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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Neanderthal Genes: The Hidden Thread in Our Tapestry

There have been many branches on the hominid tree, but now a lone species walks the earth. We had company once, though, at least in Europe and West Asia – the Neanderthals.

Until recently, the scientific consensus was that they were sufficiently different from Homo sapiens that no interbreeding took place. We knew that they controlled fire; constructed tools, shelters and garments; took care of their weak, injured and elderly; and buried their dead with grave goods. But until two decades ago it was widely believed that they had attributes which disadvantaged them to such an extent that competition with modern humans led to their extinction (for example, lack of capacity for complex language, almost exclusive dependence on hunting for sustenance… to say nothing of the Tarzanist view that their doom came about because — horrors! — they allowed women to join the hunt).

This idea of Neanderthals as grunting, shuffling dead-end cavemen began to change as our techniques allowed us to examine Neanderthal fossils with more precision and depth. In the mid-eighties, bone and genetic analysis proved that their ability to hear and produce sounds was almost identical to ours (including a human-like FOXP2 gene, whose function is critical for language). Sequencing of their melanocortin gene indicated that some might have red hair and light skin.

Finally, the just-published draft sequence of their genome (headed by Svante Pääbo’s team from the Max Planck Institute) showed that up to 4% of the genes of non-Africans may come from them. If confirmed, this means that Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons indeed interbred when the latter first came out of Africa – most likely in the Middle East, before further migration.

The two branches of humanity share 99.7% genetic identity. They show differences in genes involved in cognitive development, skeleton structure, energy metabolism, skin physiology. They also differ in regulatory regions and microRNAs. This information will eventually help us answer the question of what makes us uniquely “human” – perhaps even what has made us so adaptable that we now threaten to overwhelm the earth.

When I read about the conclusions from the draft sequence analysis, tears sprang to my eyes, just as they do at spaceship and planetary probe launches. It moved me inexpressibly to think that they haven’t vanished but are with us still, a thread in our fabric, a whisper in our song.

Note 1: The best fictional depiction of the interaction between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons is Dance of the Tiger by Björn Kurtén, a distinguished vertebrate paleontologist who was Swedish — as is Pääbo.

Note 2: The article is now featured at Huffington Post.

31 Responses to “Neanderthal Genes: The Hidden Thread in Our Tapestry”

  1. Jim Fehlinger says:

    We had company once, though, at least in Europe and West Asia. . .
    [S]ome might have red hair and light skin. . .
    [U]p to 4% of the genes of non-Africans may come from them. . .

    It moved me inexpressibly to think that they haven’t vanished but are with us still, a thread in our fabric, a whisper in our song.

    Maybe they were Elves[*] ;-> . Or Minbari[**] :-0

    [*] Tolkien says that in his mythology:
    “The contact of Men and Elves already foreshadows the history of later Ages, and a recurrent theme is the idea that in Men (as they now are) there is a strand of ‘blood’ and inheritance, derived from Elves, and that the art and poetry of Men is largely dependent on it, or modified by it. [Of course in reality this only means that my 'elves' are only a representation or an apprehension of a part of human nature, but that is not the legendary mode of talking.]
    (_Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien_, No. 131 [to Milton Waldman])

    In The Lord of the Rings, Legolas says of Aragorn:
    “[N]obler is his spirit than the understanding of Sauron; for is he not of the children of Lúthien? Never shall that line fail, though the years may lengthen beyond count.”

    There are some people who take this a little too seriously (are we surprised?)
    http://www.northernway.org/weblog/?p=16
    http://www.northernshamanism.org/nine/alfar.html

    [**] Or any other Space Elves who visited the earth in prehistory.
    ( http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/OurElvesAreBetter )
    http://www.jumpnow.de/b5lotr/index.php?op=silm

  2. Athena says:

    Of course, the fascinating corollary is that “pure” Africans (if they exist any more, in this day of global traveling and cheerful interbreeding) may be considered “less primitive” or “more advanced” since they don’t have “caveman” genes — although the views of Neanderthals had shifted significantly even before this piece of knowledge came along. But far more troubling will be the sudden dearth of names to call knuckle-draggers… *snerk*

    The Minbari story was one of the few TV space opera origin myths that had resonances that reverberated, although it, too, had a whiff of the “white man going native”. As for lines failing — that happens only if you count linear patriarchal descent exclusively (that is, legitimate sons of the dominant male line in each lineage). In reality, racial purity attempts notwithstanding, none of us is a line; we’re all tapestries.

