Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) have gotten a bad rap from Homo sapiens, the species that competed with them and eventually replaced them.
Named after the Neander Valley in Germany where their bones were first discovered, Neanderthals were ridiculed by Homo sapiens as mental defectives, who could barely walk or talk, and had no tools or weapons except for the stone clubs that they used to kill woolly mammoths and beat up their wives. All these are patently false; Neanderthals were moderately intelligent beings (though no Einstein) who buried their dead, cared for their sick, hunted large animals, used red pigment, and spoke. In The Neanderthals Rediscovered, authors Dimitra Papagianni and Michael A. Morse ask that we “show the Neanderthals some deserved respect.” This book goes a long way toward giving this species its due.
What does all this have to do with me? Let me explain. Apparently, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens did more than try to kill each other. They also mated and being related species, produced offspring. Modern DNA research allows us to prove this. I recently contacted 23andMe.com, a genomics and biotechnology company that provides a direct-to-consumer genetic testing service. I did so because I wanted to learn more about my ancestry. I send 23andMe a DNA sample and a few weeks later I went online to get my Ancestry Report. According to the Report, I am 78.8% Southern European (mainly Spanish or Portuguese); 5.4% Eastern European; 7.7% Western Asian & North African; 3.4% Indigenous American and 0.6% West African. There is nothing here that surprised me.
But there was more. In addition to my Ancestry Report, I also received a Neanderthal Report. According to 23andMe, I “have more Neanderthal DNA than 68% of other customers.” In other words, I “have less than 2% of Neanderthal DNA.” I “inherited a small amount of DNA from [my] Neanderthal ancestors. Out of the 7,462 variants we tested, we found 251 variants in [my] DNA that trace back to the Neanderthals. Altogether, [my] Neanderthal ancestry accounts for less than 2% of your DNA.” I “have Neanderthal DNA that may influence [my] traits.” Again, there is nothing alarming here.
As a man of mostly European descent, I should be descended from Neanderthals, the only human species that emerged in Europe. As Homo sapiens migrated from Africa, they encountered this native species; competed with them, mated with them, and eventually replaced them. But like birds who descended from “extinct” dinosaurs, many of us descend from “extinct” Neanderthals. Though this might make an interesting dinner conversation (and one interesting article) it is also something that I’m rather proud of.
Jesse Monteagudo is a freelance writer and journalist. He has been an active member of South Florida's LGBT community for more than four decades and has served in various community organizations.