Updated: Feb 7, 2021
In the core of anthropology, there lies one fundamental question: What makes us human?
To answer such a substantial inquiry, however, anthropologists needed to conduct thorough investigations, and thus, the long journey to uncovering the secrets of our primitive past began. As more and more research led to the discovery of prehistoric ancestors, new questions arose: Who were these predecessors, and how did they contribute to modern-day humans?
Studies ranging from the Great Apes to fossilized remains brought along many possibilities for answering these new questions, yet one particular species among the rest continued to intrigue anthropologists - The Neanderthals.
But why? Why were researchers so interested in this specific species?
Well, the Neanderthals were our closest human relatives. They maintained human characteristics in both the physical and psychological sense, which gave them advanced qualities and intelligence that remarkably correlate with us humans today. The significance of studying them was to gain a deeper understanding of what species gave way to some of our most basic features, which shockingly made the Neanderthals a perfect match.
Their knowledge of tool-making, fire starting, and food hunting all related to the foundational methods of survival that early Homo Sapiens also utilized. Thus, the Neanderthals became a probing topic of interest for the anthropological world because they were so advanced mentally. Through excavations, researchers discovered several archaeological sites containing the buried fossil remains of Neanderthal skeletons in resting positions, suggesting that they had the emotional capacity to bury and honor their dead.
Studying the Neanderthals was a great start to further our understanding of human origin because their fossils were so prevalent and contained promising fragments of preserved DNA. By using these components, anthropologists could understand how they survived and find out if there was any direct connection between their genetic makeup and ours.
Surprisingly, there was.
Studies found that all descendants with ancestry outside of the African region inherited around 2% of Neanderthal DNA. This was a result of interbreeding between the coexisting Neanderthal and Homo Sapien populations at the time. Inheriting such DNA has communicated both positive and negative feedback that leaves many individuals on the precipice of whether being a Neanderthal descendant is good or bad.
The Neanderthals were a group that constantly had to endure the ever-changing climates surrounding them, leaving only the most resilient to carry on the bloodline. Playing in the primate's favor, this meant that individuals genetically linked to them may also have the genes capable of adapting to different environments.
Contrarily, the Neanderthals lacked the genetic ability to fend off certain diseases. In the past, life was far simpler for them which meant the most likely possibility for their deaths was either starvation or predatory attacks. In other words, not illness. The population did not live long enough to develop genes that could fight against diseases, which is why the interbreeding they conducted with the existing Homo Sapiens produced offspring that were also unable to combat advanced sicknesses. Thus, those who contain part of Neanderthal DNA lack genes that can fight off the newly evolved illnesses of today's world and may be more greatly impacted by them as a result.
So that leaves us with one final question: Why did the Neanderthals grow extinct if they were so intelligent and had such adaptable DNA?
That is where the beauty of anthropology comes into play. There is no definite cause for the extinction of these primates, but researchers do speculate that it was because there was not a wide enough distribution of them. Paleontologists found the fossil of a female Neanderthal who exhibited many indications that she had been inbreeding with those in her community, a sign that her group's numbers were not large enough for her to create offspring unrelated to her kin.
Additionally, as new Homo Sapiens began inhabiting the limited territory that was available to them, the fight for resources and maintaining their numbers simultaneously became harder for the Neanderthals. Homo Sapiens had an edge over the Neanderthals in eating a diverse diet that was more readily available to them, while the Neanderthals survived on large, Ice Age mammals that eventually became extinct. This could have significantly led to the downfall of their population and wiped them out completely.
Though the Neanderthals are no longer a part of today's world, however, a piece of them still remains in many of us today.
So, what do you think? To Be or Not To Be Neanderthal?