Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Neandertals were "tasters"(well, most of them, anyway)! Who knew?

I don't know if any of my Gentle Readers have ever been in a biology class, where the instructor first handed out bite-sized candy bars, and then asked you, either to put a strip of paper laced with a chemical substance called PTC(I have forgotten its "official" name). Or, perhaps, the instructor gives you a bite sized candy bar, and sets several  glasses filled with a mixture of water and PTC, in various concentrations.  Three quarters of all people who take the test, can taste it.  My experience was, that  when I put the concentrated chemical strip on my tongue, it tasted awful!  I immediately gulped the candy bar.  In the case of the "water test, I was midway through the concentrated amounts before I could taste it.  The other 25% of the people, couldn't taste the stuff at all.  When I was in high school, I tried this on my mother, father, and brother(my sister wasn't available at the time, but she told me later, she was a non-taster).  My father more or less jumped up and down and made weird faces, so I knew he  was a taster.  My brother was a taster, too.  I gave a strip to my mother, and she couldn't taste anything, just like my sister.


This ability to taste or not taste the chemical PTC has a genetic basis, and apparently it's been around a long time.  Because, according to the latest Neandernews, straight from the mouth of the BBC, Neandertals had both genetic variants.  So, presumably, most of this small, scattered population, had the genetic ability to taste bitter substances, just like us "moderns", but also just like us "moderns", some did not.  That must have been interesting.  The article speculates there must be genetic advantages to "non-tasting" as well as "tasting", for this gene to survive.  You have to wonder what they would have been.  They probably would have been much more important to Neandertals(and early "moderns"), who presumably had to avoid things that might have killed them or made them sick, and a bitter taste might well have been a good indicator, that you Should Stay Away From This Substance!  It is hard to imagine what this "advantage" might have been, though I am sure there will be no end of speculation about this, whether in regards to Neandertals, or "moderns".


In any case all of this seems to suggest that, despite the fact that, in recent years, there has been a lot of noise and playing up of the differences between Neandertals and ourselves, it would seem that we, and they, were a lot more alike than some people would like to imagine.  And, as is usual, in these instances where somebody says they have found genetic similarities between Neandertals and ourselves, someone in the not too distant future, will restudy this finding and show that this "tasting" ability was not "really" the same as the "modern" one.  But that's another story, and I leave it for another time.

Anne G


graspingmara said...

I'm always amused by how quickly some scientists distance themselves from discoveries of how alike moderns and Neanderthals are. It is similar to when behaviorist learn that dogs, parrots, etc. are capable solving problems that stump chimps and 2 year-olds. The "old schools" twist in the wind trying to disprove the research!!!

I must be weird, but I liked the taste of that paper in bio class. Maybe that's why I enjoy the bitter taste of cigarettes, black coffee, dandelions and broccoli rabe so much.

Anne Gilbert said...


I don't know how "weird" you are, but I do know people who claim to prefer or have cultivated their taste buds to prefer, very tart tastes. I can't abide putting yogurt in my breakfast cereal rather than milk, and I can't drink coffee black any more(I used to, though). But I live in a household where at least one person does both. OTOH, I have relatives who have a real "sweet tooth" and one of them has a six year old that also goes kind of overboard on this stuff unless someone stops her. I think there are degrees and degrees of "tasting". I'm kind of mild and moderate in this respect.

As far as Neandertals are concerned, I think a lot of people are worried that if they found too much similarity between themselves and Neandertals, they would "have to" acknowledge them as members of the human family. About all I can say to that is, well, we still have problems like that with some groups of "modern" H.sapiens!
Anne G