Neanderthal man was one of our ancestors after all, a Portuguese archaeologist claims. DNA studies which claimed that Neanderthals were too genetically different to have been part of our family tree failed to take account of primate variability, and although there was a long period of separate development, the two human types came back together in Western Europe some 25,000 years ago.
A child's skeleton found in Portugal shows features of both Neanderthal and modern man, and is the result of interbreeding between the two sub-species Dr João Zilhão reports in Archaeology. This proves, he says, that "Neanderthals had not simply disappeared without descendants - they had been absorbed into the modern human groups that started to take over Iberia 30,000 years ago". The child was found at the back of a shallow cave at Lagar Velho, 85 miles north of Lisbon, at the end of 1998, and studies of the skeleton by the Neanderthal expert Dr Erik Trinkaus have been in progress ever since. Dr Trinkaus concluded that the child presented a mosaic of Neanderthal and modern features, with the former's short, robust limbs and compact body form and the latter's pointed chin and dentition.
"Body proportions are particularly important because they are genetically inherited and the basic patterns of body shape are already established at the foetal stage of development" Dr Zilhão says. "This makes it possible to compare the Lagar Velho child with not only children but adult skeletons from the same period".
Of the two possible ancestral populations, Neanderthals had compact, heat-saving arctic body proportions, while early modern human beings had tropical proportions, with long heat-dispersing limbs, betraying their relatively recent African evolutionary origin. Although modern humans had moved out of Africa more than 100,000 years ago, and probably much earlier than that, the Neanderthals' ancestors had been in the cold northern climes for much longer, and their body form had adapted.
Radiocarbon dating of the child showed that it was only 25,000 years old, a date which fitted in with the rituals carried out at burial, including the deposition of joints of meat and the presence of jewellery made from shells and teeth. Both are found commonly with anatomically-modern humans in the Upper Palaeolithic 40,000 years ago.
The late date, some 3,000 years after Neanderthals themselves had apparently become extinct in Western Europe "made it clear that the mosaic of anatomical features in the Lagar Velho child could not have been the result of a rare chance encounter of a Neanderthal mother and modern father, or vice versa: it had to represent a mixture of populations." Dr Zilhão says "Neanderthals had contributed to the gene pool of subsequent Upper Palaeolithic populations, and had to be continued among our ancestors: they were family."
These findings directly contradict the "African Eve" hypothesis currently accepted by many scientists, that all living humans descend only from people who moved out of Africa less than 100,000 years ago. This view was strongly supported by analysis of DNA from the original Neanderthal skeleton from Germany, which was so different from that of modern humans as to suggest two different species (The Times, July 11, 1997). A new study of African ape DNA counters this argument, Dr Zilhão says:
"Living and interbreeding chimpanzee populations are genetically more diverse than modern humans and Neanderthals put together. Modern humans are thus abnormally homogeneous, which is consistent with a recent "Out of Africa" origin but does not prove that Neanderthals were a separate species. Instead, it confirms what the bones tell us: Neanderthals were a geographically separated branch of humanity, who although they are now extinct, nevertheless contributed to our own gene pool. Although the word is now more often used as an insult, or to describe the appearance of a fearsome front-row forward, it reflects reality.
The interbreeding suggested by the Lagar Velho child shows that our early modern human ancestors "saw Neanderthals as fellow human beings" Dr Zilhão says. "If they were just people - perhaps a little funny looking, but people nonetheless - why should we persist in trying to put them into an entirely different category ?"