Thursday, July 27, 2006

Cavemen, Chimps and Us - Newsweek Technology

"It is the holy grail of human paleontology, a window on a crucial moment in our evolution. Last week scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Germany announced they would attempt to sequence the Neanderthal genome—the complete DNA of the closest known relative to modern humans, a species that disappeared from the Earth about 30,000 years ago. It is the next best thing to having a living Neanderthal for comparison—and, in theory, if you know all the genes, you could create living Neanderthals. Not that anyone has any plans to do that.

What would they be like? From their skeletons, we know they would be robust and barrel-chested, with a heavy jaw and brow; from their caves it appears they could use primitive tools and buried their dead. But they seem to have lacked modern humans' capacity for abstract thought; although they spread overland through the Middle East and Europe, they apparently never crossed a body of water they couldn't see across. Anthropologists are divided on whether they had language, and although they presumably were able to breed with Homo sapiens, there's no clear evidence they ever did. Even bringing them back to life wouldn't necessarily clear up the mystery of how and why, having lived in Europe for some 200,000 years, they failed to survive contact with modern humans, who began spreading into Europe 50,000 years ago. The most widely held theory is that our ancestors killed them off."

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