  3. Luiz says:

    There are a lot of PURE (100%) africans, so much so the study itself collected data from them to compare with other people, and they are indeed 100% homo sapiens and I am fine and comfortable with this data even though I am not african. But now that we know that white people are part “caveman” I wonder how long it will take for the racists to start propagating the idea Neanderthals are superior to Homo Sapiens…

  4. Athena says:

    First off, Luiz, it’s incredibly difficult to define any group as “pure” — especially African ones, which have more genetic variation than all other human groups combined. Also, not only “white people” (however you define them) are part “caveman”. According to this study, Europeans, Asians, Melanesians — and by extension all humans except some or all Africans — are 1-4% genetically Neanderthal. Bear in mind that the study used samples from the west (Yoruban) and south (San) parts of Africa, and that the Neanderthal genome is only two-thirds done. It’s quite possible that the Kikuyu or Somalis also carry these genetic remnants.

    People are already using the data to argue that Africans are “superior” because they don’t carry Neanderthal genes or that non-Africans are “superior” because of hybrid vigor. Humans don’t need encouragement or lack inventiveness when they want to dehumanize others. The reasons behind most Us-versus-Them divisions are rarely substantial and almost invariably are marshaled after the decision to make the division (with the associated value judgment).

  5. thoughtful says:

    Ok, well, this brings the obvious, deeply polemic question (which is probably why it has not been raised in media as of yet):
    If interbreeding between Homo Sapiens and Neanderthal occurred in the Middle East, doesn’t this mean that the highest percentage of Neanderthal genes should be found in people currently inhabiting these areas?
    Should there not be an even higher percentage of Neanderthal genes in, tribespeople living isolated in the mountains of this region?
    How come the researchers “excluded” this type of DNA in their study when they decided to include that of Papua New Guineans, that have previously often been a focus of lots of scientific study specifically for the reason that these people have up until recently basically been living in the stone age untouched by the rest of the world. My guess is, they probably weren’t excluded but due to the touchy nature of scientifically proving that percentage wise some people on Gods beautiful earth are in fact less homo sapiens than others would cause stir?
    Even more fun, this area is, coincidentally, the birthplace of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, all religions explaining how the people of earth came to be.
    ” Sorry folks, you are not created by god, you are in fact the currently living purest hybrid of homo sapiens and another species, the neanderthal caveman”.
    As for myself, I can finally have an explanation as to why I have a barrel chest, relative insensitivity to cold, sweat a lot, short legs, impulsive and relatively aggressive and above average strength. It’s not ADHD, it’s my caveman genetic makeup damn it!

  6. Athena says:

    Your physical attributes are really not because of your miniscule Neanderthal ancestry. They have to do with the shuffling of your parents’ genes and the small evolutionary changes that made people fit their local environment.

    I read the Science paper and they checked five genomes chosen to be as dispersed as possible geographically. However, the group that gave rise to all non-African humanity and interbred with the Neanderthals was small and passed through that bottleneck once. As a result, all their descendants (us) have the same amount of remnant Neanderthal genes, because they (we) come from that one founder group. In fact, since additional waves of migration out of happened later, the Middle Easterners might actually have fewer Neanderthal genes than the rest of us.

    I have a link to the paper in my article. You should read the discussion, it explains the whole thing in detail.

  7. thoughtful says:

    Hi Athena,
    thank you for your quick reply, it makes perfect sense.
    I have just read Science Magazines “A Draft Sequence of the Neandertal Genome” which you suggested. The article concludes: ” Our results also point to a number of genomic regions and genes as candidates for positive selection early in modern human history, for example, those involved in cognitive abilities and cranial morphology.”
    My questions to you is: Does this mean non-Africans are smarter? Would you consider it plausible that it was the infusion of Neanderthal genes found in Asians and Europeans that provided an actual IQ “headstart” in innovation and empire building? I am thinking of the empires of Aztecs, Khmers, Chinese, Romans, Macedonians, Egyptians etc.

