Science

What if Neanderthals weren’t extinct?

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Discovered in 1856, Neanderthals are an extinct species of the genus Homo, which lived in Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia, until 40,000 years ago. But if they were to live among us again, what would this coexistence be like? Neanderthals have a common ancestor with Denisovans, who share an ancestor with modern humans. Therefore, we share with them some characteristics. However, would they manage to survive today?

Neanderthal DNA is 99.7% identical to ours, and researchers say that some humans can have up to 3% of their genome. But from the point of view of physical appearance, the differences are obvious: Neanderthals were often very massive and robust (90 kg by 1.65 m on average for males); its small size and shorter limbs, which reduce heat loss, were ideally suited to the cold climates of the last ice age.

They also had larger nasal cavities, in order to inhale as much air as possible to satisfy their greater energy needs (due to their constitution and their activity as hunters). Their skulls were more elongated and included a supraorbital crest; their brains were larger than those of modern humans, which would have allowed them to communicate with each other. In spite of everything, they were very far from the cognitive capacities of Homo sapiens; In 2010, researchers even hypothesized that this cognitive inferiority was the cause of their extinction. Could they find their place in our modern society?

A coexistence that ended badly

There are an estimated 8.7 million species of eukaryotes living on Earth, including 2.2 million marine species. Millions of different species of animals, fungi and plants coexist on our planet. But we are currently the only species in the genus Homo. What if the Neanderthals came back to us?

Despite their clear physical differences, such as being shorter and having a longer skull, we may eventually have some similarities with them when it comes to behavior. To begin with, they settle in family communities and show altruism (they care for the sick and the elderly). If for a long time they were believed to be exclusively carnivores, recent studies suggest that their diet was quite diverse, in keeping with their hunter-gatherer behavior; Thanks to their mastery of fire, they even cooked vegetables!

They practiced the art and also made sophisticated tools that would have been used in a variety of situations, from hunting to shipbuilding; experts have found evidence to suggest that some tools had a handle. Furthermore, Neanderthals are the first to establish funeral rites and burials, as evidenced by the bones of a child dating back 40,000 years, found at the La Ferrassie site. More recently, researchers found that Neanderthals’ abilities were able to listen and produce a form of oral communication similar to that of Homo sapiens.

In short, a growing body of evidence shows that Neanderthals weren’t all that archaic. In a way, they were a “beta” version of modern man. It turns out that they even coexisted for about 5,000 years with Homo sapiens, in Europe: modern Eurasians have between 1 and 3% Neanderthal DNA in their genome. One of the hypotheses put forward to explain their disappearance is also linked to this “coexistence”: the two genders competed to occupy the land and exploit food resources. However, Homo sapiens quickly outnumbered Neanderthals and some specialists believe that the latter might even have been wiped out during violent conflicts between the two peoples.

An unlikely adaptation to modern society

What if they had never completely become extinct? What if they somehow evolved as a species other than ours? Despite their communication and craft skills, natural selection has already shown that we are far superior to them. Otherwise, we would undoubtedly have inherited a greater proportion of its genome.

Fortunately, we get away with it, because the few genes they passed on to us are not always beneficial: while some influence the skin and hair characteristics of modern humans, others are associated with genes that affect type 2 diabetes, the disease Crohn’s, lupus, bile ducts. cirrhosis and smoking! More recently, some inherited genomic regions from Neanderthals have been shown to reduce the risk of developing a severe form of COVID-19, while others, on the contrary, are associated with severe forms of the disease.

Either way, due to their genetic profile and low cognitive ability, their chances of surviving among us are slim: if the first modern humans had not wiped them out, Neanderthals would probably have become ‘second-class citizens’.’ – as a species animal, which Man has always considered beings inferior to him.

The limits of their intelligence would undoubtedly prevent them from fully integrating into modern society. In addition, our “needs” are too far from the primary needs that their only objective was to satisfy. However, would their differences lead them to establish their own communities in order to exist independently of our developing society?

It is difficult to predict exactly how a species that became extinct about 30,000 years ago would behave today. But thanks to the remains of a Neanderthal woman found in the Vindija cave in present-day Croatia, scientists have managed to almost completely sequence her DNA. Therefore, today they have enough genetic data to be able to artificially recreate a Neanderthal being, at least in theory.

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