Friday, June 25, 2010

Neanderthals, Teeth, Us, and an Ongoing Puzzle

"When Humans and Neanderthals Split"
Human News, Discovery News (June 23, 2010)

"While DNA evidence suggests humans and Neanderthals mated way back when, the two groups did represent distinct species at the time. The question is: when did they last share a common ancestor?

"A new study on dental fossils indicates Neanderthals and our own species, Homo sapiens, shared a common ancestor at least one million years ago, which is more than 500,000 years earlier than previously thought.

"A million years is a drop in the evolutionary bucket, however, which perhaps helps to explain why we share so many features and behaviors in common with the red headed, meat loving, music producing Neanderthals...."

Before the Lemming opines about the article, a few items:
  • Neanderthal? Neandertal?
    • I've seen it spelled both ways, most often ending in "thal."
  • No rant about
    • Either
      • Ignorant religious people
      • Evil scientific people
      • Redheads
    • I've seen old family photos
      • I don't look quite like my recent ancestors
      • Change happens
      • I've written about this before
Neanderthals looked (a little) different from most of the folks in the central Minnesota town I live in. That shade of red, though, I've seen fairly often: no surprise, maybe, since I've lived much of my life in places where most folks' ancestors came from the same general parts of the world where Neanderthals lived.

Interestingly, I haven't read whether anybody's traced redheads back to Europe's Neanderthals.

The Discovery article's particularly interesting, for me, because it gives an opinion about how accurate identification of a hominid fossil is, based on teeth alone. Bottom line there is: with enough teeth, the individual's species can be identified with 100% accuracy.

Something that's not in the article is a discussion that was percolating a decade or so back, about just exactly what a "species" is.

Back when I was in school, one definition of a species was a set of animals that could interbreed. Then somebody started acting very human, and we got ligers and tigons. The Discovery article and others agree that Neanderthals are extinct, that they were a separate species - and that (most) Europeans have Neanderthal ancestors.

My guess is that the 'what is a species' discussion isn't over.

Back to the Discovery article: It's a pretty good look at one set of research that's nowhere near over (my opinion) into how people got to be the way we are today.

Right now, finding out about where, when, and how Neanderthals and our more obvious ancestors parted ways depends on finding at least one more skeleton in the closet. Or, rather, in the ground.

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