Saturday, May 15, 2010

Embrace Your Inner Neanderthal

The Ascent of Man as formerly shown...
Neanderthal Man, Cro-Magnon Man, Modern Man

I remember as a kid when we had some of those Time-Life books in the house, back around the 1970's or so. One of the ones I found particularly fascinating was the one titled Early Man, which was focused on human origins. It featured a double-page chart with a fairly famous picture sequence showing what the prevailing anthropological consensus at the time considered to be the most likely progression of the ascent of man, from a gibbon-like creature all the way up through various hominds such as Australopithecus (Africanus and Robustus), Homo Habilis, Homo Erectus, Rhodesian Man, Neanderthal Man, Cro-Magnon Man, and finally, modern Homo Sapiens Sapiens. I'm sure you've all seen it at one time or another. It has been copied and lampooned many times

There was a fairly detailed and lengthy section in the middle of the book dealing with Neanderthal Man, whose fossils were first discovered in Germany's Neander Valley 140 years ago, and who is thought to have arrived in Europe some 300,000 years ago before ultimately disappearing about 30,000 years ago. At the time, this information was presented as if human evolution occurred in a fairly straight line, with each species representing a link in the chain leading directly to the next. In other words, the stout, beetle-browed, short-limbed and supposedly unimaginitive Neanderthals were considered to be our direct ancestors.

That all seemed to change during the last couple of decades. Anthropologists and genetic scientists revised their estimation of Neanderthals and were claiming instead that the Neanderthals were an entirely separate hominid branch, a rival form of humans that co-existed with modern humans for a certain period of time and eventually became extinct. A dead end. Just one of several waves of hominds who came "out of Africa" before eventually being replaced by the last wave of modern humans.

This thinking stayed current until several weeks ago. In this 2007 video, it is hinted at darkly that the Neanderthal may have even been the victim of genocide at the hands of modern humans - that it is "almost certain that they were extinguished by our forebears."

If the physical descriptions of Neanderthals I've read are true, I doubt they were as lissome as the one represented in that British museum (a girl with the head of a monkey). By most accounts, the visible physical differences between Neanderthals and modern humans were quite significant. Jared Diamond asked in his 1992 book The Third Chimpanzee:
"Did some invading Cro-Magon men mate with some Neanderthal women? If Neanderthal behavior was as relatively rudimentary, and Neanderthal anatomy as distinctive as I suspect, few Cro-Magnons may have wanted to mate with Neanderthals.... the differences may still have been a major turnoff. And if Neanderthal women were geared for a twelve-month pregnancy, a hybrid fetus may not have survived. My inclination is to take the negative evidence at face-value, to accept that hybridization occurred rarely if ever, and to doubt that living people of European descent carry any Neanderthal genes.
One thing I like about Jared Diamond is that even if he has strong opinions, he's more than willing to be contradicted by evidence. I wish there were more scientists out there who were humble enough to state their opinions less definitively and with less "certainty" as they often do, because a new study comparing the Neanderthal and human genomes indicates that it does appear after all that modern humans did in fact interbreed with Neanderthals. Apparently people of European and Asian descent carry 1% to 4% of Neanderthal genes.
A new study of the Neandertal genome shows that humans and Neandertals interbred. The discovery comes as a big surprise to researchers who have been searching for genetic evidence of human-Neandertal interbreeding for years and finding none.

About 1 percent to 4 percent of DNA in modern people from Europe and Asia was inherited from Neandertals, researchers report in the May 7 Science. “It’s a small, but very real proportion of our ancestry,” says study coauthor David Reich of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Mass. Comparisons of the human and Neandertal genomes are also revealing how humans evolved to become the sole living hominid species on the planet.

Neandertals lived in Europe, the Middle East and western Asia until they disappeared about 30,000 years ago. The new data indicate that humans may not have replaced Neandertals, but assimilated them into the human gene pool...

Researchers recreated the Neandertal’s genetic blueprints using DNA extracted from three bone fragments — each from a different Neandertal woman — found in a cave in Croatia.

