The latest edition of the journal Cell has a report that some people from the Max Planck Institute in Germany have sequenced a whole Neandertal genome.
Here is the report:
http://www.physorg.com/news137334959.html">Complete Neandertal mitochondrial genome sequenced from 38,000-year-old bone from PhysOrg.com
A study reported in the August 8th issue of the journal Cell, a Cell Press publication, reveals the complete mitochondrial genome of a 38,000-year-old Neandertal. The findings open a window into the Neandertals' past and helps answer lingering questions about our relationship to them.
This blurb doesn't say much, so the astute reader may want to go here for further information. The article came from the British journal Nature, and has some comments, though not much more explanation, about the genome.
My own thoughts about this paper go like this:
I don't think there's any doubt in anybody's mind that Neandertals were a distinct population Their anatomy alone, whilc basically similar to ours, has some pretty "distinct" features, like their browridges and the "buns" on the bakc of their skull, and the shape of those skulls, though at least one worker in the field suggests that their brains were arranged pretty much like ours(he deduced this from endocasts). They also had denser bones and more muscle attachments, than "modern" people.
But what does all this really mean? The geneticists who pulled together their "Neandertal genome", admit themselves, that there need to be more sequences done on specimens from other Neandertal populations. And they admit that while certain proteins they sequenced(if I understand this study correctly), have somewhat different DNA sequences, they apparently functioned no differently from "ours">
Given that Neandertals are the best known of all prehistoric humans(other than early "modern" ones), and had the fortunate(for us) habit of burying their dead with some regularity, there are more Neandertal fossils lying around, waiting to be sequenced by these methods, than any other prehistoric human fossils. Furthermore, they were the first non-"modern" humans ever discovered, so they have been scrutinized in various ways, for a little over 150 years.
One would think that, since tremendous changes in our understanding of inheritance, and the acceptance --- by most educated people --- that evolution has taken place, one might think many of the questions surrounding the rise and demise of Neandertals would have been answered. But they are basically the same old questions, and there seems to be a tendency for a lot of people to assume, just as they assumed back when the unfortunate La Chapelle aux Saintes fossil was discovered, that they were basically "different" and "not like us at all". But what archaeological evidence there is, seems to suggest that while they were(apparently) a decidedly small population, they also had pretty much the same behaviors and responses that "modern" humans do, to a variety of things.
Because of this, many people are faced with the dilemma of trying to figure out how much "like" us, they were, given that there seem to have been some populations of prehistoric humans with "mixed" ancestry --- long after there were any Neandertals --- and so far, none of these questions have been settled to anybody's satisfaction. This study is a step in some direction: they appear to have been "different" all right. And there are plenty of people who do not want to consider that there might have been any connection at all, between Neandertals and "modern" humans. These people latch on to studies like this, with the tenacity of hungry wolves trying to make meals out of the nearest deer, and insist that Neandertals were a totally "separate species". But what constitutes speciation depends on a lot of factors, for evolution, human and otherwise, is a complicated, messy business. Since no one has yet satisfactorily answered how much "difference" actually constitutes speciation(other than the inability of two separate organisms to mate and produce fertile offspringa), what we are left with, is essentially judgment calls as to what these ki8nds of differences "mean". Since I'm a writer writing a Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals, I can't claiim to know what these differences "mean", though I have my opinions. Be that as it may, I think this study will probably raise even more questions about Neandertals, their relationship(if any) to "us", and what "happened" to them, than it ever can answer. And the arguments surrounding these questions, will go on for a long, long time after numerous other studies(which probably won't answer these questions either), have come and gone.