Last night my husband and I were watching the first episode of A History of Ancient Britain by Neil Oliver. I love archaeology. For a large portion of my childhood and beyond, I wanted to be an archaeologist. I’m fascinated by glimpses of people in the past.
One of the things I always feel sad about is the fact that there were a number of other human species (hominids), but they died out. I think it would be awesome if we were still co-existing with other human species. The behavioural differences and similarities would be fascinating. But it seems that the genes of at least two of those groups live on in us. LP has a post today which details how evidence has emerged that the humans who moved out of Africa interbred with Neanderthal and Denisovan populations, which gave the humans resistance to diseases which the Neanderthal and Denisovan people had already encountered. Please go have a read.
Poor Neanderthals get a very bad press. Since they were discovered, their name is a by-word for brutish savagery. However, the evidence suggests the opposite. First, they were capable of speech, as the Neanderthal hyoid bone was indistinguishable from ours, they had a hypoglossal canal, and they had a gene (FOXP2) which is essential for human language capacity. Thus, it is has been hypothesised that they had speech. They also seem to have had burial rituals, as there is evidence they buried their dead with flowers and other items (although some have contested the presence of flowers as being random chance). They used tools and fire. They may have used ochre make up, and possibly made jewellery and pendants. There is also evidence of Neanderthal compassion (via skeletons of disabled or unwell individuals who could only have survived with care from family members) and Neanderthal interpersonal violence (via a skeleton of an individual with a cranial fracture which could only have occurred as a result of another person hitting him – although he survived and the wound healed). On the downside, there is also some evidence of Neanderthal cannibalism (flesh being cut from bones by stone knives), although whether it was really cannibalism or not is still hotly debated.
Of personal relevance to me is the hypothesis that the gene for red hair, pale skin and freckles originated with Neanderthals. This means that if the hypothesis is correct, my husband and I must have Neanderthal genes, and Eaglet No. 1 indubitably does (her hair is a flaming red, and she has creamy white skin and freckles). If I do have Neanderthal genes, I’m rather proud. It means that another human species lives on in me.
Update: Wombo at LP says the mutation for red hair and freckles in Neanderthals was different to the one in humans. Damn.