  8. Athena says:

    First the Neanderthals were considered subhuman… now, as soon as they were found to contribute a tiny part of the genome of non-Africans, people are asking if this means their contribution made us smarter. Surely you see the contradiction and not-so-subtle racism in this switch?

    IQ is not intelligence and genes do not code for complex traits. I wrote about this in Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome. Also, Africans have more genetic variation than all of the rest of humanity combined (just think of the San and the Tutsi), which means they have gone through many optimizing permutations. Besides, hybrid vigor is not invariable in crossbreeding. Just as often, you get outbreeding depression.

    If the Neanderthals were smarter at the time of the encounter, their culture would have evolved faster than (or as fast as) that of the Cro-Magnons and they would have survived as major representatives of humanity. Africans had plenty of their own empires: Kushite, Malian, Wagadou, Wolof, Benin…

    As I said to an earlier comment, the reasons behind most Us-versus-Them divisions are rarely very substantial and almost invariably are marshaled to bolster preconceived notions. Finally, the Neanderthal genome is only 2/3 complete, and we may get more information when it’s finished that may alter or further refine the initial conclusions.

  9. thoughtful says:

    Hello there, I just read your article “Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome” and I am deeply impressed and enjoyed your utter and total smack down of the argument I put forward. Once again I really appreciate your answer, thank you for clearing things out for me.

    I certainly do not want to subscribe to a reductionist view, and I don´t believe IQ is equal to intelligence, but it should help when doing math. Considering overall IQ figures in accordance with the Flynn Effect have shot through the roof the last 150 years or so comparing to the long evolution of man before this, put together with your pretty clear cute case, makes for me an easy to understand statement that environment and eduction are the top contributors, not genes.

    So, I am glad I can shelve that idea, but I do believe that it is a pretty common thing that people like me wonder about without having any preconceptions about anything in particular, so I think you are really doing a great and important job explaining this.

    Can´t wait for science to come up with more interesting stuff on this since and will stay tuned.

    As a final note and off topic, I came across your articles randomly googling for more info on the Neanderthal Gene (which seem to as of now be pretty scarce on conslusions in the mainstream news) and was really thrilled to see I can surf in on your site to get tips on what I should read to get my fix of good Sci-fi for grown ups as you pointed out in your Avatar review. I thought you were a bit harsh, it was in fact ushering in a new era of 3D movies and I have to admit I really liked it. But, I appreciate the fact there still are some hardcore sci fi fans out there keeping it real, I myself was offended by Harry Potter and the intellectual property theft from Discworld so I can sympathize :)

  10. Athena says:

    I’m glad the article made you think and equally pleased to have added books to your “to read” list!

    The IQ test was devised as a sorting tool; namely, to find out children that needed help in school, not as an intelligence test. As you indirectly say yourself, it essentially indicates how well you fit within the framework of the dominant subculture in your society.

    I believe that explaining science is a vital component of being a scientist. Our lives are embedded in science and decisively determined by it. Therefore, we need people to understand it so that they can make informed decisions. Otherwise we’ll become the slaves of technology instead of its wielders. Here are articles I wrote that are connected to this topic:

    The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction
    “Keeping an Open Mind is a Virtue, but not so Open that Your Brains Fall Out.”
    Science Fiction Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle

    As for Avatar, it wasn’t as groundbreaking in technique as its relentless PR kept screaming (it was when Cameron started it, but since it took him a decade to finish it, his 3-D was quotidian by then). I have further thoughts on it, as a representative of something larger, that explain my harshness:

    Lab Rat Cinema: Monetizing the Reptile Brain
    The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art

  11. thoughtful says:

    I have read the articles you posted above and it was a very interesting read indeed, heartwarming I might add.
    IQ- Yeah, if the old greek philosophers were alive their scores would be negative and I don´t think humans have evolved that much in the last couple of thousand years.

