Friday, May 7, 2010

Our brother Neanderthal

For years, conventional wisdom among biologists has been that modern humans and the Neanderthal people evolved along separate branches of the hominid tree and that they did not interbreed. Now a set of researchers has presented evidence that this theory of human evolution was all wrong, that in fact there was interbreeding.

Their research on the Neanderthal genome, about 60 percent of which has been recovered, indicates that 1 percent to 4 percent of the genome of modern non-Africans was derived from the Neanderthals. This does not necessarily indicate a strong and consistent blending of the two strains, but it seems certain that there was some at least intermittent intermingling, even though the Neanderthal influence does not seem to have played a significant role in the evolution of modern humans.

Back in the 1980s, writer Jean Auel had something of a literary sensation with her "Earth's Children" series of books. The first book, The Clan of the Cave Bear, introduced Ayla, a Cro-Magnon orphan who was adopted by a tribe of Neanderthals and raised by them. Ayla later became pregnant by a rather brutal member of the tribe and produced a son, Durc, who was half Cro-Magnon, half Neanderthal. It seems that Auel's imagined history might not have been so far off the mark after all.

Four other books succeeded The Clan of the Cave Bear and followed Ayla as she grew up and found love among "The Others" as the Neanderthals referred to the Cro-Magnons. Auel is now allegedly working on a sixth novel in the series. The timing seems very fortuitous for the release of such a book. The news from the researchers on the Neanderthal genome would seem to create more interest in the subject and to have the potential to boost sales of the book. I smell another bestseller in the making.

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