Skip

Neanderthals & Modern Humans Interbred. A New Hybrid Skull Unearthed in Romania...
January 16, 2007 4:38 AM   Subscribe

Neanderthals & Modern Humans Interbred. Hybrid Skull Unearthed in Romania ...
... that includes features of both modern humans and Neanderthals, possibly suggesting that the two may have interbred thousands of years ago. Neanderthals were replaced by early modern humans. Researchers have long debated whether the two groups mixed together, though most doubt it. The last evidence for Neanderthals dates from at least 24,000 years ago

posted by Bodyguard (62 comments total)

 
I was drunk and it was a one time thing.

And stop calling me.
posted by chillmost at 4:50 AM on January 16, 2007


Since when does "possibly suggesting" mean that it happened? The skull could just be from a genetic mutant, for example.
posted by pmbuko at 4:59 AM on January 16, 2007


Eventually they will get the DNA samples needed to make a clear case one way or the other. I am hoping that we did hump our cousins, rather than just killing them off. makes for a better narrative.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:04 AM on January 16, 2007


So would this be adultery or bestiality? And what would the penalty be if you did it in Michigan?
posted by localroger at 5:09 AM on January 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


Overall there is no strong evidence for mixing of Neanderthal and modern human populations and "this doesn't add any," said Potts, who wasn't part of the research team.

That's about what I figured (well, my first thought was actually "Piltdown man," but that seems too harsh).

(For anyone who's curious, Peştera cu Oase is pronounced PESH-teh-rah koo WAH-seh, oase being the plural of os 'bone.')
posted by languagehat at 5:11 AM on January 16, 2007


What is the fancy word/concept a scientist would use that describes the degree of difference between 2 species that would make or break the ability to mate and produce offspring? Or is it common knowledge among biologists that it can't happen higher up in the classification tree? For example, is it possible within the same species, genus and order but not necessarily in the same family or some variation thereof?
posted by chillmost at 5:20 AM on January 16, 2007


chillmost, formally it's a separate species if interbreeding produces no offspring or sterile offspring. If you can mate with it and your children can have children, you're the same species.
posted by localroger at 5:24 AM on January 16, 2007


In elementary school, there was a guy kids called 'monkey man'. A very hairy elementary school boy with a prominent brow, big jaw, and big teeth. I don't think his mother had sex with a cave man. He just looked a lot like his great-great-...great-grandpa.
It could reflect a case in which ancient traits reappear in a modern human, or it could indicate a mixture of populations, Zilhao [one of the paper's authors] said. Or it simply may be that science hasn't been able to study enough early modern people to understand their diversity.
But these stories don't go anywhere if someone doesn't overstate the case. Small people, no one cares about. A tribe of "hobbits" gets attention.
posted by pracowity at 5:29 AM on January 16, 2007


24,000 years old - pshaw. We now have proof that the earth is no older than 10,000 years old. I saw it in the Museum.
posted by DesbaratsDays at 5:30 AM on January 16, 2007


Uga! Uga! Uga!
posted by homodigitalis at 5:32 AM on January 16, 2007


No, honest, it was there, I swear it! try again?
posted by DesbaratsDays at 5:36 AM on January 16, 2007


Different species names and even different genus names with regard to hominids are applied by anthropologists far more liberally than to any other creatures on the planet. Jared Diamond famously argued that we should be called Pan Sapiens, because by regular classification techniques (based on morphology, DNA similarity etc.), we shouldn't even have a different genus from chimps (normally, there's a bit more perspective, and a two slightly different skeletons would be put down to natural variation within a species).

The most commonly held definition (and I think there are dozens of definitions) for what constitutes a different species is the one that revolves around biological incompatibility (i.e. they can't interbreed), which is something that is impossible to test with regards to Neanderthals vs. humans (short of time-travel or some really fucking amazing breakthroughs in DNA extraction and cloning).

In short, this evidence can't prove they interbed, any more than the crappy mitochondrial DNA evidence claims that they didn't.
posted by kisch mokusch at 5:45 AM on January 16, 2007


Since when does "possibly suggesting" mean that it happened? The skull could just be from a genetic mutant, for example.

