When It Comes to Neanderthals, Humans May Be the Borg
Editor's Note: This article was provided by our partner, RealClearScience. The original is here.
In 1856, a group of quarrymen discovered the remnants of a strange skeleton in Germany's lush Neander Valley. They thought it was a bear. They were wrong. In fact, the quarrymen had unearthed the first scientifically recognized remains of Homo neanderthalensis, an ancient human ancestor.
Colloquially known as Neanderthals, the species quickly became synonymous with the prototypical "cavemen," you know, the grunting, apish type. Stocky, bigheaded, and wide-nosed, they fit that brutish description well. Neanderthals' simpleton status also made it intuitively clear why they died out: they were plainly inferior to humans, so when Neanderthals and Homo sapiens -- humans -- began cohabitating the same regions of Europe and the Middle East around 50,000 years ago, humans either outcompeted them or actively hunted them to extinction.
In the past few decades, however, anthropological discoveries have contradicted those stereotypical views. Neanderthals actually had slightly larger brains than modern humans! Moreover, they were accomplished big game hunters, crafted advanced tools, ritualistically buried their dead, and utilized language and symbols.
According to archaeologists Paola Villa and Wil Roebroeks, these recent discoveries counter the notion that human superiority somehow led to the demise of the Neanderthals. They state their case in the form of a systematic review of archaeological records, published in the online open-access journal PLoS ONE.
The extinction and competition hypotheses for the demise of the Neanderthals, notably suggested by interdisciplinary scientist and author Jared Diamond, hinge on the idea that humans were more advanced than Neanderthals. Commonly claimed are the following: that humans had more communicative abilities, were more efficient hunters, had superior weaponry, ate a broader diet, and had more extensive social networks.
But the archaeological record doesn't back any of those claims, the authors found.
"The results of our study imply that single-factor explanations for the disappearance of the Neanderthals are not warranted any more," the duo writes.
Villa and Roebroeks' findings raise an intriguing question: If Neanderthals weren't driven to extinction, well, then, where did they go?
According to Villa and Roebroeks, the best explanation now is familiar to anyone who's acquainted with the Borg, a ruthless collective of cybernetic beings from Star Trek. Neanderthals were assimilated... by us. That's right: Humanity is the Borg.
In 2010, scientists discovered that between one and four percent of the DNA of modern humans living outside of Africa is derived from Neanderthals, providing clear evidence that the two species were interbreeding to some extent tens of thousands of years ago. In January of this year, Benjamin Vernot and Joshua Akey of the University of Washington published a paper in Science that corroborated those results. They found that a fifth of Neanderthals' genetic code lives on within our species as a whole.
While interbreeding may be the leading explanation for the demise of the Neanderthals today, it may not be tomorrow. There are few topics in science more convoluted than human evolution. But when it comes to unearthing our past, our curiosity compels us to keep digging.
Resistance, after all, is futile.
(Images: AP, Paramount Pictures)
Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.
- Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
- At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
- Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Neuroscience research suggests it might be time to rethink our ideas about when exactly a child becomes an adult.
- Research suggests that most human brains take about 25 years to develop, though these rates can vary among men and women, and among individuals.
- Although the human brain matures in size during adolescence, important developments within the prefrontal cortex and other regions still take pace well into one's 20s.
- The findings raise complex ethical questions about the way our criminal justice systems punishes criminals in their late teens and early 20s.
Three scientists publish a paper proving that Mercury, not Venus, is the closest planet to Earth.
- Earth is the third planet from the Sun, so our closest neighbor must be planet two or four, right?
- Wrong! Neither Venus nor Mars is the right answer.
- Three scientists ran the numbers. In this YouTube video, one of them explains why our nearest neighbor is... Mercury!
A new method of growing mini-brains produces some startling results.
- Researchers find a new and inexpensive way to keep organoids growing for a year.
- Axons from the study's organoids attached themselves to embryonic mouse spinal cord cells.
- The mini-brains took control of muscles connected to the spinal cords.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.