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How Neandertals Inform the Understanding of Human Race
A decade ago I published a paper about how Neandertals inform human variation. In the time since there has been some evolution in anthropological approaches to understanding human variation, and a true revolution in our understanding of Neandertals. Races are subspecies, divisions of a species into geographically delineated and anatomically distinguishable groups defined by common descent and described as monophyletic (a common ancestor and all of its descendants). They are a key aspect of how some anthropologists and others partition humans into groups and describe how they relate to each other. But subspecies are no longer a favored topic in modern biology As hard and often as biological anthropologists (especially of the 19th and earlier 20th centuries) have tried to apply this biological precept to understanding human variation, the attempts have failed because human races are widely recognized as social and not biological constructs. But the two have continued to be mixed with each other. Neandertals are relevant to this issue because they are one of our ancestors, anatomically distinct and geographically delineated. They mixed successfully with everyone they encountered, including the ancestors of modern humans. But unlike mixing populations today, some regions of their genome were not passed on to modern generations. These “genetic deserts” are areas where natural selection acted against the Neandertal version of the effected genes. Neandertals were a human subspecies. They reveal what true human races would be like in the vastly more populated world of today, if there were any, but there are not.