Humans and neanderthals: Getting it on, after all?

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New genetic data suggests that, at at least two points in history, Homo sapiens were interbreeding with other species, most likely Homo neanderthalensis or heidelbergensis.

This is pretty damn interesting, because it's a reversal on previous research. A couple of years ago, I got a chance to see Svante Pääbo, an evolutionary anthropologist with the Max Planck Institute, and kind of a big deal in the world of ancient hominid genetics, talk about this very topic. He and his team studied bits and pieces of the neanderthal genome and came to the conclusion that hanky panky hadn't happened between that species and ours. And, because it was Svante Pääbo (again, kind of a big deal) everybody trusted his results. So much so, in fact, the the University of New Mexico researchers who did this new study were surprised that their data said differently.

This is a really fun moment in science, when accepted information gets legitimately challenged. And now the ball is back in Pääbo's court. Remember, his previous neanderthal analysis was based on bits and pieces of the genome. Recently, he wrapped up a rough draft sequence of the entire genome, and, as Nature points out, what he finds there will probably be the first test of this new theory. Of course, it's also possible that both groups are right, and it's really H. heidelbergensis who was knocking boots with ancient sapiens. We'll just have to wait and find out.

Nature News: Neanderthals may have interbred with humans

Image courtesy Flickr user erix, via CC

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  1. We still have this morphology today, look at Ron Perlman, or as Phart say, Charles Bukowski. Shape of the skull doesn’t mean much.

    I’m proud to have had my ancestors (both Homo Neanderthal and Homo Sapien) interbreed with each other. When it comes down to it, old fashioned racism is discredited 19th century science. We know so much more now about the spread of Hominids that it makes racism redundant.

  2. I vote for H. heidelbergensis though: we love beer too damned much for it not to be atavistic.

  3. Sounds like bs to this evolutionary geneticist. Let’s see if it gets through peer review.

  4. This is a great post. I fall down completely on the more technical genetic stuff, but I love to speculate about the lives of these early humans and proto-humans. They coexisted with woolly mammoths, woolly rhinos, cave hyenas, and cave bears.

    Imagine being in a group of humans, travelling through the forests or across the plains, and running into a group of neanderthals. So similar, but so very, very different.

      1. No kidding.

        Who here believes that humans (modern or otherwise) actively hunted woolly mammoths? It seems unlikely to me.

        1. Who here believes that humans (modern or otherwise) actively hunted woolly mammoths? It seems unlikely to me.

          Never underestimate a group of highly motivated people with pointy objects.

  5. Homo sap being homo sap, I would assume we *tried* to interbreed with the other members of our genus, and vice versa. Whether hybrid offspring ever resulted, survived, and were fertile is the difficult question.

    Note that the definition of species is a population that can interbreed with each other, so the larger question may wind up being whether these other branches of Homo were actually separate species or just separate breeds. (Looking only at fossils, it might be hard to believe that all the varieties of domestic dog are members of the same species. But they are — and dogs don’t doubt it.)

    1. Replying to comment # 10, above, reproduced here:
      ———–

      Homo sap being homo sap, I would assume we *tried* to interbreed with the other members of our genus, and vice versa. Whether hybrid offspring ever resulted, survived, and were fertile is the difficult question.

      Note that the definition of species is a population that can interbreed with each other, so the larger question may wind up being whether these other branches of Homo were actually separate species or just separate breeds. (Looking only at fossils, it might be hard to believe that all the varieties of domestic dog are members of the same species. But they are — and dogs don’t doubt it.)
      ———

      One definition of ‘species’ I’ve seen is a group that actually does interbreed and produce fertile offspring in the wild. For example, dogs, coyotes, and wolves can probably all interbreed and produce fertile offspring, but they rarely do it — in the wild, they usually kill and eat each other. That no doubt seems a flimsy distinction as an excuse to call those three relatives different species, but if you look hard it seems most definitions of what is a species get down to rather trivial distinctions.

      Those distinctions seem a little less trivial, though, when you consider how different subgroups of a species might diverge to become different species. When the subgroups are only slightly different, interbreeding produces ‘hybrid vigor’ — the cross breeds are more genetically ‘fit’, meaning more likely to pass their genes on to future generations. When the subgroups get more different, though, the hybrids are less ‘fit’, perhaps because you’re breaking up groups of genes that work well together. When that happens, it benefits both subgroups (or at least the more successful subgroup) to minimize cross-breeding. In fruit flies, different species have evolved different ‘courtship dances’ to prevent cross breeding.

