What happened to the Neandertal?

This column does not have a single author, but is submitted by a number of experts that contribute regularly to our news source.  Some are in Canada, some in the UK and one is in the far east

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Reconstruction of Neandertal Child

One of the mysteries of science has been the Neandertal which was discovered in the Neander Valley in 1856.  Since then we have wondered about what appears to be modern man's closest relative.  What piqued my interest were the books by Jean Auel like 'Clan of the Cave Bear' where modern man met Neandertal.

The August issue of Scientific American has a long article about recent research into the mystery.  The key concepts are:

  • Neandertal ruled Europe and Eastern Asia for more than 200,000 years.  28,000 years ago they vanished.
  • The debate over their demise  has focused on climate change and subtle variations in biology and behavior, disease and pressure from other species.  We too can go extinct with some pandemic or climate change.  T-Rex did.

Lots of data about them is now available as fossil records continue to surface.  Some of the most important recent discoveries come from a cave in Gibraltar and other European locations.

We have all seen artists concepts of what they looked like.  According to experts the male was about 5'5" and very powerfully built weighing about 185 lbs when well nourished.

So what caused their demise?  Nobody is sure, but they speculate some or all of these factors below may have contributed:

  • Rapid climate change shrunk their habitat and changed their diet.
  • Possible genetic susceptibility to disease that was introduced as their contact with present man came about.
  • Diet variety was not possible as the climate destroyed some animals that they depended upon.
  • Pressure from modern man as the present species poured out of Africa into Europe and Asia.
  • Inbreeding as their numbers diminished could have been a cause.

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31/07/2009 08:14 PM


What's astounding is that some of their DNA has been captured and the analysis of it shows so far that we don't have a modern man with a lot of  Neandertal ancestry.

Within modern guidelines, it appears that if Neandertal were walking down our streets, he/she would be clearly recognized as a human.  If she appeared in a homecoming parade on a zany float, nobody would notice.  If he drove a pickup and was in the drive through in Tim Hortons, he would be invisible.

The DNA shows that any two humans picked at random would share more DNA than any human and a Neanderthal, but that does not mean that we are that far apart.   Interbreeding could have occurred.

About Scientific American

Scientific American is magazine that brings some aspects of modern science to the lay reader.  It is well written and does not avoid detail, but it does not have formulas.  They sadly disappeared some years ago like the Neandertal.  They used to have great Martin  Gardner math puzzles, but those are no more.  They do have a fine'Skeptic Column', which is really very skeptical and fun to read.

Scientific American is a good diversion in a Dentist or Doctor's office rather than bacteria rich copies of Macleans.  Thirty Five years ago I got a $12,50 subscription and it has followed me around at that same rate.  It lost track of me for 2 or 3 years and somebody must have enjoyed reading it or used it to wrap the garbage, I don't know.  Eventually I noticed the $12.50 deduction on my credit card and said to myself..."Wow, maybe a call for a change of address would be the thing to do"  Sure enough my lifetime subscription was still valid and somebody else lost his or her proxy subscription.


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