A team in Leipzig, Germany has announced a rough draft of the Neandertal nuclear genome, which promises to tell us--eventually--a lot more not only about our closest evolutionary cousins but also about ourselves, modern humans. My Science colleague Elizabeth Pennisi has a long piece about the genome and its implications in this week's issue, with reporting by Ann Gibbons, and it's accompanied by a "Neandertal Primer" prepared by yours truly. These links require a subscription to Science or institutional access, but here are a few teasers, beginning with the first paragraph of Elizabeth's story:
A half a gram barely tips the postal scale. But from a Neandertal fossil, it's a whopping big chunk of priceless material. Yet Croatian geologist Ivan Gušić readily gave that up on the gamble that 38,000-year-old bones from a cave in northwestern Croatia might help provide a glimpse of the Neandertal genome. This week, researchers announced that Gušić's gamble paid off: They have gotten their first peek at 3 billion bases of Neandertal DNA, and the view, although still hazy, is spectacular. Paleogeneticist Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and his colleagues have compiled a very rough draft of this genome, they reported in a press conference in Leipzig and in a talk at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Science's publisher) in Chicago, Illinois, this week.
And here is one segment of my Neandertal primer, which tells you everything you wanted to know about Neandertals but were afraid to ask:
What did they look like? Neandertals were once portrayed as brutish creatures, but scientists now think they resembled modern humans in many ways. Indeed, the late anthropologist Carleton Coon once suggested that a Neandertal dressed in a suit and hat riding the New York City subway would go unnoticed. The next time you ride the subway, look for someone with a stocky, muscular body with short forearms and legs; a large head with bony brow ridges; a jutting face with a very big nose; and perhaps reddish hair and fair skin.
Finally, I have written a post for Science's Origins blog on whether or not Neandertals were artists; that you can read for free at this link.
Photo: Neandertal in front, modern human in back, display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York/Frank Franklin II / AP file
Cheating over Cheeta? An article by Scott Gold in the Los Angeles Times suggests that someone switched chimps. Read it and weep.