Now that the human genome has been sequenced, and Neanderthal genes have been found in up to 4% of our DNA, we can no longer deny our ancestral roots. Some of us have more of it and others less. Asians and the native people of Oceana have more Denisovan genes than the Neanderthal genes, up to 5% in some of them. Denisovans were not a known hominid species until recently when a discovery in Siberia of hominid skeletal and dental remains was uncovered. The DNA was neither Homo sapiens or Homo neanderthalensis but a heretofore unknown hominid.
Neanderthal (also written as Neandertal) appeared in the Pleistocene Epoch (2.6 million years to 11,800 years ago) first found in the Neander Valley (Tal) in Germany. When first discovered in 1856, they were thought to be deformed H. sapiens, but when they were found all over Europe and the Middle East, the deformed theory was discarded and they got their own species name, even though some paleontologists thought that a bit premature. Strangely, 25,000 years ago Neanderthals disappeared. Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859. Various theories of their extinction have been postulated. This was in the midst of the last ice age. Could that have been their death nail? Did we out-hunt them, competing for every bit of protein in the cold barren land that was overwhelmed with ice? Did we absorb them as suggested by our own DNA? Or did we kill them? There is evidence of cannibalism that could have contributed.
Getting back on how to recognize them within and amongst us. They actually had a larger brain housed in a lower profile cranium. The brows were more prominent, and the nose and eye sockets had bigger openings. The front teeth were larger, spaced farther apart, and the occipital ridges were more prominent, suggesting stronger posterior neck muscles.
The chin was what we would classify as weak. Their hyoid bone in front of where the voice box would be, suggested they had similar linguistic skills to us. Also, they could not have had the stone tool technology and social customs, such as the burial of the dead, decorative arts, and even flute-like musical instruments without language. They had pale skin and possibly red hair, making them more sensitive to UV light and prone to skin cancers. Other genetic studies suggest they were prone to depression and eating disorders.
They did not have the ability to domesticate animals and lacked dogs that could have helped them in hunting larger game. This lack of skills with taming animals may have contributed to their demise.
Putting it all together. If you see a red-haired very muscular person, especially the back of the neck, about 5 foot 5 inches tall, a barrel chest with large hands and size 13 shoes, a weak chin, prominent brows and premature aging from sun damage, with possibly a skin lesion or two, who is kind of mean, hates dogs, and is grouchy, you may be meeting one of them.
The Missing Link
It has become clear that we, homo sapiens, have DNA from other ancient hominids and not so hominids. It seems that neat stick drawings of evolutionary trees are not a realistic picture of where we came from. Europeans have 2-4% Neanderthal DNA, while South Asians and people from Oceana have at least 5% Denisovan DNA. There are other as yet unidentified DNA sequences from at least two “Ghost” subspecies, now extinct, that have had dalliances with homo sapiens in the last 50,000 years. These have been temporarily named with the placeholder designations of EH1 and EH2. There were a lot more eligible bachelors and bachelorettes available then, that would have made for much more exciting TV shows than what we are forced to watch now. The EH1 group has disbursed its DNA within 2.6 to 3.4 percent of Asian and native Australian populations. While the EH2 hominids are limited to Indonesia, specifically the Island of Flores where the skeletal remains of a small hominid named H. floresiensis were found. Because of its size, it is given the nickname of “the hobbit.” Although this name is currently under legal challenge by the Tolkien estate which claims it is the copyrighted property of the author J.R.R. Tolkien who wrote the book, The Hobbit.
When I was in high school, I recall in biology class the enigma we were all taught about, our link to monkeys was just not there. “The missing link” was proof positive that Darwinian evolution was all godless bunk. As it turns out, multiple missing links have been dug up in various sites of the Rift Valley, especially at the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania by the Leaky’s and others. It was Louis Leaky who gave Jane Goodall her start in studying the daily life of chimpanzees, which led her to slay many of the sacred cows of what supposedly defines our species as human, such as using tools, communicating with each other, and social behavior.
Further down the Rift Valley in Ethiopia, “Lucy” was found. She was a 3.7 million-year-old Australopithecus hominid who walked upright and appeared after the split into two families, Pongidae (monkeys) and Hominidae (hominids). It is all very complicated with crosslinks and the ancient species leapfrogging into our species, leaving tell-tale bits of DNA behind. That all elusive “missing link” is not missing anymore. Not only did fossil evidence spring out of the ground, but DNA from test tubes leaked into the evidence pool to become even stronger proof of our origins.
The discovery of Denisovans, an entirely new species of Homo, was based on DNA obtained from the tip of a 50,000-year-old phalanx bone of a child found in Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, and subsequently confirmed from the DNA isolated from an adult’s molar tooth.
It is no longer possible to deny that we are a melting pot of organisms with ancient DNA residing in our cells and floating in our bodily fluids. It is time we own up to our origins and our relationship to the rest of the miracle of life.