Wednesday, August 31, 2011

good morning neanderthals

yeah, i'm talkin' about you neanderthals, that is, you real neanderthals who hung around on earth more than 30,000 years ago. you guys probably don't know this yet, but they're looking for you. that's right. scientists who study ancient DNA are on your trail in the neanderthal genome project and they know more about you than you would think—not as much as they'd like, but they're working on it. this is significant—learning about you could help us learn more about ourselves.

nobody has really given you much credit. you were not at all like us modern humans, so we distanced ourselves from you. you were odd looking. your chins receded, your foreheads sloped; your heads were huge and bulged out in the back. your hips were weirdly shaped. you were a tad short. people think you were all hairy, but no one really knows. you were not that creative and social networking was not your thing. (all that came after you were gone.) you might have been a wee bit dull but on the positive side, though, you were beefy, very strong and muscular—the ladies must have loved that.

so guess what? scientists now have an idea about what you were up to all those thousands of years ago. the breaking news is this: before we modern humans did you in (or you did yourselves in) and you became extinct, you slept in our beds, so to speak. (see, the ladies did love you guys—hope it was fun while it lasted.) a tiny percentage of some modern, non-african, DNA is neanderthal DNA. welcome to the family!

after you were gone (sorry about that) we modern humans carried on and a lot happened. we invented the wheel and worked on our social skills and began to like cooperating with other moderns. we put our heads together and engaged in collective problem solving. we still collaborate today, but perhaps we're not as good at it as we used to be? who knows.

then one day life as we knew it changed. we got an itch. a big itch. we walked to the edge of the sea and stood on the shore looking out at the vast ocean, then we scratched out heads and wondered. what were we wondering about? we wondered where all that water would take us. we wondered what was out there—if, indeed, there was anything out there—beyond the familiar mainland, islands and coastal waters where we made our home.

wasn't life good enough at home? weren't we happy hanging out and hunting with the guys? weren't we satisfied in the company of our women folk and children? or did we just get bored with it all?

something deep inside us changed. a spark of madness, a faustian restlessness, lit up our brains; we wanted more. we got creative and began to think outside the box. we started asking ourselves lots of questions. we decided to pursue the ocean and see where it would take us. (but first we needed to invent sturdy boats that could cross thousands of miles of open water.) off we sailed into no man's land. crazy, crazy, crazy. but now we know it wasn't so crazy after all. and after all these millennia we're still sailing uncharted waters, still searching, still pushing the boundaries of what we know—still restless.

in the end ancient modern humans, with bits of neanderthal mixed in, left nothing for humans today to go on to give us a clue about the beginning of your new thoughts, dreams, desires, ambitions, longings—nothing that speaks to us about how the spark, the madness, started.

except, maybe, for the small inkling we might learn from the trail of DNA resting in your bones.

and the excruciatingly tiny imprinted neanderthal messages you left inside us.

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