VigneMale mountains, Pyrenees
By Alaidesc (Own work) | GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0 | Wikimedia Commons

We are on vacation in the Pyrenees. It could also be called God’s Country—it doesn’t really matter which god, just a deity of some kind to whom you attribute the creation of beautiful things.

As I walk up the trail leading to the awesome north face of the VigneMale mountain, my thoughts wander 15,000 years back. It was in this region, after all, that the last colonies of Neanderthals survived the great extinction that befell them as our species, Homo sapiens, spread across Europe.

In a word, the Neanderthals were our distant cousins. About a million years ago, our ancestral species, Homo erectus, migrated out of Africa and colonized most of the world. Amazing, coming to think of it, considering their primitive brain, their only “recently” acquired erect bipedal locomotion and their quite pedestrian mode of transportation.

Then, about 250,000 years ago, a new species made its debut on the European stage; Homo erectus gave rise to a much more advanced species: the Neanderthals (discovered first in the Neander Valley in Germany). They lived in bands, were cave dwellers, and were hunter-gatherers. Recently, excavations of Neanderthal cave dwellings revealed that they, like us, made tools and ornaments. So, these were not just a bunch of primitive troglodytes, as is commonly believed—ornaments are an art form, and art connotes culture.

Why, or who, caused the extinction?

The complete answer is still not in, but it’s on the way. Professor Svante Pääbo, a Swede working at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, is in the process of sequencing the nuclear DNA obtained from a few nanograms (that’s a few billionths of a gram) of a 40,000years old Neanderthal DNA. To make this feat even more incredible, consider this: Only 1-2% of that DNA is truly of Neanderthal origin; the rest is DNA from bacteria and human handlers.

Although the complete data have not been published yet (the complete DNA sequence will probably be ready for publication in a year), some information is already becoming available. For instance, it is highly unlikely that the Neanderthals were simply a subspecies of Homo sapiens, or that they interbred with humans. If that were the case, their signature would have survived in the form of a few Neanderthal genes as part of our genome—but none have been found.

The answer to the most fascinating question of all, who or what caused the demise of the Neanderthals, is promising to be also instructive beyond the boundaries of our curiosity regarding our long-lost cousins. There is no evidence of mass slaughter, or using modern terminology, of genocide of Neanderthals by our forebears. It appears that Homo sapiens simply competed more successfully for the same resources. What gave them this advantage was communication.

The gene that plays a critical role in the development of language is called FOXP2. (You didn’t think you were going to get through this without a little biochemistry, did you??) This gene allowed us to develop complex language, share information of a high level, exchange ideas, and impart wisdom. In chimpanzees, and most likely in the Neanderthals, this gene is less developed, allowing only grunts and cries that serve to communicate on the most rudimentary level. So, there you have it. It is our ability to communicate with each other that made us human, and allowed us to survive and compete successfully as a species.

As I gaze admiringly at Lac Noir with its beautiful dark blue waters, I wonder if 15,000 years ago, one of the last Neanderthals was sitting on the same rocky beach, perhaps admiring the same lake, deep in despairing thoughts about the dwindling numbers of his cohorts. Did he (or she) have the capacity to wonder what was going to happen to his species? Was there anything that could have prevented their demise? And are there lessons that we, the winners of the Neanderthal vs Homo sapiens Survival episode, can apply to the challenges of today?

Communication apparently was a key to our survival advantage—thanks to the wonderful evolutionary gift of FOXP2. But, I wonder, have we turned our communication skills into weapons that we now use to turn tribes of Homo sapiens against each other? I certainly hope not.

Being here in the majestic Pyrenees with their magical lakes and fields of flowers (and, by the way, limited news and internet), simply does not allow such grim thoughts, despite what happened here 15,000 years ago to a different, but remarkably similar, species.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.