Redheaded Neanderlady

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

Sunday, May 9, 2010

(Neander)life is imitating art!

Gentle readers:

I've been meaning to blog about tthe latest findings re Neandertals.  You see, according to Svante Pääbo and his team at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, they have sequenced 60% of "the Neandertal genome".  This genome was extracted from three pieces of bone from Neandertals found at Vindija Cave, Slovenia. And it seems that many of us living today have a little bit of "Neandertal" in them.  People from sub-Saharan Africa don't seem to, but since people from sub-Saharan Africa seem to have been the population that gave birth and rise to "modern" humans, I can kind of see why this would be so, although, despite the barrier of the Sahara Desert, there was probably at least some interchange, at least later on in human evolutionary times.

ThePääbo people estimated that people outside of Africa carry about 1-4 per cent "Neandertal" genes, probably arising from fairly early gene exchanges between wandering "moderns" and wandering Neandertals, though this study is probably far from complete, and some people who have heard about it, think the "Neandertal" contribution may well have been higher. The John Hawks Weblog gives the Gentle Reader an excellent overview of the study, though it is rather long and scientifically detialed. There are also plenty of news stories about this, as the story had been all over the media over the last few days.

This is an exciting discovery in many ways, and kind of confirms some of the suspicions I had, when I first began gathering information for the book I was then writing, which was quite different from what I'm writing now, although I ended up with a bunch of spinoffs, some of which take place in "modern" times, from just this one point of entry, so to speak.

But this story takes place in medieval England, and there are three Neandertals in it: Illg, the heroine -- who looks not unlike the Neanderlady in my picture, though her hair is less messy, but it is very obviously red, just as, a few years ago, it turned out that Neandertals apparently had a version of the skin pigment gene MC1R, which can confer light hair and skin, and sometimes red hair and freckles. It isn't quite the same version of MC1R as exists in "modern" humans today, in certain parts of the world, but from a hair and skin color point of view, an average viewer wouldn't be likely to be able to tell the difference.

Curiously, or not so curiously, perhaps, neither Illg, nor her companions Ren of the Three Trees(her older cousin who is supposed to be her guardina), and Mat Fartraveled, a friend of Ren's(and there seem to have been a lot of Viking-era people called Fartraveled, which doesn't raise too many eyebrows among those people who encounter Mat, either. seem particularly "noticeable" to the medieval people they encounter, except for their "big" noses(though Illg, being female, has a somewhat "daintier" one), and in my sotry, all Neandertals have a certain sexual charisma which, if they choose to exercise it, can prove irresistable to some people, especially those with the requisite "Neandertal genes".

It just so happens that the hero, Hardwin, and the antihero, Ivo(who springs from a medieval family "from hell"), both have the requisite genes, which makes them unusually sensitive to conditions in their surroundings in various ways, though both of them are what I call "fighting men" and what later became known as "knights". But they both become attracted to Illg, and Illg is attracted to both of them, though from the beginning, she's more attracted to Hardwin. From this, spins a ver complicated tale, with a "cast of thousands", many of whom are real people.

The point here is, much of what I deduced from my early reading about Neandertals -- their behavior, probable genome, abilities, brain power, even their ability to speak -- have turned out to not be too far off what I learned and put together. It would make sense, for example, that Neandertals were probably light haired, light skinned, and light eyed, because they lived in cool, cloudy, Paleolithic Eurasia, for the most part, though some lived in the Middle East and Israel. So, like modern Western Europeans, they would not have needed a lot of protection from the sun in order to survive.

They also seem to have had all of the prerequisites for ability to speak a language, incliding physical ones like a modern-looking hyoid bone(the bone that attaches the tongue to the muscles of the throat, certain "speech genes" which are identical to "ours" and so on. And in my books, they speak perfectly intelligibly.

It's also true that Neandertals differed (somewhat) anatomically speaking, but unless they had arthritis, and a fair number of them did, they could walk upright like we don, and used their environment in similar ways to "modern" humans, given what they had available to them. Their heads were somewhat differently shaped, having lower foreheads and a kind of "bun" or "bump" at the back of the head, which has led some people to believe that their brains must have developed differently, though there appears to be no evidence of this. But the people in medieval England don't "notice" this, either, as they are careful to blend in as much as they can.

Most importantly, since the people they meet, don't "know", other than to guess(sometimes), that they have some rather um, unusual abilities(which is part of what makes this science fiction rather than a kind of "alternative history"(they even know space travel, since they are on a kind of mission from a planet where their ancestors were taken before they apparently became completely extinct, in a solar system in a nearby part of the galaxy. they are accepted as perfectly human, thank you very much. This allows Illg and her hero, Hardwin, to fall in love, but for most of the story they are kept apart, partly by circumstance, and partly by Illg's dithering, because she's pretty young when she starts out, and also is somewhat impulsive when she sees wrongs that need, in her opinion, to be righted, and these get her into various kinds of difficulties.

Of course, there's a lot more to this story than what I've suggested here, but it is, in various ways, firmly based in the scientific findings I've outlined above. There are some pretty firm archaeological and human evolutionary references as well, for those who like the scientific, even in an obviously historical setting.

And for those who like the "historical", everything in this book is as factual as I can get it, where the facts exist(and in this particular period of time, there aren't all that many "facts" to go on). To fill in gaps of various kinds, I've had to make up certain things, but I've tried to be as careful as possible. And it's been very hared work, though I have enjoyed, and am still ejoying, every minute of it. Scientific research like I've been doing is exhilarating and often exhausting. So is the writing process.

Now that I've mentioned the names and relationships of the most important characters in my book, I'll probably be writing more about them(and others, as well), at least from time to time. I'll certainly be blogging a lot more about the latest Neandernews and what it all means,

Stay tuned,
Anne G

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