The Fall of Neanderthal

The last of the Neanderthals’ remains were found in Gibraltar at a place called Gorham’s cave. These date back 24,000 to 40,000 years ago.  Neanderthals survived on earth for over 400,000 years. That is longer than Homo sapiens have been on earth by a factor of two.  They were not direct ancestors but cousins of ours. We are, in fact, kissing cousins, as some of their DNA is in our double helix spiral.  We met them several times on the European side of the Eurasian plate and inbred. The Neanderthalers are named for the valley they were first found, the Neandertal, near Düsseldorf, Germany known for its Pilsener Beer. That likely contributed, especially around “October Fest”, to the fact that there is 1-4% of their DNA in Europeans, also in Asians, but to a lesser extent. Asians have more Denisovan DNA. The Denisovans are probably an earlier split from Homo heidelbergenis 800,000 years ago.  We have very little remnants of Denisovans, only a tooth and a phalanx of the fifth finger. This was, however, sufficient to map their DNA and establishes them as a separate species.

A colleague of mine took great offense when I, in one of my previous essays, suggested having less Neanderthal DNA might be the reason that Asians score higher on the SATs. And they do to such an extent that Harvard will only allow a certain percentage of Asians into Harvard, a sort of upside-down discrimination, or should we call it what it really is, naked racism as defined by Webster (the belief that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race). My colleague, who is Korean, disputed my DNA theory.  He pointed out that Asian parents are much more obsessed with the education of their offspring. They send them to special schools after regular school, and they monitor their grades carefully. My nephew, who teaches at one of these special schools after regular school, claims Asian kids are not allowed to have a life because of this obsession.  My counter-argument to my Korean friend was that this preoccupation with academic success could be genetically determined as well.

Conversely, there is very little Neanderthal DNA in Africans.  The Neanderthals never lived that far south, unlike some European Homo sapiens that doubled back to Africa to leave some of their DNA.  However, genetic studies in West Africa turned up some ancient DNA that was not native, not Denisovan, but European, and even had a tiny snippet of Neanderthal DNA that traveled with those European nomads. These may be species separate from Homo sapiens, not given a Genus/species name so far. They are, for lack of a better name, called the “Ghost Species.” It seems everyone mated with everyone else.

That brings up the point, what did happen to the Neanderthals?  They were all over Europe, getting as far as southern Asia.

Many theories have evolved.  Did we, Homo sapiens, kill them?  Was it climate change or a Neolithic version of COVID? Did we outcompete them in survival skills? Or did we just absorb them?  There is evidence for all of those ideas.  There have been Neanderthal bones found with butcher marks on the bones and splitting them open for the marrow, suggesting cannibalism.  The Neanderthals survived much more severe weather than Homo sapiens did, having gone through longer ice ages and several glaciations, so climate change is an unlikely cause.  Homo sapiens’ hunting weapons were more sophisticated, which made them better hunters, perhaps taking away meat from Neanderthals. 

Neanderthal hominids did have language.  One cannot make fairly sophisticated stone tools and weapons, and go out hunting for the Wooly Mammoth without being able to communicate with your fellow tribesperson.  Evidence from the conceptual reconstruction of their voice box was higher in the neck and smaller that they could not speak vowels, and that their vocal cords, being shorter, made a higher-pitched sound just like the short strings in a piano are higher pitched. The structure of their nasal passages and sinuses produced a more squeaky sound.  The tongue also being anchored on the  Hyoid bone higher in the neck was not as articulate as the tongue of Homo sapiens. The language they spoke was more rudimentary and simple. As a consequence, their grammar probably allowed for split infinitives to more succinctly explain themselves, and prepositions at the end of their sentences, notwithstanding.

They even had culture.  Cave art that goes back 65,000 years ago, before Homo sapiens got to Spain, shows they had that desire to put paint on walls for decorative or spiritual reasons. They did bury at least some of their dead and often with some memento that signified a sense of spirituality, perhaps belief in an afterlife.

There are at least eight species of Homo, nine if you count H. denisova, including us described to date, but Neanderthal is the only one that co-existed with us.  If we met one on the street, we would instantly know they are not one of us.  They were generally shorter and squatter with a large barrel-shaped chest, longer arms, and the face had a prominent nose, a receding chin, prominent brows, and a forehead that was slanted toward the back.  My question is, “Would Harvard have let them in?