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3 amazing things you didn’t know about ancient humans

Did you know that a group of owls is known as a parliament? Or that some snakes begin to develop legs as embryos, only to lose them before hatching? Science is full of quirky little fun facts that you can use to break the ice during awkward social moments and—if done correctly—to build your image as the cool party guest.

While tidbits about snakes and owls are interesting, it’s those revealing insights into our own species that can be the most surprising. So with that in mind, here’s three fun facts about humans that you can use to inspire others to take an interest in human history, and look cool doing it:

We aren’t the only humans.

The term “human” actually refers to any member of the genus Homo. Scientists studying the relationships between species have classified different organisms into discrete buckets. Homo contains multiple species including our own (Homo sapiens), Homo neanderthalensis, Homo floresiensis, and more. Each of these species is technically considered human.

There is more Neanderthal DNA in the world today than there was when Neanderthals were alive.

How could this possibly be true? As weird as it sounds, it all comes down to numbers. Neanderthals disappeared about 40,000 years ago. It’s challenging to know exactly how big the entire Neanderthal population was at any given time in history, but there are reliable ways to analyze DNA extracted from Neanderthal fossils to estimate their approximate population size1. At the high end, some researchers believe there may have been as many as 60,000 Neanderthals spread out across the Eurasian continent2. Most estimates place the number much lower, however, often less than 10,000 reproductive individuals1,3.

Even if the Neanderthal population was small, it was obviously bigger than it is today. Sometime after anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) left Africa, the Neanderthals disappeared. Genetic evidence suggests that at least some groups of Neanderthals merged with modern humans. As a result, many modern humans have some very distant Neanderthal ancestry. In fact, most people without recent African ancestry have inherited about 1-4% of their DNA from Neanderthals. With about 6 billion people falling into this category, that means there’s the equivalent of about 60 million to 240 million individuals’ worth of Neanderthal DNA in the world today. That’s a lot more than 60,000!

Neanderthals could make glue-like substances to build weapons

Neanderthals are cast in a rather simplistic light, often characterized as brutish cavepeople. But decades of research have shown us that they were far more complex. In fact, archeologists have found evidence of Neanderthal art, trading among groups, and even the ability to make glues3.

Research into Neanderthal technology is ongoing, but we know that they used a wide range of tools and weapons, including wooden spears and stone blades3. Some stone artifacts that have been attributed to Neanderthals are partially coated in tar. Chemical analysis of the tar suggests it came from a resin in specific plants that were present when Neanderthals were alive. By burning the plants in a certain way, it would have been possible to produce the tar5,6. Early humans were known to affix stone tools to wooden handles5,6, and its likely that this adhesive tar would help this process.

We’ve only scratched the surface—there are plenty more fun facts to learn about our incredible ancient cousins. In fact, you can even use your DNA to get fun facts that are personalized to you, including details about how much Neanderthal DNA you may have inherited and whether that DNA is influencing your life today. If you’re eager learn more, check out Ancestry products in the Helix Store like Geno 2.0 by National Geographic, and Neanderthal by Insitome.

Got any fun facts about Neanderthals? We’d love to hear them! Share this blog on social media and tag Helix (@my_helix) with your favorite fun fact. We may even feature them in future posts!

  1. Prüfer, Kay et al. “The Complete Genome Sequence of a Neandertal from the Altai Mountains.” Nature 505.7481 (2014): 43–49. PMC. Web. 19 Oct. 2018.
  2. Roebroeks, Wil, and Marie Soressi. “Neandertals Revised.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 113.23 (2016): 6372–6379. PMC. Web. 19 Oct. 2018.
  3. Rogers, Alan R., Ryan J. Bohlender, and Chad D. Huff. “Early History of Neanderthals and Denisovans.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 114.37 (2017): 9859–9863. PMC. Web. 19 Oct. 2018.
  4. Marciniak, Stephanie, and George H. Perry. “Harnessing Ancient Genomes to Study the History of Human Adaptation.” Nature Reviews Genetics, vol. 18, no. 11, Nov. 2017, pp. 659–674., doi:10.1038/nrg.2017.65.
  5. Kozowyk, P. R. B. et al. “Experimental Methods for the Palaeolithic Dry Distillation of Birch Bark: Implications for the Origin and Development of Neandertal Adhesive Technology.” Scientific Reports 7 (2017): 8033. PMC. Web. 19 Oct. 2018.
  6. Cârciumaru, Marin, et al. “New Evidence of Adhesive as Hafting Material on Middle and Upper Palaeolithic Artefacts from Gura Cheii-Râşnov Cave (Romania).” Journal of Archaeological Science, vol. 39, no. 7, 2012, pp. 1942–1950., doi:10.1016/j.jas.2012.02.016.