I may be the last Neanderthal ...
No, no, no, I'm not THAT old. And I don't mean it in the sense of being some kind humanoid throw-back, someone unable to cope with modern times, either.
So, why do I think I might be the last Neanderthal?
I am a fair-skinned redhead who wears make-up and loves to chat!
Let's back up a few years ...
One bright spot in my Jr-Sr High School years was when my parents subscribed to the TimeLife Nature Library Series, a set of wonderfully illustrated books containing a wealth of scientific information. A new book would arrive regularly, to be eagerly devoured by the budding young mind. All were inspiring; in particular, "The Primates", "Early Man", "Evolution" and "The Universe" had the profound impact of setting me on a path that still continues ... an interest in all things anthropological.
Moving away from home after high school, I took those four books with me. They are still with me today, 40-yrs later, prominently displayed on my bookshelves. Having changed my ideology forever, they feel like my oldest friends, and they continue to inspire me to keep up with anthropological research.
Now comes this current article, accompanied by one of the original beloved TimeLife illustrations, suggesting that Neanderthals may have worn make-up and talked! For decades, anthropologists have wondered if Neanderthal's verbal abilities extended beyond basic grunts & hoots. A fossilized Neanderthal hyoidal throat bone (the U-shaped bone that supports the tongue muscles and is theoretically necessary for human speech) is still hotly debated. But as the 2-pg linked article suggests, it is possible that the decoration of Neanderthal bodies and faces with artful pigments might be interpreted as suggesting speech.
Another article from October last year suggests Neanderthals were redheads. DNA extracted from two 50K-yr old Neanderthal skulls suggest they sported red hair and fair skin when they lived in Europe.
Neanderthal fossils have been surfacing for about 150-yrs. Enough fossils have emerged to show their lineage branched off from ours about 500K yrs ago, in Africa.
Fossils show they were much stockier than we are, heavily boned & heavily muscled with prominent eyebrow ridges, all features that became even more pronounced as they adapted to the brutal conditions of Ice Age Eurasia. They left Africa for Europe and Asia via the Middle East about 400K yrs ago, while our immediate ancestors stayed in Africa until about 50K yrs ago when the ice age abated enough to allow another migration out.
Besides fossils, Neanderthals left behind sophisticated stone tools (believe me, as I learned in trying to knock out a few for my Sr Zoo term project, they were very skilled -- my pitiful attempts would barely carve store-bought T-Bone steaks), evidence of fire use and animal skin clothing (absolutely necessary for the ice age), and even some indication of caring for weak or injured companions (many severely injured individuals survived for years after their debilitating injuries), as well as spiritual rites surrounding the dead (flowers were discovered in one neanderthal grave site).
They apparently also left behind some DNA with the MC1R gene. In sun-baked Africa, there is huge evolutionary pressure to retain a certain version of this gene that promotes dark skin pigment. In Europe, variations of this gene would have allowed lighter-skinned people to more efficiently produce Vitamin D in the sun-starved Ice Ages. One variant of this gene leads to red hair and pale, freckled skin. It is this variant of the gene that we share with Neanderthals.Not many animals have red hair/fur. In the primate family, aside from some humans, there are orangutans and a rust-colored lemur. Among mammals, I can think of red foxes and red pandas (both of which have significant white areas), red deer and a few domestic dogs (both of which tend toward the reddish-brown), and possibly some extinct wooly mammoths (evidenced by bits found with a frozen Siberian baby mammoth). There are also some horses and cows with a reddish colored fur. Evolution does seem to use the gene responsible for this ginger coloration sparingly.
Another gene we share with Neanderthals (actually, we probably share about 99.5%), is the FOXP2 gene. A few yrs ago, geneticists discovered that people with a mutation in the FOXP2 gene suffer from a severe language deficit which prevents them from learning to speak. The newly examined Neanderthal DNA shows they share our version of the FOXP2 gene, the one that allows us to learn language. Facility with language is uniquely human.
Neanderthals went extinct roughly 25K yrs ago, after a considerable overlap with our species. "Went Extinct" is such a sanitized phrase. One can imagine the more mentally agile and socially advanced modern humans as they trekked out of Africa and encountered these primitive cousins. I don't think it is too wrong to presuppose a crafted, brutal genocidal conquest of the Neanderthal's territory, although in a mano-a-mano battle, the powerfully-built Neanderthal would've probably kicked the modern human's ass.
Anthropologists consider Neanderthals to have been members of the human family, but have found no evidence that they interbred with our ancestors. They are called an evolutionary dead-end. The fact that this flies in the face of known behavior of all humans who have found themselves in the historical position of conqueror has spurred many scientists to keep searching for vestigal Neanderthal genes that might prove such a link.
By now, you've probably guessed where I'm going. With all the evidence piling up, I am beginning to believe there may be a few Neanderthal genes still floating around in some of today's modern humans. These would be fair-skinned redheads who wear make-up and love to chat! Sadly, since I have no children, it will be up to other redheads to ensure that these traits do not go extinct. Redheads will need to keep producing redheaded talkative children who like to decorate their bodies and/or faces. Do it ... for science!