Monday, July 13, 2009

The Suburban Zoo

If the Neanderthals were here today, they would certainly be different from us. Would we experience racism against Neanderthals much worse than the racism we experience today amongst ourselves? What if they were only a bit different from us, but similar in many ways in terms of language, technology, social groups? Would we still have this enormous division that we make today between humans and non-humans? Between animals and ourselves? Would we still have distanced ourselves from animals and made this dichotomy that is so strong in our thinking today? These things we will never know, right? But they are fascinating things to thnk about.
We are now in the process of analyzing the Neanderthal genome, putting together all the little DNA pieces we have extracted from the sequence of this fossil and starting to compare it to humans and chimps. One question that we are struggling with and thinking about is, What is the relationship of the Neanderthals to us?
We try to address that in different ways. One thing that we're beginning to see is that we are extremely closely related to the Neanderthals. They're our relatives. In a way, they're like a human ancestor 300,000 years ago. Which is something that leads you to think: what about the Neanderthals? What if they had survived a little longer and were with us today? After all, they disappeared only around 30,000 years ago, or, 2,000 generations ago. Had they survived, where would they be today? Would they be in a zoo? Or would they live in suburbia? These are the questions I like to think about.(Read more in Edge)
SVANTE PÄÄBO, the founder of the field of ancient DNA, is Director, Department of Genetics, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig. In 2007 Time Magazine named him one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.
(more on the blog)

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