      In humans, I seriously think our ideas about who’s sexually attractive come from leftover instincts that we evolved to keep us from cross breeding with the Neanderthals. We even have social tendencies to reinforce those ideas — it may be instinctive to make fun of somebody who dates an unattractive member of the opposite sex.

      The Neanderthals went extinct about 30,000 years ago. Now that we don’t need those instincts we’ve developed beer and bars, as W.C. Fields said, to ‘help ugly people have sex for the last 3500 years’.

  6. @ anon 11

    I was just gonna say “Sweet, now I don’t feel so bad for reading all those Jean Auel books!”

  7. Who here believes that humans (modern or otherwise) actively hunted woolly mammoths?

    Pygmies hunt elephants in Africa right now with stone age weapons. Why wouldn’t normal size humans hunt mammoths, which are not much bigger than African elephants?

  8. I’ve been saying for the longest time that in addition to out competing with Neanderthal, we out bred them, absorbing them into our genes. Granted, I only took five anthro courses in college and thus am not an expert, it just always seemed in my gut that it must be.

  9. This of things humans haven’t boinked is shorter than the list of things we have. Nuclear containment vessels and Mother Teresa’s dead corpse are the only two I have any confidence haven’t been violated. But not 100% confidence.

  10. Imagine being in a group of humans, travelling through the forests or across the plains, and running into a group of neanderthals. So similar, but so very, very different.

    To illustrate a modern equivalent, go from here directly to 4chan.

    1. i also believe that if you go to 4chan you will also find proof that humans will try and mate with anything having 2 or more legs

  11. The reconstruction is a dead ringer for an uncle of mine. Were Neandertals close enough to us that the offspring would be fertile or would they be a hominid mule? Did H. sapiens select H. neandertalensis or did they think we were cute and select us for mates?

    There is physical evidence that early humans killed and butchered mammoths. They only died out about ten thousand years ago. And when you’re done eating them, you can live in their skins…

    http://www.donsmaps.com/mammothcamp.html

  12. The human genome is 96% identical to that of the chimpanzee. The ratio of human male to female total DNA base pairs is about 1.044. The human male is genetically closer to the chimp than to the human female.

    But we already knew that.

  13. The human family tree – more like a stunted bush – is turning out to be much more complex than we were taught. In the 19th century there was a political and religious motive to portray Sapiens as the pinnacle of an evolutionary ladder with all other species below. We now know that as recently as 17K years ago other hominid species lived, and that within the last 100K years Sapiens came very close to extinction. Casting off religious attitudes of Sapiens exceptionalism and looking at us as another species is very enlightening.

  14. Marja, saniac, and Rich Keller- There is solid evidence that humans made use of mammoth meat and parts, and I’m sure humans killed mammoths at times, but I am unconvinced that humans made a standard practice of hunting them. As pointed out in Marja’s article wikipedia article, the Gravettians were very skilled at hunting smaller mammals, and situated their settlements along migration routes for those mammals. That article makes one passing reference to mammoth hunting, with no supporting information.

    The Clovis article references a site where mammoth remains were found among a concentration of Clovis points. To me, this could indicate scavenging as easily as hunting.

    Rich’s link to the Mezhiric structure says flat out that most of the bones were probably scavenged, and showed teeth marks of other large carnivores.

    I think it’s unlikely that bands of hunter/gatherers would tolerate the risk of mammoth hunting. The danger involved was very great; even minor injuries could easily prove fatal. Once killed, there was an inordinate amount of meat and other material not easily transported without pack animals, and not easily preserved. A kill that large would also be a magnet for large carnivores and scavengers.

    But saniac is right. My arguments for not hunting mammoths are pretty sound, but consider the pygmies. Danger and waste rarely figure into the human equation in a meaningful way.

    1. I think it’s unlikely that bands of hunter/gatherers would tolerate the risk of mammoth hunting. The danger involved was very great; even minor injuries could easily prove fatal. Once killed, there was an inordinate amount of meat and other material not easily transported without pack animals, and not easily preserved.

      If we’re still turning up frozen mammoth carcasses in the 21st century don’t you think that an ice age band of hunters could keep one through the winter? You wouldn’t have to move the thing if you lived in a nomadic society. Then, as now, people living on the frozen tundra could just go to where the food was.

      The risk of hunting a mammoth (or an elephant, or a whale) would be great but so would the payoff. Both would have to be weighed against the relative risk of a few dozen elk hunts, any one of which could also cause great injury.

