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The Neanderthals deserve respect Add to ...

The pejorative use of the word "Neanderthal" should be banished, now that a study in the journal Science has concluded that most modern human beings have a Neanderthal inheritance, in about 1 to 4 per cent of their genome.

There is little reason to dismiss Neanderthals as particularly uncouth. Nor as they simply obsolete, considering that they now appear to constitute a small but significant minority inside the genetic makeup of everyone who has ancestors from Eurasia or the Americas. Only those whose ancestry is strictly African seem to be purely homo sapiens sapiens. Apparently, there was some intermarriage - or perhaps just fleeting liaisons - when some modern humans left Africa, finding their way into the Middle East.

Interestingly, the study's comparisons of the human and Neanderthal genomes found that some regions of the exclusively human genetic makeup, not found in Neanderthals, are connected to some afflictions such as schizophrenia, autism and Down syndrome - which may suggest that these cognitive impairments are somehow associated with evolutionary advantages. "It may thus be," say the authors unsettlingly, "that multiple genes involved in cognitive development were positively selected during the early history of modern humans." In other words, progress can come at a severe cost.

There is evidence that the Neanderthals made visual art. From their bone structure, it appears they could have used language and made and heard music. Their cranial capacity was about equal to humans'. Flower pollen at a burial site suggests either funeral rituals or herbal medicine. They may have looked after their old people and those among them who had been injured. If they practised cannibalism, so did homo sapiens.

It turns out that the Neanderthals have never left; they are with us and in us.

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