Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2749: THE NEANDERTHALS

by John H. Lienhard

Today, the Neanderthals. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Neanderthal Skeleton I get called a Neanderthal when people find I like college Football. Actually, I've grown a lot more interested as I've come to see what a supremely intellectual game football is. And, in a way, maybe that does make it a Neanderthal game.

You see, the Neanderthals were a smart lot. Their brains appear to've been larger than those of the modern humans that lived at the same time. And they could do everything their cousins could. They made significant tools, cooked food, buried their dead, created art, and had some idea of symbolism. The late Neanderthals used blade-making techniques that appear to've been ahead of their modern human cousins.

When I was a child we used to see those Ascent of Man charts. You know the ones -- a series of figures monkey, ape, crude cave man, Neanderthal, and finally the noble Cro-Magnon. That nice linearity was so compelling in its simplicity. Well, how much that's changed in the three generations I've been around to see it!

We now know that Neanderthals branched away from our homo erectus ancestors over a half million years ago. They were a form of human that spread in a wide swath from Spain to central Asia. Neanderthals were well suited to the cold. But then the weather began fluctuating. They died out in the Middle East by 50,000 years ago. They'd pretty well vanished in Europe 30,000 years ago, though some may've survived around Gibraltar for another few thousand years. We're not sure

So what killed them? Climate change? A super-volcano eruption. Competition with a new form of modern humans? Or did they interbreed with those modern humans?

Neanderthal DNA has now been mapped, and it shows that we're as much as four percent Neanderthal. That's if we're of European or Middle Eastern descent. The interbreeding seems to've largely taken place in the late days of the eastern Neanderthals. If we're of African descent, we have no Neanderthal tracks in our DNA.

So interbreeding certainly did occur. It has to be at least a part of the story. And it's a part that I like. Whatever the reason for the seeming absence of Neanderthals today, it tells us that they didn't die out entirely.

Exactly what happened remains under debate. But what is clear is that our ancestors diverged a long time ago and then at least some of the Neanderthal branch fed back into the genetic stream.

They were very strong and stood a little over five feet tall. They were about the same size as their modern human cousins, but with longer arms. And they differed genetically from one another in different places.

Still, advanced as they were, would they have been smart enough to play football? I doubt it. But then neither would I, or maybe even you. Still, our rocket engineering and poetry, football and physics, are served in some small part by Neanderthal DNA.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we are interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


The Internet has a great deal of good information on the Neanderthals and their technological accomplishments. See the Wikipedia article on Neanderthals and this New Scientist article on their DNA. A great deal more is available on line at this date. See also the Wikipedia article on the Divje Babe Flute, which might be a 43,000-year-old Neanderthal musical instrument. Both images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A Neanderthal blade
A Neanderthal spear point, the pointe levallois Beuzeville.

This episode was first aired on October 17, 2011



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2011 by John H. Lienhard.