Darwin Day Event: Bones, Stones & DNA

Hosted by: Halton Peel Humanist Community Group

New Perspectives on the Neanderthals 

by Dr. Bence Viola of the Max-Planck-Institute

Published in 1859, Darwin's "Origin of Species" started the largest paradigm change in the history of biology. Darwin understood the importance of his theory for the origin of humanity, closing one of the last paragraphs of his book with the sentence "Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.". This came true sooner than expected, it was recognized in 1861 that bones found a few years before in the Neander Valley in Germany derived from an extinct human species, now known as Neanderthals.

New fieldwork and methodological breakthroughs over the last years led to several major changes in our understanding of the Neanderthals. The discovery that they produced ornaments from bird claws and feathers shows that their behaviour was more similar to ours than we thought; and the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome revealed that all people outside of Africa still carry a small amount of Neanderthal DNA in them. These genes from the Neanderthals (and their sister group, the Denisovans)  were important - they allowed the modern humans immigrating into Eurasia to adapt to new pathogens and also to life at high altitudes in the Himalayas. In this talk, I will briefly show how these discoveries changed not only how we see the Neanderthals, but also ourselves.