Sleeping with the Neanderthals

Sleeping with the Neanderthals

We are nothing if not a proud species, we Homo sapiens. We are the apple of God's eye, the pinnacle of evolution, the raison d'être of the known universe and its 70 sextillion stars. (That's a 7 followed by 22 zeros, or more than 10 times the grains of sand in all of the world's beaches and deserts.)

We have dominion over the land and the fishes and the fowl (and presumably over the land and fishes we have fouled), not to mention hundreds of TV channels (when we can find the remote). To sum up: We are the bee's knees, the cat's pajamas; it is all about us.

Please keep this in mind, my fellow über-primates, because today I must report with a heavy heart that scientists have found a bump in the evolutionary road. I could give it to you in dense scientific jargon about harmonic DNA convergence and periodic primordial trysts in dark smoky places. But I prefer to use layman's terms.

We slept with a freakin' cavemen — and cavewomen!

Yes, those ill-fated Neanderthals of yesteryear. And it wasn't a one-night stand, either: From 1 to 4 percent of the genetic makeup of modern non-African humans is derived from our "kissing cousins," those stocky, beetle-browed, Cro-Magnon nitwits who disappeared into the dustbin of evolution 30,000 years ago.

These are the folks we advanced hominids have reviled since we invented trash-talking. They were crude, rude, and unattractive. They needed a good bath and daily applications of Nair.

Can't you just imagine our distant Homo sapiens ancestors hurling witty broadsides at Homo neanderthalensis? "Yo, Cro, going clubbing tonight? I saw your wife the other night — well, it was either her or a cave bear!"

Neanderthals live on today only as a handy epithet and in sophomoric television commercials. We can stereotype them because they aren't here anymore, and probably wouldn't know enough to call an un-frozen caveman lawyer if they were.

They got what was coming to them. They lived in caves, for heaven's sake. They are the ultimate losers in the game of evolutionary roulette.

"I didn't sleep with no caveman!" you say. Calm down. Of course you didn't. It was our collective cousins Margaret and Festus — 75, 428 times removed, fortunately.

Wouldn't you love to have been a fly on the wall of their hide hut when Festus ambled home late, his knuckles dragging more than usual?

"What have you been doing all this time, Festus? For the love of mastodons, it's half past Pleistocene!"

"Now, Margaret, I've been hunting and gathering like I always do."

"Spelunking is more like it, you old goat."

The kernel of good news in this is that the hanky-panky occurred some 60,000 years ago, according to scientists, sort of a species-wide one night stand. Our ancestors were relatively young at the time, sort of teenagers in evolutionaly terms. This means that more recently our forebearers were supposedly minding their genetic P's and Q's, including the time they coexisted with Neanderthals in Europe until 30,000 years ago.

Are you buying this, Margaret — the notion that we stayed on the straight and narrow for 30 millennia? That not one of us ever made a single surreptitious sortie to the forbidden grottos? Well, that's our story, and we're sticking to it.

Even before this report, there had been speculation that our ancestors had interbred with Neanderthals. After all, we humans do appear to have a prominent "stupid gene:" one war we can't afford after another, rampant environmental degradation — not to mention our fascination with mind-numbing pastimes like video games, texting while driving, and "Dancing with the Stars."

Sapiens, my Y chromosome! Sap is more like it. If we're not careful, we could join our caveman cousins in evolutionary oblivion.