Of Humans, Chimps and Neanderthals
I recently saw an intriguing NOVA episode on PBS called ‘Decoding the Neanderthals’. The subject of human evolution has long fascinated me though I was never bright enough to pursue the study as a career. I stll prefer stone tools and cave paintings to the iPhone and social media.
Here’s the basic premise. The study of human evolution up until recently concluded that Neanderthals, our beetle-browed predecessors, were an evolutionary dead end. Their own ancestors had migrated out of Africa about 800,000 years ago. Until recently, it was believed that modern man followed the Neanderthal out of Africa about 40,000 years ago and that, ten thousand years later, the Neanderthal was gone, pushed or killed into extinction. But the recently completed decoding of the Neanderthal genome has proven otherwise. In fact, most humans carry some Neanderthal DNA, a small amount to be sure– from 1% to 5%. What this means is, Neanderthal and modern humans mated. Not on off weekends either but on a regular basis. The theory then goes that Neaderthal was simply bred out of existence over a period of ten thousand years.
But I wonder. Doesn’t that leave open the question of where modern man came from, aside from the fact that we are told he or she came from Africa. Modern man could not have evolved directly from something more primitive than Neanderthal, miraculously jumping from Home erectus to Wall Street banker. Modern man, Cro-Magnon, whatever you want to call her/him, had to go through a phase just as Neanderthal did. Perhaps, the migration of humans was an on-going affair, never stopping, back and forth for hundreds of thousands of years, with the various groups interbreeding all along, not just forty-thousand years ago. Change, the evolutionary process, is a constant trial and error process that may have produced many dead ends that we will never know about, but the process proceeded unhindered for millennia, leading to us. It is still going on. What, I wonder, will we look like in ten thousand years?
Genre - Young Adult
Rating – PG