The one thing that is common to all people, no matter where they are coming from or how they see the world is the gene structure that defines each and every one of us. Due to our genes we are always defined as humans. But what makes humans human? An ordinary answer to that question would be manifold and include our ability to think, to talk and to reason. Our ability to produce things for use but also for pleasure, like music, make us human and in this regard great musicians, like Beethoven, Bach, or Mozart are even more human than certainly I ever will be. But there is another sense to this question. Why did we start out the way we did and why are we the way we are, as a race? Scientists, under the leadership of Dr. Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute Leipzig have this month presented their genetic research of Neanderthals. In a recent Science article they describe in detail the sequencing of the genomes and the associated findings. And contrary to held scientific belief, Neanderthals do not only have the same ancestors than homo sapiens, they are part of our ancestors as well. Almost every human being, excluding Africans, have Neanderthal DNA. The reasons why Africans are exempt are most probably because of timing. When the first homo sapiens left Africa, they encountered the Neanderthals and from there the story goes. But why are these findings so interesting and important for us? They are so important because we know so little about the Neanderthals and hence we have to realize that we even know less about us as a species. But the little we do know about our distant ancestors is quite interesting. Because they had a bigger size cranium than homo sapiens, they probably were better capable to survive. They were excellent hunters and did have the ability for speech, or so many scientists believe. By finding out so much more about them, and accepting that they are our ancestors and that a little bit of a Neanderthal is in each and every one of us, we might be able to find out more about ourselves and see clearer patterns of why we are the way we are. Maybe they even make us more unique!?
By Thomas W. Polger, University of Cincinnati
Vol.4, September 2009
New Developments in the Meaning of Life
By Thaddeus Metz, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
Vol.2, February 2007