It’s one of the great themes of storytelling: We Are Not Alone.
All over the world – in literature, mythology, folklore – is the idea that humans share the Earth (the Universe) with some other sentient being or beings.
There are eversomany much more than six billion of us on the planet now. Some of us read – and write – stories where humans explore the depths of the Universe in search of intelligent life. Some of us follow religions that suggest we are the progeny of divine beings who walk amongst us. And some of us are exploring the inner workings of what makes us human – DNA, the chemical building blocks of life – to come up with some surprising answers.
Some of us, anyway.
For me, there’s something special about looking at another type of human being and knowing that, unlike mammoths, they did not die out at the end of the last Ice Age.
I’m Scottish, with the traditional features described by the Romans of the Picts. The notion that I’ve got the genetics of another species of humans in my blood, well, that’s just fascinating.
When I was studying prehistory back in the late 1980s none of this genetic information was available. Archaeologists speculated on the fate of the Neanderthals with only the physical evidence of bones, and stone tools, and their utter absence in the modern world, to guide their hypotheses.
Maybe we were more able to take advantage of the changing climate and food resources and simply pushed them into marginal areas where the food supplies were scarce, much like the early pastoral farmers of southern Africa did to the !Kung San.
Perhaps we fought wars with them over the north European plain, the differences between us not being great enough to permit both types of human to live in peace alongside one another (they wouldn’t be the first or last species on the planet to be eliminated by the ingenuity of Homo sapiens sapiens).
Or did we outbreed them, or hunt them into extinction? I don’t think we can truly say, except that if we are still 20% Neanderthal there was a lot more than hunting going on ;-).
I just wish the artists who make up reconstructions, or Photoshop images, let them smile a bit more often…
(Read more of the original report at Science magazine – click on the hyperlink or cut’n'paste http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2014/01/28/science.1245938 into your browser)