Friday, February 13, 2009

Mapping Our Cousins

Now this is fascinating: Scientists are actually mapping the genome of Neanderthal man and have about 60% done so far. I have always wanted to know who these guys were. They lived side by side with us for thousands of years, could talk (not just grunt), did art, and buried their dead with artifacts that indicate they believed in an afterlife.

And frankly they look like some people I know.

The Bible preserves an ancient snippet in the Book of Genesis about a mysterious people called "Nephilim:"

The Nephilim were on the earth in those days (and also after this) when the 'sons of the gods' were having sexual relations with the daughters of humankind, who gave birth to their children. They were the mighty heroes of old, the famous men.
(Genesis, chapter 6 verse 4)

These Nephilim are mentioned in other ancient documents outside the Bible. Nobody is even sure what the name means but they are always portrayed as scary, powerfully-built people that you don't want to get in a fight with. And they're connected with the Rephaim, which means "the long dead ones." I know Neanderthals supposedly died off 30,000 years ago but I've always wondered if the Nephalim were a dim memory of them.

Right now experts say there's no evidence that the Neanderthals ever interbred with us. But I wonder: "breeding" is one of the things we do best. Even if they don't find any evidence in the DNA from this one Croation cave, I'd think they need to sample other times and locations to be sure.

As suspiciously happens in many areas of study, there are lots of theories on the fate of Neanderthals that bolster our modern concerns: They overhunted their food supply, they ravaged the ecology, they exterminated each other in wars. But I've always thought that the likliest reason they disappeared is that they blended in with us. And there have been some skeletons found lately that seem to be a Neanderthal/Homo Sapien cross.

At any rate I'm really interested in what they find out about Neanderthal genes.


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Photo courtesy of Anthropological Institute, University of Z├╝rich

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