Monday, November 8, 2010

Growing Up Neanderthal: A New Look

"Human, Neanderthal Brains the Same Until Birth"
AFP, via Human News, Discovery News (November 8, 2010)

"The first year of life sparked dramatic differences in development that may have given humans an edge.

"The brains of Neanderthals and humans were similar at birth but developed differently in the first year of life, according to a German study published Monday in the United States.

"Brains of newborn human babies and Neanderthals, who became extinct about 28,000 years ago, were about the same size and appear almost identical at first, said the research which appeared in the journal Current Biology.

"But after birth and particularly during the first year of life the differences in development are stark, said lead author Phillipp Gunz of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany.

" 'There was a huge difference in the way they grew their brain compared to modern humans in the first one-and-a-half and two years,' Gunz told AFP.

"To compare the two brains, scientists assembled a virtual Neanderthal brain by scanning skull fragments and comparing the computer models at different stages of growth to the human baby brain...."

Since we don't (quite) have living Neanderthals to study, the only way to work out how Neanderthals' brains grew is to use indirect methods like this.

And, since the scientists have to make assumptions about how the virtual Neanderthal brain works, based on comparisons between fossil Neanderthal skulls and those of the folks living today - well, the Lemming's guess is that there are going to be a whole lot of papers published on the subject before there's a general agreement.

Which is the way things work.

Aside from working out how Neanderthals grew after birth, it looks like we're still working out how smart they were - and how they were smart. I've seen the tide come and go a couple times now, about just who it was who created most of those cave paintings.

The Lemming's opinion is that somebody did - and that we may, possibly, figure out who. Given time, more evidence, and a whole lot of research.

About the virtual Neanderthal brain: the implication is that there are enough Neanderthal skulls, of people who died at different ages, to work out a plausible pattern of growth for that branch of humanity. Which brings up an objection to the idea of evolution.

The Lemming's read and heard arguments that human evolution can't have happened because there isn't any evidence - and even if there is, there isn't very much. That argument had some merit. Around the beginning of the 20th century. There hadn't been all that many fossils found - and some, like the infamous Piltdown man, were ersatz. Nearly a century later: well, paleontologists have found more physical evidence, and jettisoned some of the Victorian-era silliness that - in the Lemming's opinion - didn't help their credibility. And that's another topic. Several, actually.

Back to Neanderthals, Brains, DNA, and the Family Tree

The article wound up with a look at brains, intelligence, and why the Lemming said we don't (quite) have living Neanderthals to study:

"...'The interesting thing is within modern humans, the size of the brain correlates only very weakly with any measure of intelligence,' he said. 'It's more the internal structure of the brain that is important.'

" 'And the Neanderthal, they were smart because they had a huge brain,' he [lead author, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany's Phillipp Gunz] added, 'but we think that internal structures must have been different because they grew differently, so we don't think the Neanderthal saw the world as we do.'..."

"...In May a landmark genome analysis determined that humans most likely interbred with Neanderthals, and that as much as four percent of the modern human genome seems to be from Neanderthals."

The Lemming posted about that May genome analysis when it hit the news. (May 7, 2010) I'm not terribly surprised to learn that up to maybe 4% of my DNA is Neanderthal. Like I said then, "I don't look very much like a Neanderthal, myself: but I don't look like my Campbell forebears, either. My branch of the clan lost the 'wry mouth' that gave us our name several generations back. Change happens."

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