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Question Your World: How Did We Become Who We Are?

As we move into the future with more powerful technology and a better understanding of the past we are starting to piece together the past as accurately as possible. Our origins have fascinated us for nearly all of recorded history and continue to do so today. With this better understanding we can finally start to answer some of the big questions about our existence on Earth as the dominant species. So, how did we become who we are? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to find out.

One of humanity's oldest interests has been piecing together our past. History books and documentaries filled with our past are a result of many years of dedicated work from professionals that want to better understand our lineage and pass that information along to the next generation. However, sometimes those established facts have to be rewritten when newer research challenges the previous understandings. That is exactly what an international team of geneticists are thinking about as they are blazing new trails in the field of evolutionary biology. Their work of mapping the genome of Neanderthals has raised some interesting questions about some established facts while also bringing up some never before asked questions.

In 2006 two research teams, from 454 Life Sciences and the Max Plank Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, started to map the Neanderthal genome. Using the fossils available and computing the billions of lines of genetic code they were able to conclude that 99.7% of the base pairs of DNA were identical between Neanderthals and modern humans. Based upon the 2006 research, another team of scientists have looked at the distribution of DNA sequences throughout time and have published that 20% of the Neanderthal genome remains in modern humans. Considering population rates the quantity of matching pairs would have been greater in the past before being diluted through breeding patters over the years. This is the most up to date information available on the genetic compatibility over us and the other intelligent hominid that once existed on Earth.

While doing this research the questions about our origins were brought to center stage. The fact that we share such a strong amount of genetic similarities seems to infer two possibilities. One possibility is that homo sapiens and Neanderthals share a lot of the same genetic information from a common earlier ancestor that passed on that information to both species. The other is that perhaps the relationship between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens was vastly more different than what we think. The most popular idea behind the extinction of the Neanderthals has to deal with violent territory disputes with their new relatives, us. However, this study sheds light on the amount of DNA material passed on throughout the years that still exists within us today. Perhaps there was some cross breeding that initially started the absorption of the Neanderthals into the Homo sapien species? This leads to many more questions about what the original genetic landscape would have been like before the cross breeding started to happen. What are the traits that were lost? How much did these potential interactions impact both species over time? As of now the Neanderthal lineage seems to stop about 25,000 years ago. So, in the overlap of when Homo sapiens started to appear and while the Neanderthals were still around, what were those interactions like? Well, they just don't know, but this data does further support the idea that perhaps these early relationships were more very different in different locations and at different times. Climate change, animal migrations, and search for resources are commonly used as guiding factors to understand the early distribution of humanity. Perhaps as technology increases and we get a better understanding about our own genetic data we can start to answer some of these questions. Regardless, it seems as though even before modern science, the technological revolution, or Facebook there's still just one way to label human interactions, "it's complicated."

Article by: Prabir Mehta, Science Museum of Virginia

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