human evolution map

Neanderthals went extinct 40,000 years ago, but there’s never been more of their DNA on Earth

Neanderthals have been a reflection of our humanity since they were first discovered in 1856. We think what we know about them has been shaped and shaped to fit our cultural trends, social norms and scientific standards. They have gone from diseased specimens to primitive subhuman clumsy cousins ​​to advanced humans.

we know now Neanderthals Very similar to us, we even meet them and crossbreed often. But why did they go extinct while we survived, prospered and eventually took over the planet?

Neanderthals evolved over 400,000 years ago, probably from an earlier ancestor Heidelberger. They were very successful and spread from the Mediterranean to Siberia.They are very smart, with an average brain than Homo sapiensof.

They hunted big game, collected plants, fungi and seafood, controlled fire to cook, made composite tools, made clothing from animal skins, made beads from shells, and were able to carve symbols on cave walls. They cared for their young, old and weak, creating shelters as protection, surviving harsh winters and warm summers, and burying the dead.

Over tens of thousands of years, Neanderthals did see our ancestors multiple times, and the two species shared the European continent for at least 14,000 years. They even mate with each other.

Our common ancestor lived less than a million years ago.
Kjærgaard, Nelson and Maslin, Author provided

death of a species

The most striking difference between Neanderthals and us is that they went extinct about 40,000 years ago. The exact cause of their death is still unknown, but we think it may be the result of a combination of factors.

First, the climate of the last ice age was very variable, shifting from cold to warm, which put pressure on animal and plant food sources, which meant that Neanderthals had to constantly adapt to environmental changes. Second, Neanderthals were never that large, and the total population never exceeded tens of thousands.

They live in groups of 5 to 15 people, compared to Homo sapiens There are groups of up to 150 people. These small isolated Neanderthal populations may be increasingly genetically unsustainable.

Third, competition with other predators, especially modern human groups that emerged from Africa about 60,000 years ago.We speculate that many Neanderthals may have been assimilated into larger Homo sapiens.

Where is the evidence?

Tens of thousands of years later, Neanderthals have left many traces for us to study, most of which can be seen in a special exhibition at the Natural History Museum of Denmark that we helped curate. Over the past 150 years, we’ve collected fossil bones, stones and wooden tools, found trinkets and jewelry they left behind, found burials, and now mapped their genomes from ancient DNA. It appears that 99.7% of the DNA of Neanderthals and modern humans, our closest extinct relatives, is identical.

Perhaps the most surprising fact is the evidence of hybridization, which leaves traces of DNA in living people today. Many Europeans and Asians have between 1% and 4% Neanderthal DNA, while sub-Saharan Africans have almost zero. Ironically, the current world population is about 8 billion, which means there has never been more Neanderthal DNA on Earth.

Neanderthal paintings
99.7% human.
Artist: Tom Björklund / Moesgård Museum, Author provided

Neanderthal genomes also help us learn more about what they looked like, as evidence suggests that some Neanderthals evolved pale skin and red hair long ago Homo sapiensMany genes shared between Neanderthals and modern humans are associated with everything from the ability to taste bitter foods to the ability to speak.

We also increase our understanding of human health. For example, some Neanderthal DNA that may have been beneficial to humans tens of thousands of years ago now seems to be causing problems when combined with modern Western lifestyles.

Linked to alcoholism, obesity, allergies, blood clotting and depression. Recently, scientists have suggested that an ancient Neanderthal genetic variant may increase the risk of serious complications from contracting COVID-19.

hold up a mirror

Like dinosaurs, Neanderthals didn’t know what to expect. The difference is that the dinosaurs suddenly disappeared after the impact of a huge meteorite in outer space. The extinction of Neanderthals occurred gradually. They end up losing their world, a cozy home they’ve managed to occupy for hundreds of thousands of years, slowly turning against them until existence itself becomes unsustainable.

In this sense, Neanderthals now have a different purpose. We see ourselves in them. They had no idea what was going on, and they had no choice but to continue down the path that eventually led to extinction. On the other hand, we are painfully aware of our situation and our impact on the planet.

Human activity is changing the climate and directly causing the sixth mass extinction. We can reflect on the mess we are in and we can do something about it.

If we don’t want to end up like Neanderthals, we’d better pull together and work together for a more sustainable future. The extinction of Neanderthals reminds us that we should never take our existence for granted.

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