Saturday, November 29, 2008

Lively neighborhood

This is the road a few kilometers up above Gamone. The cliff in the background has a name like a movie star: Tina Dalle. In fact, dalle is the French word for a stone slab. This particular cliff, which I can see quite clearly from the slopes behind my house, is used as a training site by the French rock-climbing federation. In the foreground, the road snakes through a couple of small tunnels just before it reaches the plateau of Presles.

In the middle of the vast tree-studded plateau beyond Presles, these moss-covered limestone rocks are the entrance to a splendid cavern called Prélétang, which was used as a shelter, for millennia, both by wild animals and Neanderthals. The latter, who spent most of their time down in the valley, would only venture up to Prélétang during the summer months. Unfortunately, I arrived here a little too late to meet up with such residents.

Back in those days—during a relatively warm period, some 50 millennia ago, at the end of the fourth and final Ice Age—all the members of Neanderthal families would go out together, in summer, on hunting excursions. So, the plateau up above Choranche must have been quite a lively place. By comparison, today, I saw only a single hunter at Gamone, searching for an elusive wild boar, and I heard no more than two or three shots... which were nevertheless sufficient to terrify my dog Sophia, whose archaic brain has learned over eons of time that loud bangs of all kinds spell trouble and danger.

Before the arrival of the Neanderthals, Prélétang was occupied above all by cave bears, for whom the cavern was an ideal place for hibernation. Bones of these animals were found inside Prélétang, and one is tempted to imagine a Neanderthal family, seated around a fire at the entrance to the cavern and chomping into bear steaks. Alas, the Neanderthals would have found it difficult to kill such huge beasts. So, the bear bones probably resulted from attacks by wolves or cave lions, or maybe simply old age.

What's that block of colors doing in the middle of my Stone Age reverie? Answer: They're the graphical representations used in my recently-acquired genetics bible, described in my article entitled Big book [display], to designate the four kinds of bases found in the nucleotides of a strand of DNA. In simple terms, you can call them the four "letters" of the "alphabet" of life on the planet Earth. All kinds of life, with no exceptions: plants, bacteria, insects, fish, frogs, birds, bears, Neanderthals, you, me, etc. Even Sarah Palin and Pope Benedict XVI are said to be composed of DNA. Indeed, as far as can be ascertained, the only allegedly living entities (?) that might not be built out of strands of adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine are God, the Holy Ghost, angels, cherubim and maybe various fantastic creatures such as elves, centaurs, fairies, leprechauns, unicorns, mermaids, etc... although I hasten to admit that the basic problem concerning all these entities is that scientists have not yet been able to carry out enough serious laboratory testing.

Now, what was it that got me started talking about such questions? DNA. You see, certain researchers are starting to evoke the possibility of using their skills in genetic engineering, combined with a few archaic tufts of hair, say, to rebuild all kinds of marvelous creatures that we have long imagined as extinct.

What's that big fellow doing in the middle of the computer screen? Well, he's one of the first candidates for reconstruction that comes to mind, because scientists have just announced that they've finally deciphered more than three-quarters of the genome of the woolly mammoth, using specimens of hair from an animal that died in Siberia at about the same time, 20 millenia ago, that naked apes like me started to arrive in Choranche, where they may have wondered why all the Neanderthals had apparently disappeared. (Don't ask me. For all I know, they may have moved down to the French Riviera.)

Nobody, of course, is going to attempt to synthesize a latter-day mammoth from scratch, as it were. The only feasible technique for producing something that might look like a woolly mammoth consists of taking an elephant cell and modifying its DNA so that it starts to resemble the genome of the extinct animal.

Californian scientists have also recovered and successfully analyzed the DNA in the tooth of a cave bear that lived over 40 thousand years ago. So, there's another candidate for genetic resurrection. But will researchers be content with recreating a few wild beasts? Well, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and a Roche company in Connecticut have just spent two years sequencing the Neanderthal genome, which is 99.5 percent identical to our human genome. It would be perfectly feasible to take a chimpanzee cell and nudge its DNA into emerging as something that looked like Neanderthal stuff.

I'm sure that a latter-day Neanderthal would feel perfectly at home here on the slopes of Choranche. Besides, I've got a spare bedroom at Gamone, I can dish up all kinds of food (once my guests tell me what they like and don't like to eat), and I would be prepared to drive him/her up to Prélétang for summer hunting excursions. The only minor problem is that I can't be certain beforehand that my dog Sophia might not be racist. That would surprise me, though. Besides, I'm sure that Neanderthals would be nice neighbors.

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