The bombshell arrived with the May 7, 2010 issue of Science Magazine. Entitled "A Draft Sequence of the Neandertal Genome," it presented the years-long attempt of an international team of scientists to derive DNA from ancient female Neanderthal bones and determine if there was any genetic overlap with humans. The news was so sensational that the journal made the original scientific report and all collateral materials free to everyone, along with a podcast, multimedia presentation "The Neandertal Genome" and slew of links and forums for comments.
Read the original press release from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. It was embargoed for May 6, 2010, 8 p.m.
Svante Pääbo’s Neanderthal research group from left to right: Adrian Briggs, Hernán Burbano, Matthias Meyer, Anja Buchholz, Jesse Dabney, Kay Prüfer, Svante Pääbo, Janet Kelso, Tomislav Maričić, Qiaomei Fu, Udo Stenzel, Johannes Krause and Martin Kircher. (Copyright: Frank Vinken)
Discovered in a quarry in Germany in 1856, 40,000-year-old Neanderthal man became the first recognized early human fossil. The debate immediately began whether Neanderthals were a separate species or sub-species of Homo sapiens. German language orthographic reforms rendered the spelling of the name Neandertal in the twentieth century, although most people even today prefer to stick with the th of the original word. Neanderthals are named after the Neander Valley (German thal or tal) in which they first came to light.
More and more of them turned up over the years: in Belgium (1886), a nearly complete skeleton in southern France (1908), Israel (then-Palestine, 1930) and Iraq (1953). The first ambitious genetic work was a partial sequencing of their mitochondrial DNA based on highly degraded specimens: Krings et al., Cell 90, 19 (1997). A second mitDNA sequence was achieved in 2000. The complete mtDNA sequence came in 2008: Green et al., Cell 134, 416 (2008).
In the meantime, Neanderthals were found to have red hair and fair skin, body paint, customs, societies, rituals and art. They used fire, tools and weapons. They hunted bison, horses and other large animals and made bread of acorn meal. With their short arms and weak shoulder sockets, however, they probably could not throw spears. Before they were conquered by their smaller human cousins, they had colonized an area extending from Spain to Western Siberia and the Middle East. They were acclimated to northern Europe's icy temperatures and flourished especially before and during the last Ice Age. Then, suddenly, about 30,000 years ago, the fossil record goes silent. Their last holdout appears to have been in Spain.
Our picture of Neanderthals is likely to change radically now that we know they were among ancestors of ours, not a dead-end, primitive race. Some writers had already speculated, in fact, that Neanderthals were more advanced in many ways than their rivals, Cro-Magnon Man. Certainly, their religion was highly adumbrated. Some carried Venus figures on necklaces. According to the author of The Neanderthal's Necklace, Juan Luis Arsuaga (co-director of the World Heritage Site Sierra de Atapuerca in Spain), at one burial in Russia, a 60-year-old adult had 3,000 beads of drilled mammoth ivory sewn onto his clothes. A boy in the same burial wore a belt decorated with 250 arctic fox canines. There were also shells, armbands, head ornaments, bracelets, pendants, assegais, ceremonial staffs and other artifacts made of bone, antler, ivory and stone (p. 294).
The blockbuster draft of the Neanderthal genome just published noted genes linked to cognitive abilities, geo-spatial skills, language and motor coordination as well as strength, reproductive advantages and (what we knew already) cold adaptation. Much attention is likely to focus on the Neanderthal's signature occipital bun, noticed in isolated or vestigial populations like the Berbers, Saami, Canary Islands, Native Americans, Australian Aborigines and Melungeons. These populations probably preserved greater proportions of Neanderthal admixture than others.
Because the genetic legacy of Neanderthals (so far) has not been detected in the mitochondrial record, it is believed that gene flow came from males mating with human females. No male Neanderthal lines survive -- not surprisingly. Only autosomal DNA reveals the Neanderthal contribution to human populations.