Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The ogre and us

A passage from H. G. Wells' Outline of History, 1920:
...We know very little of the appearance of Neanderthal man, but this...seems to suggest an extreme hairiness, an ugliness, or a repulsive strangeness in his appearance over and above his low forehead, his beetle brows, his ape neck, and his inferior stature...Says Sir Harry Johnston, in a survey of the rise or modern man in his Views and Reviews: "The dim racial remembrance of such gorilla-like monsters, with cunning brains, shambling gait, hairy bodies, strong teeth, and possibly cannibalistic tendencies, may be the germ of the ogre in folklore..."
For 200,000 years, Neanderthals had Europe pretty much to themselves. Then, about 45,000 years ago a new breed of humans, anatomically identical to ourselves, came sweeping out of Africa. They fanned across Europe, displacing Neanderthals. The last Neanderthals seem to have gone extinct in Southern Spain about 28,000 years ago, their backs against a sea they had no way of crossing.

Did Neanderthals and modern humans interbreed? Did Neanderthals have speech? On these matters the fossil evidence has been silent. But in the past few years Neanderthal DNA has been retrieved from bones. It is now being sequenced. No evidence so far of interbreeding. And last week researchers announced that Neanderthals share with us a gene (FOXP2), one of many that are associated with speech. Certain other bone fragments of previously uncertain origin have now been identified as Neanderthal using DNA, extending the range of those people as far east as Siberia.

There is always the possibility of contamination with modern human DNA, so for the time being we should take the language gene result with a grain of salt. But still, what an extraordinary thing it is that a history of the distant past is written in a four-letter code shared by all life on Earth.

It remains to be seen why modern humans prevailed over our close relations. Was speech the advantageous factor? More sophisticated weapons? Some sort of religious conviction of divinely-conferred superiority?

Do a search for "Neanderthal" in Google Images. Look at the new reconstructions of what those "repulsive...inferior...gorilla-like monsters" might have looked like. We are not only learning about Neanderthals; we are also learning about ourselves and our relations to "the other."