Neanderthals once lived in parts of Europe but we humans, including modern Europeans, are not their descendants. We instead trace our origins to humans who began to migrate out of Africa some 60,000 years ago. Nonetheless, recent research suggests some evidence — some in the form of words that we use all the time — for links between long extinct Neanderthals and us.
1. We share a common ancestor.
The draft sequence of the Neanderthal genome was published in 2010. From this, scientists found that we indeed share some genetic material with Neanderthals and that Asians and South Americans have a larger percentage of Neanderthal DNA than Europeans.
While some posit that Neanderthals and early humans may have interbred, scientists are not at all sure about such “hybridization.” A 2012 study rather suggests that the reason we have some of the same genetic material as Neanderthals is due to our sharing a common ancestor rather than from interbreeding. It is thought that it was some 700,000 years ago that humans and Neanderthals split off from our “shared relation.”
2. Neanderthals have the same version of a gene in humans that is involved in language.
For decades after the first fossils of Homo neanderthalensis were found in a cave in Germany in 1856, the prevailing view was that Neanderthals were “witless cavemen.” But study of the Neanderthal genome revealed that they, like humans, have the FOXP2 gene, which is involved in language. The presence of this gene shows that Neanderthals indeed had the capacity for complex social behavior.
3. Early humans in the time of the Neanderthals may have used words that are a lot like some common words today.
Using statistical modeling, researchers from the University of Reading have found that some common words including “I,” “we,” and “man” may have been used by our ancestors 15,000 years ago, around the time of the last Ice Age, when Neanderthals still lived. As the Washington Post observes, if we were to be transported back several millennia ago and find ourselves face to face with Cro-Magnon humans, we might be able to understand a few of their words and they some of ours.
Some other “ultraconserved words” that may have survived for 150 centuries are “mother,” “not,” “what” and “hear” — certainly all very basic things to communicate. The Washington Post comments that some of the other words (“flow,” “ashes” and “worm”) are “surprises,” though it’s perhaps a bit presumptuous to say that! Who are we to know what the earliest humans most wanted to communicate to each other?
The paper also makes a bolder claim, that all seven modern language families (and therefore the 7,000 living languages) share a common ancestor, the “proto-Eurasiatic.” Previous research has not shown these language families to be so related.
4. Neanderthals’ brain are similar in size to ours.
Examination of fossils suggests that Neanderthals’ brains were the same size as ours, but had different functions. In particular, their brains were structured with a greater focus on vision and movement and less on social networking, on the “higher level thinking required to form large social groups” characteristic of Home sapiens.
5. Neanderthals had something of an aesthetic sense.
Images found in a cave called El Castillo on the Spanish coast have been found to be about 40,000 years old and may, possibly, have been made by Neanderthals.
We do have other evidence that Neanderthals were able to make complex tools and used pigments and may have made jewelry and musical instruments. They also buried their dead and, as an examination of fossilized teeth suggests, they not only ate plants, but cooked them. That is, it is indeed possible to speak of Neanderthal culture. Who knows if we might be evoking this every time we say the word “bark”?
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