It doesn't, and you're right, it could. This could be a very big discovery and by all outward appearances the skull appears to be that of a human-neanderthal hybrid, as it possesses characteristics of both. However:
It could reflect a case in which ancient traits reappear in a modern human, or it could indicate a mixture of populations, Zilhao said. Or it simply may be that science hasn't been able to study enough early modern people to understand their diversity.
Hence the use of the phrase "possibly suggesting."
::sends link to anthropology professor::
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 6:01 AM on January 16, 2007


I had always assumed that the mitochondrial DNA evidence was the main reason why people assumed no interbreeding went on. In what way is this evidence crappy kisch?

Personally I would rather like the idea that I might have Neanderthal ancestors. It would explain the whole "enough body hair to survive an ice age" deal for a start.
posted by rongorongo at 6:02 AM on January 16, 2007


Why does this stuff always happen in Romania?
posted by zaelic at 6:06 AM on January 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


Isn't being bitten by the same vampire a more obvious cause?
posted by vbfg at 6:11 AM on January 16, 2007


Do we know how hairy Neanderthals might have been?

And on the other hand, we do know that Neanderthals had clothing.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:12 AM on January 16, 2007


Those Neanderthal dudes on those commercials look like they're getting mad modern human poon.
posted by The Straightener at 6:20 AM on January 16, 2007



I don't see why people wouldn't assume by default that we interbred. Men will fuck anything and genocides tend to involve rape (in fact, does anyone know of any that didn't?). Why would this one be any different?

Whether the results produced fertile offspring that are represented in our genetic legacy is another question entirely. But you can be sure that if there was a remotely fuckable creature about, at least one man tried it and quite likely a woman or two (willingly or not) as well.
posted by Maias at 6:20 AM on January 16, 2007


I don't see why interbreeding wasn't possible - it's only a loosely scientific opinion which I fancy is driven more by the idea that good ole H Sap wouldn't have anything to do with those grunty things.
It has taken me far too many years to realise that science has very little to say about imponderables. It will just take some clown to 'model' the brain function of Neanderthals from the bumps on the few skulls to create a whole new technique called palaeophrenology which will prove they left Earth by force of mind alone.
Actually I believe they did interbreed.
posted by Cennad at 6:40 AM on January 16, 2007


All women are fine, and sheep are devine,
but Neandrathals, numero uno.
posted by sfts2 at 6:48 AM on January 16, 2007


I vaguely recall some anthropologist or some such's quip about Neanderthal's appearance: "If he was dressed in modern clothing, you might think he was tough-looking, but you wouldn't object to your sister marrying him." (Anybody know the provenance of that quote? I think it might've come from a foreword to Crichton's Eaters of the Dead.)

For you non-USian MeFi'ers, there's a current TV advertisement series for insurance: "So easy a caveman can do it." To these eyes, they don't look all that different from an unshaven Humphrey Bogart or George Raft.
posted by pax digita at 6:51 AM on January 16, 2007


If you can mate with it and your children can have children, you're the same species.

It's gotta be more complicated or exception-ridden than that.

Horses and donkeys are considered different species, but at least some mules/hinnies are fertile. Likewise, ligers and tigons are sometimes at least partly fertile, but tigers and lions aren't the same species.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:52 AM on January 16, 2007


I had always assumed that the mitochondrial DNA evidence was the main reason why people assumed no interbreeding went on. In what way is this evidence crappy kisch?

It was the newest evidence for something that had been long-believed. The legible sequences of DNA extracted from the 38,000 year old femur were (very) short, and even then there were only a handful of differences. These differences could've resulted from problems with the extraction, not true differences per se (although they were extracted and sequenced in two separate labs, so I'll give the benefit of the doubt here). The authors (in a Nature paper no less) deducted that, based on arguably minor and possibly even artificial differences, the Neanderthals were a completely different species from humans.