    I agree with your points in the article “Keeping an Open Mind is a Virtue, but not so Open that Your Brains Fall Out.”- I believe Science must be our guiding light and affronts towards human progress such as banning stem cell research, in the name of religion or politics is laughable and a dead serious threat not to be accepted in a civilized society in any way shape or form.
    Having been brought up in a secular society (something that sadly seems to be changing) in Northern Europe, trusting what can be proven and supporting freedom of speech I believe these are values that should be protected in the law and vigorously defended. I trust people that know what the hell they are doing and that present facts and new ideas, not people building air castles and inviting others to come live with them in their various kingdoms to come, and am of the opinion that people that contribute to the evolvement of civilization, through science, should be the supported and respected advisers, or leaders if deemed fit in a direct democracy fashion, of mankind in our brilliant quest for survival, development, and intergalactic space exploration.
    This of course is what we should be focusing on.

    “The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction” – Absolutely, I am buying all of it, I can´t for the life of me understand how things can be allowed to get so stagnant and lackluster vision free. Just spend a couple of hundred billions per year on experimental research, Google style with office bean bags and miniature space rails, and let people at it, awards presented monthly for coolest space ship equipment. I mean, how hard can it be, seriously.

    “Science Fiction Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle”

    “Lab Rat Cinema: Monetizing the Reptile Brain”

    Having read Sci-fi and Fantasy from an early age I can only hope there will be more good stuff coming out and that they will start making movies that aren´t just underdog, bang bang, romantic interest, explosion, sex, big fight – loss of hope, underdog turns hero, big fight, explosion, arch enemy showdown, kiss, end. I personnally got introduced to cyberpunk through roleplaying games that I have recently seen being filmed with really bad results. Spending time thinking about how cool adventures you can create in a well described world, and then watching how people with no feel for it execute it in Hollywood is always a let down. Imagine if some smart director just decided to get real fans involved, that would be great.

    Thanks for great posts and articles!

  12. Athena says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed the articles and took the trouble to comment on them!

  13. intrigued_scribe says:

    Superb essay; this effectively establishes one more new way to consider humanity’s origins and perhaps, where we’re headed.

    In reality, racial purity attempts notwithstanding, none of us is a line; we’re all tapestries.

    Good words, and ones that highlight the unsubstantial nature of the “Us versus Them” arguments. Thanks for sharing this!

  14. Athena says:

    I’m so happy you enjoyed the essay, Heather! Yes, Us-versus-Them arguments tend to wilt when scrutinized closely. There are commonly used as shorthand for other grievances — some of which may be legitimate (for example, chronic unequal treatment of a group). But in the end we’re all human, perhaps until we take to the stars long-term.

  15. Eloise says:

    Just a wee complementing article:

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/11/kissing-cousins/?ref=opinion&ref=opinion

    The last sentence is especially disturbing in its utterly realistic hypothesis…

    That aside, the article mentions the Neanderthals as having pale skin and red hair. Considering that such characteristics, in Homo Sapiens, occur mainly (if not exclusively) in the Caucasian subgroup, I wonder if this might not mean that the peoples living in what is now Europe would have a higher probability of Neanderthal genes?

    Cheers,

    Eloise :)

  16. Athena says:

    Humans kill everything, including their own. Incidentally, so do chimpanzees when they can (unlike bonobos, who differ in this although they’re slightly closer to us than chimpanzees). So the idea that Cro Magnons would have killed cousins or siblings is quite likely.

    Red hair is recessive and very rare. I believe its global occurrence is something like 2% and I suspect it would have been just as rare among Neanderthals, since it often results in sensitivity to UV light, etc. Like all rare mutations, red hair was the result of one or more spontaneous mutations in founder (that is, small and isolated) groups. The sequencing data indicate that the mutation responsible for red hair in Neanderthals is not the same as the one that causes red hair in Cro-Magnons.

  17. Walden2 says:

    The March, 2010 issue of Smithsonian Magazine has an article on the earliest members of the human family online:

    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/The-Human-Familys-Earliest-Ancestors.html

    And a related article in the July, 2010 issue of National Geographic Magazine, which has on its cover the skull of a 4 million year old woman:

    http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/07/middle-awash/shreeve-text

  18. Walden2 says:

    May 12, 2011

    Neanderthals Went Extinct 10,000 Years Earlier than Thought

    Direct dating of a fossil of a Neanderthal infant suggests that Neanderthals probably died out earlier than previously thought. Researchers have dated a Neanderthal fossil discovered in a significant cave site in Russia in the northern Caucasus, and found it to be 10,000 years older than previous research had suggested. This new evidence throws into doubt the theory that Neanderthals and modern humans interacted for thousands of years.

