Homo
sapiens DNA that could be matched up to the snippets of
Neanderthal DNA that we'd previously recovered.
And so, the comparisons were done again and guess what?
Ancient Homo sapiens had DNA virtually indistinguishable
from our own, but Neanderthals had DNA radically different from
that not only of those of us alive today, but of our ancestors
who lived alongside the Neanderthals. Although Wolpoff continues
to fight on, the conclusion seems inescapable: if we ever did
interbreed with Neanderthals, no fertile offspring was produced
meaning Neanderthals contributed nothing to our gene pool.
They're dead and gone.
The stakes in this debate aren't just academic reputations.
They're also the guilt or innocence of Homo sapiens. See,
the Neanderthals were already widespread in Europe when we came
into that continent from Africa. If Wolpoff had been right, we'd
made love with our new neighbours; sadly, though, it seems quite
probable we made war instead. At the very least, we deprived the
Neanderthals of the resources they needed to live, and it's
likely that we actually killed them off meaning yet
another murder case has been solved, thanks to DNA.
I'm Robert J. Sawyer.
More Good Reading
Other "Science FACTion" commentaries for CBC Radio
"2020 Vision" scenarios for Discovery Channel Canada
Media backgrounder on Rob Sawyer
Rob's novels Hominids, Humans, and Hybrids, which also deal with Neanderthals