Talking About Our Evolution
by John J. Miller
Neanderthals are not our ancestors. So said the headlines in July 1997, shortly after German scientists analyzed the DNA found in Neanderthal remains and compared it to the genes of modern people all over the world. Although this information is too recent to have found its way into any of the recent books on human evolution, a number of titles released over the past year provide excellent introductions to this constantly changing and highly controversial subject.
For decades many anthropologists believed that the Neanderthals, who lived mainly in Europe and in parts of the Middle East, had merged with the Homo sapiens living in these places. The Neanderthals, after all, were remarkably advanced, despite their reputation in popular culture for being, well, a bunch of simple-minded Neanderthals. Their brains were actually a bit larger than ours, although it's impossible to say whether this means that they were a bit smarter than us, too.
For many years it seemed plausible, judging from the fossil record, that they were part of some prehistoric melting pot that gave rise to modern man, but now sophisticated genetic research makes it increasingly apparent that this wasn't the case. Climatic changes at the end of the ice age may have forced the Neanderthals into extinction or--here's a somewhat unpleasant thought--Homo sapiens may have driven them into the void through a combination of superior technology and brute force.
These new revelations about Neanderthal DNA have mostly vindicated the work of Christopher Stringer and a few others who have been saying for most of their professional lives that Neanderthals don't belong in our family tree. But the debate is far from closed. At least one leading anthropologist, the University of Michigan's Milford Wolpoff, continues to argue for fusion and routinely challenges Stringer and his colleagues with evidence that they cannot easily refute. In short, we are currently at a fascinating moment in our understanding of human evolution.
John Miller is a political correspondent for National Review and the author of The Unmaking of Americans: How Multiculturalism Has Undermined the Assimilation Ethic (Free Press).
Exodus : The Origins of Modern Humanity by Christopher Stringer, Robin McKie
Race and Human Evolution : A Fatal Attraction by Rachel Caspari (Contributor), Milford H. Wolpoff
From Lucy to Language by Blake Edgar, et al
The Neandertals : Of Skeletons, Scientists, and Scandal by Erik Trinkaus, et al
Almost Adam by Petru Popescu
The Human Nature Review © Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM