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1 Scientific Discovery +1 Social Satire = In Search of Lost Neanderthal Genomes

Photo: Frank Vinken

“Neanderthals are the closest extinct relative of contemporary humans.”

Has Svante Pääbo found the Neanderthal in all of us, and turned paleontology on its head?  In 2010, researchers reported having found that modern humans and Neanderthals shared 99.7% of their DNA, which was inherited from a common ancestor 400,000 years ago. Now, with the recent release of Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes we learn the story of Pääbo’s mission to answer discover the genome sequence, and recounts his ultimately successful efforts to genetically define what makes us different from our Neanderthal cousins.

Beginning with the study of DNA in Egyptian mummies in the early 1980s and culminating in the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome in 2010, Neanderthal Man describes the events, intrigues, failures, and triumphs of these scientifically rich years through the lens of the pioneer and inventor of the field of ancient DNA.

DNA research is fascinating enough in its own right. For instance, did you realize that each new generation contains “evolved” mutations?

Any baby that is born has 100-200 new mutations that are neither in the father nor in the mother.”

We learn that Neanderthal genes offer a unique window into the lives of our hominin relatives and may hold the key to unlocking the mystery of why humans survived while Neanderthals went extinct. Drawing on genetic and fossil clues, Pääbo explores what is known about the origin of modern humans and their relationship to the Neanderthals and describes the fierce debate surrounding the nature of the two species’ interactions. His findings have not only redrawn our family tree, but recast the fundamentals of human history—the biological beginnings of fully modern Homo sapiens, the direct ancestors of all people alive today.

A riveting story about a visionary researcher and the nature of scientific inquiry, Neanderthal Man offers rich insight into the fundamental question of who we are.

As if that weren’t a strange enough book to hit the scene of ideas and what science continues to reveal to us about ourselves, another book, Terence Hawkins’ recently released novel, American Neolithic, anticipates these very discoveries and runs them through a dystopian lens contrasting two narrative timelines, one of Raleigh, a hard-edged attorney, and the other of Neanderthal, Blingbling.

Your people think mine stupid and brutal. Not so. True, we could never compete with you. Not for want of intelligence–though I confess that tools and numbers come much more easily to yours than mine–but because we lack your ability to treat our own as abstractions.”

Blingbling is the last literate member of the sole surviving band of Neanderthals,  sent into the world to earn money for his people, who live in hiding on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.  After he is implicated in a hip-hop murder, shadowy benefactors retain a lawyer, the hard-boiled Raleigh. When a routine DNA swab reveals that he fits no known human genotype, the Homeland Police take notice. If Blingbling’s true ancestry is disclosed, his people are in jeopardy. Raleigh finds himself caught in a professional and personal trap that can destroy his client, his career, and much more. A combination of political satire, courtroom thriller, and speculative fiction, American Neolithic is smart, dark and funny.

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