A Bit of Neanderthal in Us All?

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Specialists in human evolution have pretty well established that early modern Homo sapiens and the brawny, thick-skulled creatures we know as Neanderthals coexisted in parts of Europe for thousands of years, at the very least. It's also clear that the Neanderthals aren't here anymore (despite how you might feel about your brother-in-law). What is not clear, however, is what happened to them. Did our forebears wipe out the Neanderthals in an act of prehistoric genocide? Or did we interbreed with our evolutionary cousins until their genes were diluted beyond recognition?

Now comes the first hard evidence to address the question. Our ancestors, it suggests, made love, not war. Archaeologists in Portugal have stumbled onto a 24,500-year-old skeleton that has a mix of modern and Neanderthal features. The bones, which belong to a four-year-old child, had been carefully buried. They had been stained with red ocher and interred with a pierced marine shell lying next to the child's neck--typical features of Upper Paleolithic burials found throughout Europe.

What was striking was the shape of the bones. While the child's chin, jaw and arm bones resembled those of early Homo sapiens, the stocky torso and short legs were, to the scientists' astonishment, Neanderthal-like. This mixing of the races might have been a one-time thing--except that this child lived 3,000 to 4,000 years after these populations first began sharing the Iberian Peninsula. Says Erik Trinkaus, a Washington University paleoanthropologist who is a consultant for the project: "This is not one Neanderthal and one modern human making whoopee in the bushes."

The real message, Trinkaus believes, is that to people living in the Stone Age, Neanderthals were just another tribe. "They may have had heavier brows or broader noses or stockier builds, but behaviorally, socially and reproductively they were all just people."