neanderthal code

The historical documentary series continues with this look at efforts to crack the Neanderthal genome. Neanderthals are the closest relative to the modern human, and scientists are keen to discover whether they once interbred with our distant ancestors. This film follows researchers around the world as they bid to crack the Neanderthal code and solve an evolutionary mystery, while dramatic reconstructions bring the world of ancient humans to life.

Neanderthals were humans that dominated Europe for a quarter of a million years and then mysteriously became extinct. They are the closest relatives to modern humans – and the most misunderstood. Once dismissed as backward brutes, experts now want to know whether Neanderthals interbred with our ancestors, thus making all modern humans part Neanderthal.

For 150 years, archaeologists have examined Neanderthal bones from every angle. Now scientists are attempting one of the most ambitious genetic projects ever – to sequence the genome of a species that has been extinct for 30,000 years. If successful, the results could reveal not just who the Neanderthals really were, but whether their genes live on inside modern men and women.

This evolutionary detective story travels to key sites across Europe, meets the world’s leading experts and follows the painstaking progress of the genetic sequencing. The film uses dramatic reconstructions to recreate the Neanderthal world as never before, including their interactions with homo sapiens – or modern humans. These two species co-existed for several thousands years before the Neanderthals died out, leaving homo sapiens as the only living humans. For the last 20 years, conventional wisdom has held that all modern humans were descended from a woman who lived in Africa 200,000 years ago and that there was no interbreeding with other ancient humans – dubbed the ‘Out of Africa’ theory. But recently this orthodoxy has been challenged by several fossil finds that show hybrid features – part-modern human, part-Neanderthal.

The Neanderthal Genome Project began in 2005 when bones from all over Europe were sent to the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany for DNA extraction. Scientists needed to separate the true Neanderthal DNA from DNA belonging to bacteria and animals – as well as from the archaeologists who excavated the bones in the first place. They could only achieve this with the help of a technological breakthrough that made DNA sequencing 100 times faster than before.

By autumn 2007, the project had produced its first significant result with the sequencing of a gene related to pigmentation and hair colour. This gene is found in both humans and Neanderthals, and represented the first piece of evidence garnered from genes rather than fossils. But intriguingly, the Neanderthal version of the gene is subtly different from the human version, and does not indicate interbreeding.

Then scientists discovered a second Neanderthal gene that pointed to a rather different conclusion. Not only is it exactly the same as in modern humans, suggesting that it jumped between the species, but it is also a gene connected with language – the ability most closely associated with being human.

For some scientists there is now clear evidence of interbreeding from both fossils and genes. They argue that this mixing of species could have been crucial to human development, allowing new adaptations and combinations. For many others, however, the findings are still too new and incomplete. Either way, scientists are now more interested in emphasizing the similarities between modern humans and Neanderthals than the differences. And, as the Neanderthal Genome Project continues, it is hoped that it may finally explain the fate of the Neanderthals.

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