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[CBC Radio One]

Science FACTion

Neanderthals are a Separate Species

Copyright © 2003 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

Nebula Award-winning science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer writes and presents a weekly science column for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's CBC Radio One.

The columns, which have the umbrella title Science FACTION: Commentaries from the Cutting Edge of Science, are produced by Barbara Saxberg in Toronto, and syndicated to local CBC Radio stations across Canada.

Recorded 23 June 2003

Host: Ever call somebody a Neanderthal? It's a common insult, but, until recently, we thought it also might have had a grain of truth in it. Now we know better. Here's science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer with the lowdown on our extinct cousins.

Music: Opening strains of The Flintstones:

    Flintstones, meet the Flintstones
    They're the modern stone-age family ...

Robert J. Sawyer: It's been called the biggest question in anthropology: what happened to the Neanderthals? Those burly, browridged relatives of ours disappeared from the fossil record about 30,000 years ago.

Some say they went extinct, pushed that way by us — modern Homo sapiens, which was already around back then. Others say we interbred with them, and so rather than dying out, we absorbed their genes into our own gene pool — meaning that we all have a little Neanderthal in us.

The key, as to so many problems these days, is DNA — just how different is the Neanderthal genetic code from our own? A few years ago, we finally recovered some Neanderthal DNA, and, of course it was promptly compared to ours. The results showed that Neanderthal DNA was quite different from the stuff we have. Sounds like conclusive proof that we and Neanderthals aren't closely related, doesn't it?

But no, it wasn't proof of that at all. As Milford Wolpoff, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan, and many other anthropologists pointed out, all that had been done was comparing ancient apples with modern oranges. That is, testing DNA from Neanderthals that were many tens of thousands of years old against that of people living today was pointless. The real test should be comparing Neanderthal DNA to that of ancient Homo sapiens — our undisputed ancestors who lived at the same time as the Neanderthals. Until such a test was done, the jury could remain out.

Music: Jurassic Park theme

Unfortunately, doing that test was easier said than done. Despite what we all think we know from Jurassic Park, it's actually very difficult to recover ancient DNA, and it was only this year that we managed to get samples of old Homo sapiens DNA that could be matched up to the snippets of Neanderthal DNA that we'd previously recovered.

And so, the comparisons were done again — and guess what? Ancient Homo sapiens had DNA virtually indistinguishable from our own, but Neanderthals had DNA radically different from that not only of those of us alive today, but of our ancestors who lived alongside the Neanderthals. Although Wolpoff continues to fight on, the conclusion seems inescapable: if we ever did interbreed with Neanderthals, no fertile offspring was produced — meaning Neanderthals contributed nothing to our gene pool. They're dead and gone.

The stakes in this debate aren't just academic reputations. They're also the guilt or innocence of Homo sapiens. See, the Neanderthals were already widespread in Europe when we came into that continent from Africa. If Wolpoff had been right, we'd made love with our new neighbours; sadly, though, it seems quite probable we made war instead. At the very least, we deprived the Neanderthals of the resources they needed to live, and it's likely that we actually killed them off — meaning yet another murder case has been solved, thanks to DNA.

I'm Robert J. Sawyer.

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Rob's novels Hominids, Humans, and Hybrids, which also deal with Neanderthals

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