Last night, Matt and I watched a NOVA episode about Neanderthals. We had previously watched a documentary on Netflix tracing human evolution that discussed the relationship between Neanderthals and homo sapiens, so we thought we were pretty up-to-date. For those of you unaware, Neanderthals are thought to have evolved separately from the homo sapien line; eventually the Neanderthals died out, leaving humans behind.
As far as I knew previously, it was assumed that humans had wiped out Neanderthals through war with our more-developed brains. It also helped that we outnumbered the Neanderthals ten to one at some point. What we learned last night is that the most recent hypothesis for Neanderthal extinction is interbreeding. Geneticists have found that our DNA is close enough to that of Neanderthals to have mated and produced fertile children. This was previously considered highly unlikely, given that other interspecies offspring (e.g. mules) are often infertile.
Not only did we breed out Neanderthals, we actually still have some Neanderthal DNA mixed in with our human DNA. Certain races/heritages (i.e. South American and Asian) were more likely to have components of Neanderthal DNA given the locations in which our caveman ancestors lived so many years ago.
I’m sure many of you have seen some version of the “Evolution of Man” comic, showing us crawling up out of the primordial ooze to become upright hunter/gatherers…and ending with a picture of a man hunched over in his cubicle in front of a computer.
I’m not here to hypothesize on the whys of where we are today, but the show last night got me thinking about the consequences of this progression. We did not evolve to sit in front of a computer all day, eyes fixated to an endless stream of information that we can access almost anywhere. The show last night said that our caveman ancestors were able to bench press 300 – 500 pounds! For comparison, today’s man, on average, can bench press slightly less than his own weight if not training, while a man regularly lifting weights can bench press almost his own weight.
These realizations have led to increased interest by many in a Paleo diet and lifestyle, which includes CrossFit, a form of exercise based around tasks that early humans would have been able to do. Meanwhile, I’m sitting at my cubicle with a heat wrap on my back from typing all day while sipping on an overpriced coffee drink pumped full of sugar to get me through the afternoon.
Imagine telling our ancestors–even 200 years ago–that we would live such sedentary lifestyles, on average, in developed countries that we now have to make time out of our day to go to a room and move around for awhile. We call this room a gym. Also, because we have so much food available to us, we actually have to restrict ourselves from eating because it’s making us even more out of shape. Oh, but just because we’re eating a lot does not mean we are well nourished. In fact, many people in developed countries are now fat and malnourished due to a diet of convenience foods. All of these things add up to a depressed population, with one in ten adults in the United States suffering.
But that’s ok, because we now have pills to fix all these things. Or cover the symptoms. Same difference, right?