- Scientific name: Homo neanderthalensis
- Epoch: 400 to 40 kya
- Conservation status: Extinct
- Cause of extinction: Humans
- Fun fact: Neanderthals often had larger brains than ours!
Additional source: Smithsonian
Image source: The Human Journey
Neanderthals are our closest relative, and they also happen to be extinct. Nearing the end of the book, Kolbert turns her attention back to humanity. Specifically, she is curious to know what makes our kind different. The answer, as hypothesized by many, is it is our tendency for exploration and improvement. Neanderthals existed for hundreds of thousands of years and remained for the most part in the exact same region of the globe. Humans on the other hand set out to every corner of the world, many times in the face of daunting odds. Think about the number of voyages were unsuccessful before we found Easter Island. What prompted us to strike out time and time again, just as we now seek to reach Mars? Some think that it might be able to be seen in our DNA, and seek to reconstruct the Neanderthal genome so to compare it to ours and find the so-called “Madness Gene.”
But I think that there is another message that Kolbert might not have intended. The Neanderthals, our closest taxonomic relatives, were not exempt from the world-altering impact of the advent of humans. When modern humans arrived on the seen, we outcompeted the Neanderthals and even jnterbred with them. For as evolutionarily advanced as the Neanderthals were, not even they were spared extinction brought about by their far more enterprising human cousins. The real question is can we manage to spare ourselves?