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From Neanderthal man to mental maths

Tom Feilden | 10:03 UK time, Friday, 13 February 2009

The star of the show on the first day of the AAAS here in Chicago was undoubtedly a delegate no one has seen for more than 20,000 years - Neanderthal man.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Germany have sequenced more than 60% of the genome of this extinct hominid - our closest relative - from fossilised bone fragments found at six archaeological sites around Europe.

This "first draft" of the Neanderthal genome shows that we shared a common ancestor as recently as 800,000 years ago (by comparison the split with chimpanzees occurred some 6.5 million years ago), and that Neanderthal man possessed many of the traits we regard as essentially human.

Professor Svante Paabo confirmed that Neanderthals shared the FoxP2 gene associated with language in modern humans.

"There's no reason to believe they couldn't speak like us" he said. "But of course there are many other genes involved in speech and language, so there are many more studies to be done."

While chimpanzees and other primates might not be able to talk, they can certainly do their sums.

Researchers at Duke University in North Carolina have been using videos featuring sets of items that disappear behind a screen to assess how good Macaque monkeys are at adding up and subtracting the total number of items.

Offered a choice between a right and a wrong answer the Macaques performed at least as well as human subjects, leading Dr Jessica Cantlon to conclude that arithmetic may well have been invented by our animal ancestors rather than the Babylonians.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    The other intriguing thing which you haven't reported on is how loneliness is as much of a health 'risk factor' as smoking. So maybe this will mean that those huddling together for a gossip, warmth and a cigarette outside most buildings in our cities may be onto something?

 

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