I called them crappy because the whole process of DNA extraction and sequencing (especially mtDNA) at the best of times is prone to error, let alone from a 40,000 year old skeleton.

And even if all the sequence data was correct, it still only came from one specimen. So to then claim that the entire race of Neanderthals did not (and was likely) incapable of breeding with humans is drawing a very long bow.

I should like to add that every time an anthropologist discovers a new species of hominid, his/her paper will be in Science (big deal for scientists), his/her face will be on Time and his/her funding is set for the next 5-10 years. But if you find just another homo erectus bone, then you get nothing. So the slightest difference between your specimen and their specimen becomes an argument for a new species (or not, in this case), which leads to a kind-of sensationalist approach to anthropology rather than a rational one.

/sorry for the long post.
posted by kisch mokusch at 6:57 AM on January 16, 2007


And what would the penalty be if you did it in Michigan?

Eminem.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:00 AM on January 16, 2007


I'd hit it.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:11 AM on January 16, 2007


My father, an AP editor, sent me this story yesterday, pointing out that this may explain a lot. We are Romanian, you see, and half of us have these ridiculous eyebrows...
posted by houseofdanie at 7:21 AM on January 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


Does this explain the existence of Republicans?
posted by kcds at 7:27 AM on January 16, 2007


kisch mokusch, I see you're a student. What are you studying? Because you sound exactly like one of my anthropology professors.

I totally agree with the sensationalism of anthropology, which is why I chose to read through the article rather than accepting the headline.

Neanderthal or not, the skull is the oldest known of a modern human, so that in and of itself is pretty cool.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 7:32 AM on January 16, 2007


Currently in the field of Immunology (PhD), but did one of my majors in Anthropology (with this guy). One of my assignments (given that Genetics was one of my other majors) was to re-assess the data from the then new Nature paper claiming that Neanderthals were a different species from Humans (hence bias).

I do like the continuity theory. I don't think animals split into species quite as quickly (and easily) as many scientists would have you believe. And finding a modern human skull (which seems remarkably well intact) that old will lend weight to the idea. But at the end of the day, it's something that simply cannot be proven at this point in time.
posted by kisch mokusch at 7:50 AM on January 16, 2007


RUI_Xenophobe: ... but at least some mules/hinnies are fertile.

It's that "at least" that's killer; and as far as I know, none have yet produced a fertile line. Same with Ligers/Tigons. (People have been trying to get a fertile Mule for probably thousands of years. Mules are amazing beasts -- stronger, smarter, longer-lived, tougher.)
posted by lodurr at 7:55 AM on January 16, 2007


I've never understood what the big deal is with this controversy. It seems perfectly plausible to me that Neanderthalensis and Sapiens could have existed side by side without interbreeding very much, even if they could. Grizzlies and Alaskan Brown Bears don't typically interbreed, even though they live side by side and are quite capable of interbreeding if they choose to (they're now recognized as the same species).

As for the old idea that humans will fuck anything that moves... well, maybe, but from what I know about non-hieratic or pre-modern cultures ("primitive"), that's not really true. I suspect that rape as a tool of warfare is a post-hieratic invention. In Bosnia and in Africa, the idea is to "spoil" the women somehow -- to defile them, causing them to be regarded as unfit for motherhood or breeding, and delivering a critical insult to the enemy. I've never encountered any evidence that rape played much of a role in primitive warfare. Except when levied against primitives.

What I do find very plausible is that Neanderthaler or Sapiens women and children, captured in raids, would be incorporated into tribal life. The women would bear children, the children might grow up to be contributing members of the band. That's pretty much how it works in most tribal societies that practice raiding.

So I think small-scale "racial" mixing is quite plausible. But large-scale, not so much. Large-scale racial mixing is rare in humans who don't live in concentrated populations, and often the exception even there.
posted by lodurr at 8:08 AM on January 16, 2007


Live fast, die young (and dumb), but yer lookin' good, kid. Evidently, older and wiser Cro-Magnons came up with the saying, "Old age and treachery overcomes youth and enthusiasm every time."
posted by cenoxo at 8:09 AM on January 16, 2007


If you can mate with it and your children can have children, you're the same species.

