Neanderthals went extinct 40,000 years ago and there has never been more DNA from them than today

Neanderthals have served as a reflection of our own humanity since they were discovered in 1856. What we think we know about them it has been molded to adapt it to our cultural tendencies, social norms and scientific standards. Diseased specimens were considered. Then our primitive subhuman cousins. Now no one doubts that they were advanced humans.

homo neanderthalensis It was very similar to us, we lived with them, we crossed paths frequently. Neanderthals became extinct, while we we survive, flourish and end up taking over of the planet.

His brain was on average larger than ours

Neanderthals evolved more than 400,000 years ago, probably from Homo heidelbergensis. They were very successful and spread from the Mediterranean to Siberia. they were very smartwith brains on average larger than those of the Homo sapiens.

They developed large-hunting strategies, gathered plants, mushrooms, and shellfish, controlled fires for cooking, made composite tools, dressed in animal skins, they made shell beads and were able to carve symbols on cave walls. They cared for their young, old and sick, created shelters to protect themselves, endured harsh winters and hot summers, and buried their dead.

neanderthals they met our ancestors numerous times over tens of thousands of years. The two species shared the European continent for at least 14,000 years. They even had sex.

Human Evolution Chart
Our common ancestor lived less than a million years ago. Kjærgaard, Nielsen & Maslin, Author provided

death of a species

The most significant difference between Neanderthals and our species is that they became extinct about 40,000 years ago. The exact cause of his disappearance still eludes usbut it was probably the result of a combination of factors.

Firstly, the climate of the last ice age was highly variable, going from cold to extreme heat and back again, which put pressure on the food sources of animals and plants and meant that Neanderthals had to constantly adapt to environmental changes. .

In second place, there were never many neanderthalsas the total population never exceeded tens of thousands of people.

They lived in small groups, from five to 15 individuals, compared to the Homo sapiens who formed groups of up to 150 individuals. These small isolated Neanderthal populations may have become increasingly unsustainable genetically.

In third place, they had to compete with other predators, particularly groups of modern humans They emerged from Africa about 60,000 years ago. We believe that many Neanderthals may have been assimilated by the larger bands of Homo sapiens.

Where are the tests?

Neanderthals left numerous footprints for us to examine tens of thousands of years later, many of which can be seen in the special exhibition we’ve helped curate at the Natural History Museum of Denmark. Over the past 150 years we have collected fossil bones, stone and wooden tools, found trinkets and jewelry left behind, discovered burial sites, and now mapped their genome from ancient DNA. It seems that 99.7% of the DNA of Neanderthals and modern humans is identical and there is no doubt that they are our closest extinct relatives.

Perhaps most surprising is the evidence of interbreeding that has left traces of Neanderthal DNA in humans alive today.

Many Europeans and Asians have between 1% and 4% Neanderthal DNA. The only modern humans without a genetic trace of Neanderthals are the African populations located south of the Sahara. Ironically, with a current world population of about 8 billion people, this means that there has never been more Neanderthal DNA on Earth.

Neanderthal man painting
99.7% human. Artist: Tom Björklund / Moesgård Museum, Author provided

Analysis of the Neanderthal genome helps us to better understand their appearance, as there is evidence that some evolved pale skin and red hair long before Homo sapiens. The many genes that Neanderthals and modern humans share are related to everything from the ability to taste bitter foods to the ability to speak.

We have also increased our knowledge of human health. For example, part of the Neanderthal DNA that could have been beneficial to humans tens of thousands of years ago now seems to cause problems when combined with a modern western lifestyle.

There are links to alcoholism, obesity, allergies, blood clotting, and depression. Recently, scientists suggested that an ancient Neanderthal genetic variant could increase the risk of serious complications from contracting covid-19.

hold a mirror

Like the dinosaurs, the Neanderthals didn’t know what to expect. The difference is that the dinosaurs suddenly disappeared after the impact of a giant meteorite from outer space. The extinction of the Neanderthals occurred gradually. They ended up losing their world, a comfortable home that they had successfully occupied for hundreds of thousands of years, and which slowly turned against them, until mere existence was untenable.

The Neanderthals now have a different purpose. We see our reflection in them. They did not know what was happening to them and they had no choice but to continue down the path that ultimately led to their extinction. We, on the other hand, are painfully aware of our situation and the impact we have on this planet.

Human activity is changing the climate and leads us directly to a sixth mass extinction. We can reflect on the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into and do something about it.

If we don’t want to end up like the Neanderthals, we better get our act together and work collectively for a more sustainable future. The extinction of the Neanderthals reminds us that we should never take our existence for granted.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original.

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