The first draft of the Neanderthal genome, published in 2010, came with some titillating news. It showed that some 50,000 years ago, these ancient hominids interbred with the ancestors of many modern humans. If you have European or Asian ancestry, an estimated 1 to 4 percent of your DNA came from Neanderthals.
On the off chance that your mind hasn’t gone there, allow me: Our ancestors, looking pretty much like we do today, had sex with the short, extremely muscular, big-nosed, big-browed, big-headed Neanderthals. Were the differences between the two species mostly physical, with sharedintellectual and cultural pursuits the subjects of their pillow talk? Or were Neanderthals violent, mute, and stupid, as so often depicted in popular culture? Or something in between?
Neanderthals almost certainly weren’t as brutish as assumed a century ago. Anthropologists now know that they used tools, made art, and may have talked. Still, nobody fully knows how their brains worked, or how their thinking was different from ours. The uncertainty is understandable considering the evidence. All scientists have to go on are the fossilized skulls the Neanderthals left behind.
Using a new and somewhat controversial (more on that later) method of analyzing these ancient skulls, scientists in England have proposed a theory about the structure of the Neanderthal brain. Although the brains of our ancestors and Neanderthals were about the same size, Neanderthals had larger brain areas related to vision and body control, according to a study out today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
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