  15. I’ve always thought they interbred. I have an occipital bun, despite what anthropologists say. Apparently they are only present in Neanderthal, but I seriously have one. My doctor is mystified.

    1. A study conducted by Lieberman, Pearson and Mowbray provides evidence that individuals with narrow heads (dolicocephalic) or narrow cranial bases and relatively large brains are more likely to have occipital buns as a means of resolving a spatial packing problem. – from Wikipedia

  16. As far as having sex, yeah, of course they did. There are people today who have sex with animals that are much less human than Neanderthals. The more interesting question is what it was like for Homo Sapiens and archaic humans to interact. Would ancient Sapiens know that they were different species rather than just different-looking humans? Was their lesser intelligence apparent in a stone age environment? Was there widespread animosity between the different species or would they have engaged in trade, collective ceremonies or even formalized marriage between tribes?

  17. Ok, I have another one. If they could isolate enough Neanderthal DNA, would it be ethical to clone one? We wouldn’t learn much about how they lived, but we would be able to study its mental capacities.

  18. I’ve heard that there is a possibility that we are the same species. I know that over time, human populations breed towards their own ideal of beauty. Just as the unhealthy did’t get to breed thru history, the just plain ugly usually didn’t either because ugly might be unhealthy. I’ve heard speculation that they were our homely ancestors.

  19. Bravery. Strength. Luck. In a subsistence stone age culture, it is those attributes that put food on the table (or leather pad, or bark trough. . . whatever). When times are good: we eat the bounty of trees and plants, hunt deer, trap marmots. . .but when the cold winter winds blow and the easy game migrates or hibernates, and the mighty mammoths begin their slow trudge to warmer climes. . .can you not see a group of ten men, who must eat to live, and families to feed: take the risk and slay the beast? In hard times drastic measures must be taken, they know going in that at least one man WILL die (and getting crippled is as good as dying). Yet with mastery of fire and heavy spears: the tribe survives. Hell, I’d do it.

    Basically what #17 said.

    And I concur with #10 (to get back to the actual article), that we H.S. looooves fuckin’. With 7 Billion now living and 100+ billion now dead, I defy argument. . .

    Hell, I’d do it.

  20. First of all, I am shocked, SHOCKED, to learn that science, once settled, can be challenged.

    Second, two or more legs are not a requirement (see tuckermax.com).

    Third, Lieberman at Woodstock. Heh. Thats good.

    Finally, I disagree with the notion that danger doesn’t fit into the human equation. Waste, never, but danger? Look around you. Modern humans did not invent doing stupid things to prove our manhood. When western observers came into contact with the Inuit, they were hunting whales with spears from little boats made of bones and skins. Feats of bravery, such as hunting dangerous game, are a longstanding tradition among humans, and continue to this day. My father watched the Montagnard (Degar) in Viet Nam hunt tiger with spears; I have one of the spears in my den. If it exists, humans will hunt it regardless of the danger.

    That said, it is not unreasonable to believe that bands of early hominids could have simply tracked sick or injured mammoths until they were unable to mount a serious defense. The quantity of meat, hide, and other usable parts could have sustained a small band through an entire winter. You survive in the wild by exploiting small, easily taken game, berries, nuts, etc., but you don’t survive long if you don’t take advantage of opportunities like a wounded mammoth.

  21. I find it odd that in such a context, Homo Neanderthalensis would still be referred to as another species.

    Wouldn’t the fact of successful interbreeding firmly establish that they were, at the time, the same species? There might have been speciation after the last interbreeding, but the definition of species requires no viable offspring to exist, and yet here we are.

    1. Wouldn’t the fact of successful interbreeding firmly establish that they were, at the time, the same species?

      Only if you consider lions and tigers to be the same species, or horses and donkeys.

      1. An evolutionary biologist would probably define “successful interbreeding” as “breeding which produces fertile offspring.” Ligers and mules are genetic dead ends since they can’t continue the line, but if any living humans do indeed carry Neanderthal genes in our DNA then that’s an entirely different ballgame.

  22. Judith Rich Harris maintains that Neanderthals must have had thick fur, since they lived in cold places and weren’t equipped to make protective clothing (no evidence among their tools that they could sew, for example).

    Yet they’re always portrayed as being almost hairless. Anthropomorphism?

  23. The caves in France and Spain – Lascaux and others had drawings of woolly mammoths. I assume they were hunted in Europe 30k to 40k years ago when those paintings were made.

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