    Instead, the researchers believe any co-existence between Neanderthals and modern humans is likely to have been much more restricted, perhaps a few hundred years. It could even mean that in some areas Neanderthals had become extinct before anatomically modern humans moved out of Africa.

    Full article here:

    http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2011/05/neaderthals-went-extinct-10000-years-earlier-than-thought.html

  19. Athena says:

    Neanderthals could still have interbred with H. sapiens even if they went extinct 10K years earlier than previously thought.

  20. Athena says:

    Yes, indeed! Very exciting.

  21. Walden2 says:

    http://whyevolutionistrue.word?press.com/2011/10/13/ancient-a?rtists/

    Ancient artists

    whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.c?om

    by Greg Mayer

    A paper to be published tomorrow in Science by C.S. Henshilwood and colleagues reports the discovery of a 100,000 year old paint-making shop in a cave in South Africa.

  22. Walden2 says:

    This is from 2010 but I just found out about it:

    http://philosophyofscienceportal.blogspot.com/2012/09/clone-neanderthalonly-in-science-fiction.html

    I guess we won’t have a Neanderthal Park any time soon, sigh.

  23. Walden2 says:

    Neanderthals May Have Worn Dark Feathers

    Megan Gannon, News Editor

    Date: 18 September 2012 Time: 01:31 PM ET

    http://www.livescience.com/23278-neanderthals-feathers.html

  24. Athena says:

    Between new techniques and a different mindset, it’s interesting how more and more like us they seem…

  25. Walden2 says:

    Why did the Neanderthals die out?

    A major conference in London this week will reveal the results of five years’ research on why Homo sapiens emerged triumphant in the survival battle of the humans

    Robin McKie science editor

    The Observer, Saturday 1 June 2013

    Full article here:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2013/jun/02/why-did-neanderthals-die-out

  26. Athena says:

    I find the business about larger bodies to be a red herring. They weren’t larger by an order of magnitude. Brain wiring is another story, but it’s impossible to tell with remains.

  27. Walden2 says:

    Neanderthal bone contains oldest-known human tumor

    A fibrous dysplasia tumor was discovered in the rib bone of a Neanderthal that was excavated more than a century ago in Croatia. The benign tumor is more than 100,000 years older than any other tumor found in humans.

    LiveScience.com (6/5/2013)

    http://www.livescience.com/37194-neanderthal-oldest-tumor.html

  28. Walden2 says:

    This is not new news but it caught my attention just the same…

    Neanderthal brain spared schizophrenia

    Wednesday, 13 June 2007

    Jennifer Viegas

    Discovery News

    Neanderthals probably did not possess the cognitive complexities of modern humans so did not suffer from schizophrenia and certain other mental disorders, according to a new theory.

    The theory proposes that language, creativity and many mental diseases are linked, due to the fact that they may originate in the neocortex, as well as the densely cell-packed cortex, located towards the top of the brain.

    These brain regions appear to mature and develop more slowly than other areas.

    Although there are conflicting claims about possible Neanderthal creative abilities, no direct evidence supports that this extinct human species or subspecies possessed fully fledged grammatical language.

    Neanderthals had large brains, but researchers believe their mental skills matured rapidly, closing the door to disorders associated with the cortex.

    Modern humans, on the other hand, must take the good with the bad.

    “In a nutshell, I feel that the extremely long maturation time of our brains, greater than 20 years, allows them to develop many and various capabilities, such as language and schizophrenia,” says the theory’s proponent Dr Lee Seldon, a senior lecturer and an expert on health informatics at Monash University in Australia.

    Full article here:

    http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2007/06/13/1949873.htm

  29. Athena says:

    Neanderthals had a cortex and a neocortex and there’s no way we’ll know if they suffered from any mental disorder or possessed fully fledged language.