Friday, November 09, 2007

Red-headed Neanderthals were like us, and now they're gone

The idea of Neanderthals with red hair and freckles is just plain charming. But it's also scary because it underscores the fact that Neanderthals were so much like us, and now they're gone.

Ever since their fossils were first discovered in 1829 (and later called "Neanderthal Man" by William King, who was part Irish, by the way), these hominids have been relegated to the status of cave men and women. Neanderthals were shorter and more muscular than the other humans living at the same time, had bigger noses and projecting brow ridges, and no chins. Not a pretty picture.

But these ancient fellow Europeans were also culturally sophisticated. They buried their dead, built shelters, made tools, used fire and hunted. The may have had language (DNA sequencing has also revealed they carried the FOXP2 gene which is linked to language ability). And they had brains 100 cubic centimeters larger than people today.

And so why have these interesting people been relegated to second-class citizen status?

Because they threaten us.

Neanderthals are chronologically the closest, and the most familiar, example that we have of our kind disappearing off the face of the Earth, and that means we can go too.