We Were Not Alone

Last week – amid all the interest in Lincoln’s 200th birthday (not to mention the fuss over the Stimulus package), there was a piece of scientific news that I thought was pretty cool.  A group from Germany released a draft report on the genome of Neanderthal.
Now, if there was ever a group that gets a bad rap, it’s Neanderthals.  To call someone one is to suggest that that they’re stupid and “sub-human” – but Neanderthals had brains as large as contemporary Homo sapiens, they were stronger, had mastered fire, made tools, probably had language and performed ritual burial of their dead.  Archaeological evidence points to the last Neanderthals dying out about 25,000 years ago near Gibraltar.

One interesting question over the years has been whether Neanderthals were just a different type of Homo sapiens or a different species altogether.  Genetic data from the last decade suggests the latter – that modern humans and Neanderthals split somewhere around 500,000 years ago (and so are not descended from one another) and are not the same species.  The initial genome analysis suggests that modern humans and Neanderthals were ~99.5% identical genetically* – but despite this similarity there is little in the DNA record to suggest significant intermingling of populations (sorry Clan of the Cave Bear). 
To me, the most remarkable conclusion of this is when modern humans pushed out of Africa and finally reached Europe (around 40,000 years ago) that for 10000 – 15000 years where there were TWO sentient, tool-wielding, clan-forming “human” species in the same place at the same time.  Wow.

So this week I’ve been asking a couple of questions about our lost cousins

a) Why us and not them?  A lot of hypotheses have been offered for Neanderthal’s demise — from climate change, to diseases brought on by incoming modern humans, to direct out-competition (and even extermination) by them.  We’ll probably never know for sure, but it’s a little disturbing to know that in the long list of species that H sapiens has driven to extinction, that our closest relative may have been the first.

b) If you’re a religious type and you believe that man was made in God’s image (free will and intelligence) – what does this say for Neanderthal?  Did people 30000 years ago have souls?  If so, wouldn’t a Neanderthal have one?  When we get to heaven, will there be a little cluster of Neanderthals there and will you have to have that awkward “Hey, no hard feelings?” conversation?

*Interestingly, the data also suggests that they were lactose intolerant and had a tendency towards having red hair.  FWIW, I am not lactose intolerant.

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25 thoughts on “We Were Not Alone

  1. Ha! Neanderkid :) Okay, so why us and not them? It was their big rib cages. The women had no room for hooters and the men weren't up for sexy time with these flatties, so they just died out. FWIW I'm a human flatty so… well. Ahem.Anyway, this is awesome and I'm glad you posted it. I had heard bits of it on the radio but never got around to searching for the full deal. Very cool :)

  2. WONDERFUL POST!
    LMAO – awkward conversations indeed. Maybe they'll simply chase us down and beat the carp out of us. I heard somewhere that lactose tolerance is the most recent dietary evolution of Homo sapiens – so I guess it's a recent adaptation. How interesting to think of living alongside another species so much like us.
    It would be facinating to me to learn about the field of pre-human extinctions – is there a specific field for that? Is it just a branch of Paleontology? I hear scientists struggle over wooly mammoth extinction all the time – I wonder if it's really possible to know.

  3. Poor Neaderkid. Sista needs to run a comb thru dat hurr, YA HEAR ME?!And it will certainly be awkward. It's gonna be one of those family reunions that maybe happens a little too soon after a family feud. And there will be no Richard Dawson to kiss people and distract from how uncomfortable everyone is.

  4. It is fascinating that two distinct sentient 'human' species existed simultaneously for such a long period of time. The lack of evidence of intermingling suggests that the impulse to divide the world into "us" and "them" is very old indeed.

  5. RP — I suppose their co-existence has been known for a while, but the genome news made me think about it differently for the first time. It does put the concept of "racism" in an odd light. In a fight for survival, is it okay to "take out" another species — even if it's a close relative? Early homo sapiens' moral centers probably weren't capable of forming that question, but I still find it fascinating nonetheless.

  6. It does put the concept of "racism" in an odd light. In a fight for survival, is it okay to "take out" another species — even if it's a close relative? That is a key question. Biology ethicists have asked if we were right to make smallpox extinct and if our efforts to do the same for polio, measles, and the rest are ethical [1]. As for getting rid of close relatives, well we seem to still be doing it. It is one of the reasons that I'm not sure we deserve the epithet "sentient".John[1] With germs and viruses, there is the complicating factor of "without them, will the human race advance?" Death by measles is rare, but it advances the genome in the most exacting manner. Mamma Nature never sleeps and has no pity…

  7. In a fight for survival, is it okay to "take out" another species — even if it's a close relative? Early homo sapiens' moral centers probably weren't capable of forming that question, but I still find it fascinating nonetheless. Why do you say that? As far as I know there is no real evidence to suggest one way or another that their brains any less "evolved" than today's humans.[1] Are you suggesting that morality is 100% a learned behavior? Besides, if large groups of us have no problem with genocide of our own species (even today) why should we hesitate to kill off another one no matter how closely related to us it is? [1] But I have no doubt John will lay his hands on some for me. 8:-)

  8. Good one, Steve! I have long been fascinated with the whole Neanderthal thing. (yes, I confess, it was initially sparked by reading "Clan of the Cave Bear" when I was a teenager!) (good old Jondalar, heh-heh… ;-) )
    Thanks for sharing this bit of science news — I hadn't stumbled across it on my own.

  9. QoFB — great comment. My assumption (which could be way wrong) is that the concepts of morality began with organized societies that needed to develop rules for the "common good" — and if that's even correct, then it begs the follow-up of were human societies of 25000-50000 y-ago so organized? Perhaps so — but it also pre-supposes the concept that killing is wrong.

  10. My assumption (which could be way wrong) is that the concepts of morality began with organized societies that needed to develop rules for the "common good" — and if that's even correct, then it begs the follow-up of were human societies of 25000-50000 y-ago so organized? I think they were. Humans were certainly living together in groups even earlier than that. Judging from the behaviors we see in other animals that live in packs and colonies I think it's quite fair to say that they were looking out for the "common good."Perhaps so — but it also pre-supposes the concept that killing is wrong. Well, if you're going to use that as a guide I just don't really see how you can claim that the human race as a whole has achieved morality even today.

  11. But I have no doubt John will lay his hands on some for me. 8:-) You wish. Research indicates that neanderthals had fairly sophisticated societies and concepts. They had music, funerals, and representative art.Then again, they (like homo sap.) practiced cannibalism. Unlike us, it may have killed them off. (Then again, with obesity rates at an all time high, perhaps we are also eating ourselves to death…)John

  12. But I have no doubt John will lay his hands on some for me. 8:-) You wish.What? You're satisfied with the homework I did? My, my. This is a red letter day, isn't it? 8:-)Research indicates that neanderthals had fairly sophisticated societies and concepts. Yes, I'm well aware of that. (It's only been 3 years since I last encountered paleoanthropology in school.)

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