Comparing the resulting blueprints of the female Neandertals, who lived about 40,000 years ago, with those of five present-day humans from China, France, Papua New Guinea and southern and western Africa, revealed that people outside of Africa carry Neandertal DNA.

Scientists were surprised to find that people from China and Papua New Guinea (places where Neandertals never lived) have just as much Neandertal ancestry as people from France. The group did not find traces of Neandertal heritage in the two African people studied. The result probably means that interbreeding between Neandertals and humans took place about 50,000 to 80,000 years ago in the Middle East as humans began migrating out of Africa to colonize the rest of the world...

Since humans and Neandertals could interbreed, some people question whether the two groups are different hominid species. The question doesn’t hold interest for John Hawks, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Genealogically, he says, the new study shows that many humans had a Neandertal great-great-great-great … grandfather. “It’s impossible to talk about them as ‘them’ anymore,” he says. “Neandertals are us.”
I find this sort of thing very interesting, but on the other hand, I do worry about what this kind of information will mean to people who tend to misuse science for their own bigoted racial theories. The late Stephen Jay Gould wrote about how science and pseudo-science was often applied to The Mismeasure of Man. If non-Africans carry Neanderthal genes and Africans don't, will certain race-baiters be able to claim that Africans are a somewhat different species from everyone else after all? It's good to remember an important point shown in the video above that is still valid - "We are all Africans in disguise."

Want to check yourself out as a Neanderthal? Download a free Smithsonian app for your iPhone or Android at

In any case, when we look at cavemen, perhaps we shouldn't be so quick to underestimate the adaptability of those Neanderthals.

The Ascent and Descent of Man as more recently shown...


Garpu said...

Pretty chilling, if we did kill off the Neanderthals. If I'm remembering correctly, some of the earliest musical instruments are from them. (bone flutes and things.)

Jeff said...


Were the Neanderthals musical? That's pretty cool! I didn't know that. I've read that they'd figured out fire, wore skins, cared for their aged and buried their dead, but I didn't know that they'd figured out music. Diamond was saying in his book that even though they had stone tools, they showed no changes or advancement between 300,000 years ago and 30,000 years ago.

Joe said...

Interesting piece Jeff. I must admit that I am at the mercy of the scientist's integrity (read: "I don't know diddly about it")

If we can't agree on very recent history, like what actually happened last week, then we really have our work cut out for us figuring this one out!

Thanks for the post.

Jeff said...

Hi Joe,

Ah, there's so much fracking stuff to know, y'know? The stuff I'm interested in knowing is rarely practical. :)

Liam said...

I read in one of the textbooks I was reading (too busy to look it up) that there has been a promotion of the racist idea that neanderthals were much more advanced than the Homo sapiens of the time, and that explains the difference between "advanced" Europe and "savage" Africa. So, yeah, people will use this the wrong way.

I love the Geico Caveman. The two greatest disappointments of the 21st century were the 2004 election and how bad the caveman TV show was.

Jeff said...

Hi Liam,

I've read that the Neanderthals actually had larger brains than we do, so yeah, I think we're going to see some of that stuff if any of the loons out there are paying attention.

I never saw the caveman TV show, but I was surprised at how short a run it had. I always thought the commercials were pretty funny.

Hezzaj said...


Just thought i'd mention that despite the larger brain this doesn't mean neanderthals were more intelligent. I am studying psychology at the moment, and I think it is something to do with the amount of folds in the brain. Folds in the brain are a highly evolved trait (
It's highly unlikely we will find out enough information about neanderthal brains to assertain whether they were more intelligent or not which is a shame. It's really interesting.

Jeff said...

Hi Hezzaj,

despite the larger brain this doesn't mean neanderthals were more intelligent.

True, and that's a good point to stress, especially if some people want to use that larger brain size to advance some sort of specious racial theories. Thanks.

bull said...

Don't under estimate our ancestors, we learn every thing from them we could listen to our ape brothers and go back to the trees, save the planet at the same time, but no we want to destroy every thing, well dumb apes! Are intelligent despite brain size are older than us and don't harm the planet mmh!