Scientists Discovered Another Similarity Between Us and Neanderthals
This time, it's what's on the inside that counts.
So, I was thinking, we don’t know what happened to any of the other human species. All we know for sure is we, homo sapiens, are the last ones standing… literally. Maybe it’s our egos, or perhaps our longing for connection, but even though no other human species are around, we love looking for similarities and differences between us and them.
We’ve cooked up all sorts of theories to explain why homo sapiens have survived when so many others haven’t. Who knows if we’ll ever learn for sure, but that won’t stop us from guessing. In the meantime, science repaints our understanding of who our ancient human relatives were. Turns out, they may not have been all that different from us, at least not the Neanderthals.
Similarities with Our Prehistoric Relatives
It’s kinda wild to consider the similarities between us and our other human relatives. Let alone imagining coexisting with them. But they may not have been all that different based on the fossils discovered so far.
Our skeletal structures and proportions are comparable despite some variations in size. Neanderthals were shorter than most modern humans but were more muscular with larger heads, facial features, and brains. But otherwise, they looked very human, and according to DNA sequencing, we were closer to them than you may think. In fact, our DNA is a 99.7 percent match — whereas humans’ and chimps’ DNA range between a 96 and 99 percent match.
On Monday in Curious Life, I’ll tell you about a potential new Homo family member discovered in China. Not only is this possibly a new species of human, but they appear to be our new closest relative.
What About Our Insides?
We know we have an entire ecosystem of microorganisms, bacteria, and more in our guts. We also know that our guts have a strong relationship with our brains in ways we’re still trying to understand. But is this connection unique to us homo sapiens, or did other human species have something similar?
The problem is, answers to questions like these are hard to find. We’re lucky to locate remains from other human species, but to find DNA, let alone bodily tissues or fluids to study and compare, is practically a miracle. Amazingly, a miracle happened, resulting in a study published in Communications Biology in February of 2021 that found similarities in our gut bacteria.
Scientists got their hands on 14 separate Neanderthal fecal samples discovered in El Salt, Spain. The samples date back to 50 kya—which is estimated to be when modern humans began migrating out of Africa—making them the oldest hominin poop ever identified.
Until this point, the information scientists used regarding gut health in ancient humans were primarily based on modern humans’ gathering data. This study changed everything because scientists could extract actual ancient bacterial DNA from the feces samples using a method called shotgun metagenomic analysis.
Guess how many bacterial DNA sequences they found in the ancient feces.
Go ahead, guess.
Hiiiiigher…. wait, lower?
Okay, Okay, they found approximately 124,592,506 sequences. Guess what else — a whole bunch of them still live happily inside us today. In all, scientists found two primary links between our health and the gut microbiome they found.
The first suggests these bacteria are exceptionally good at keeping us alive. So there’s probably some kind of evolutionary benefit for maintaining our relationship with them for all this time.
It also appears these relationships might be coming to an end. Because the second discovery shows a decline in some of these ancient bacterias in Western people which may relate to the increased immune conditions in the region.
Lastly, there’s a bonus fact the scientists found during their studies. Apparently, quite a few people thought Neanderthals only ate meat. Turns out, they also ate plenty of vegetation and had a complex diet.
Why Should You Care?
Let’s start with the superwildly bizarre reality that millions of tiny microorganisms scurrying about inside of you and influencing your brain also affected other human species tens to hundreds of thousands of years ago. Sit with that for a second.
It’s also pretty cool that this information likewise tells us a lot about humanity. Postdoctoral researcher at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and co-author of the study, Stephanie Schnorr, points out in an interview with Inverse that this information helps us understand “what makes us work and what doesn’t?”
When I learned this, the first connection I made was between Western eating habits and the decline of these clearly important bacterial strains. I mean, it’s no secret that the West is known for its terrible diet and food choices.
Already experts wonder if our lifestyles are responsible for the rise in autoimmune diseases. The United States is famous for its massive portions, artificial ingredients, drive-thrus, and processed foods — it causes more than obesity; it’s killing us. Could our diet be contributing to the decline of these bacteria too? If so, what does that mean for us?
I love learning all the ways we’re similar to the other species in our human family tree. So often, we view ourselves as overtly unique and special in every way, and we are… but for thousands of years, we weren’t the only ones. We tend to think we influenced other human species, but perhaps they were the ones to help us.
We know for sure now that Neanderthals consumed a complex diet with various vegetation and meat. Any biology or nutrient class teaches the abundance of vitamins, proteins, and minerals found in fruits and vegetables our bodies need to thrive.
It seems likely then, that at least some of the bacteria we share with our prehistoric relatives come from these fruits and veggies too, right? Then perhaps we should do our best to feed our bodies plenty of nutrients and keep our gut-ecosystem happy because clearly our belly-bacteria are our friends.
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