Thursday, August 23, 2012

Neanderthal ancestors

It now seems pretty clear that about 50,000 years ago modern humans did interbreed with Neanderthals. As Matt Ridley points out, it has been known for some time that non-Africans share 1 to 4 per cent of their genomes with the extinct Neanderthals, but this could have been due to genetic differences between the various African populations from which modern humans arose. New research, however, seems to undermine the so-called 'population substructure' theory.

For, according to Dr. Svante Paabo and his colleagues, the last gene flow from Neanderthals into Europeans most likely occurred between 47 and 65 thousand years ago, too late for the substructure theory. And during this time there were periods when Neanderthal and modern human populations were living in the same areas (in what is now Israel, for example).

It's no big deal, I suppose, but it certainly changes the way one sees Neanderthals (no longer quite the lumbering losers or tragic victims - as the old stereotypes had it).

And it seems that mating between modern and pre-modern populations was a common occurrence.

For example, Ridley points out that there was almost certainly interbreeding between the modern people who populated South East Asia and Australia and the pre-modern Denisovans.

As he puts it, 'when modern people spread around the Indian Ocean, they too encountered a distantly related human species and dallied with them under the palms.'


  1. With no humorous intent, I note that for years I have thought many people of European descent displayed Neanderthal traits. I do not find this research surprising. The last time I read in this area, I had the impression that modern brain research was adding important opportunities for intellectual cross-fertilization with anthropology. To some extent, brain structure shapes skull structure. We have many examples of Neanderthal skulls, Thus, perhaps, our increasing knowledge about the functions of various structures in the brain may allow us to make reliable inferences about Neanderthals' mental experience. I do not know whether this research has played out yet, or whether it may prove to be a dead end.

    1. An acquaintance of mine (a German girl) had a facial structure which reminded me of reconstructed Neanderthal faces. She was not exactly pretty but strikingly attractive. I'm not suggesting she was necessarily any closer to Neanderthals than anyone else is. The unusual facial structure probably had nothing to do with Neanderthal genes. But it was meeting her that originally changed my mental image of 'Neanderthal' to something more alluring than the usual stereotype!

      On a more serious note, it seems that Neanderthals may have had burial rituals, and so perhaps believed in an afterlife.