Sunday, 26 September 2010

Am I a Neanderthal?

reconstruction of a Neanderthal woman
Is autism a family heirloom from Neanderthal ancestors?

The  Neanderthal theory of Autism, Aspergers and ADHD is a fascinating one.  Essentially, it looks at broad differences between autistic and non-autistic populations, and whether they might not echo differences between Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis communities.  For instance, there's a correlation between autism and having a larger than usual head.  And Neanderthals apparently had big heads too.  That, they argue, suggests that autistic traits might be echoes of Neanderthal genetics.

On an emotional level, I quite like the idea of being part Neanderthal. Not a freak or a mistake, but a throwback to an earlier age, something not less than but different from entirely human, something rather special and unique.

Of course, just liking something doesn't make it true.

For a start, after so many millions of years and countless generations of people travelling and cross-pollinating across the globe, those tiny bits of non-sapiens DNA are going to be ground so fine and spread so far that many, many people will have a dose.  Far too many for it to qualify as some sort of exclusive club.  A little bit of genetic material can go a long way - one in every 200 men alive today is a descendent of Gengis Khan.  And he was just one bloke, not an entire species.

Then there's this research.  It backs up the concept of early Homo sapiens interbreeding with not just Neanderthals but Homo heidelbergensis as well.  Basically, early man seems to have been the duck of the primate world.  But, as the report says, there's been so much mixing since that "there is a little bit of Neanderthal leftover in almost all humans."