Thursday, October 19, 2006

Neanderthal update Bending the Branches
Most people think of humans as the top, the apex of the family tree. But new research suggests this quintessentially human infatuation with ourselves may have impaired our judgment. Erik Trinkaus, a paleontologist and Neandertal expert at Washington University in St. Louis, believes that modern human features are unusual enough, compared with ancestral members of the genus Homo, to make us a side branch of the family tree. Neanderthals have generally been seen as evolutionary outcasts, but through comparisons and analyses of unique and shared traits, published in the August issue of Current Anthropology, Trinkaus concludes that modern humans are morphologically more divergent from ancestral humans than Neanderthals. This leads to the question, then: Why are modern humans so different? ARCHAEOLOGY spoke with Trinkaus about his research and its implications concerning the ongoing story of human evolution.

I'm still not sure about this whole business. The idea of evolution as an inverted bush rather than a tree -- meaning every species is a "side" branch -- seems a bit at odds with the characterization that H.s. is supposed to be thought of as some sort of pinnacle or end point. The bit about primitive and derived characters is certainly a common one in non-hominid evolution, so that's certainly worthwhile.