Move over, Will It Blend?, there's a new internet phenomena in town!

*Buys camera, spritzes self with Brut, heads to the zoo*
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:10 AM on January 16, 2007


Does this explain the existence of Republicans?

No, Republicans have recently been identified as a more modern offshoot: Homo sapiens nihilensis.
posted by lodurr at 8:12 AM on January 16, 2007


Meatbomb: I feel the same way. It would be nice to think that the transition was peaceful, that the genetically outclassed Neanderthals gradually faded from the scene. But the two processes you reference -- interbreeding and genocide -- are not mutually exclusive. The conquistadores, for example, created whole nations of mestizos as they wiped out the indigenous peoples of South America.
posted by jason's_planet at 8:17 AM on January 16, 2007


God is just messing with us again.

Oh, that wacky Judeo-Christian God.
posted by beaucoupkevin at 8:20 AM on January 16, 2007


FIRE GOOD
posted by ninjew at 8:24 AM on January 16, 2007


I have a hard time believing in a "Neanderthal Genocide." It would be analogous to envisioning a Lakota genocide of the Mandan, or vice-versa. "Genocide" strikes me as a post-hieratic concept -- something you really need a big mono-lateralist GOD or some powerful cultural machine to justify.

In primitive cultures, the equation is much simpler: "They have good hunting ground. We want it. We're taking it." 'Genocide' don't enter into it, methinks.
posted by lodurr at 8:27 AM on January 16, 2007


Neanderthals, humans more similar than thought:
Artifacts also indicate that modern humans were more fashion-conscious than Neanderthals, who draped themselves with skins.

Humans adorned themselves with shell beads and pierced fox teeth, and sewed their garments with bone needles, creating looks that may have helped them to distinguish other humans at a distance and determine the group to which they belonged.

Aside from dress, these humans were “fully modern, behaviorally and cognitively,” Adler says. “They were identical to us.”

Neanderthals were not as crude looking as you may think, however, he says. Although they were shorter than we are and had large brow ridges, a Neanderthal man dressed in a suit and tie might walk down the street today without attracting prolonged stares.
Modern man has thus survived, not due to our technology, but to our superior fashion sense.
posted by cenoxo at 8:28 AM on January 16, 2007


(which is not to say that the indigenous peoples of the New World were genetically outclassed.)
posted by jason's_planet at 8:28 AM on January 16, 2007


Modern man has thus survived, not due to our technology, but to our superior fashion sense.
posted by cenoxo


ORLY
posted by ninjew at 8:33 AM on January 16, 2007


In primitive cultures, the equation is much simpler: "They have good hunting ground. We want it. We're taking it."

It's not just primitive cultures. Try changing "hunting ground" to "resources" and re-reading the sentence.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:36 AM on January 16, 2007


Or just plain "land."
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:42 AM on January 16, 2007


Those Neanderthal dudes on those commercials look like they're getting mad modern human poon.

Are you sure about that? I thought those cavemen were clearly supposed to be gay.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 9:04 AM on January 16, 2007


No, just metrosexual.

Though you do raise an interesting point...
posted by lodurr at 9:36 AM on January 16, 2007


Or just plain "land."

Sure. Just saying that I don't believe the obfuscated it with rhetoric about culture or God.
posted by lodurr at 9:37 AM on January 16, 2007


I think it is very likely that Neanderthals and archaic H sapiens did interbreed, but the real question is weather the interbreeding was non-trivial or not.

As to why Romania (and surrounding area)? That was most likely the primary area of where the two crossed paths. Neanders have been found more east and south but iirc the incidents are much fewer.

I use to be a big proponate of nontrivial interbreeding as the force behind the replacement model, but fairly recent mtDNA evidence has made me quite a bit more reserved.

To date there has not been a single Neanderthal remains that have not shown premordium trauma, they lived pretty hard lives (the closest equivalent, strangely, in trauma type is bronco/rodeo riders).

There are definitely some features found in certain modern populations that have Neanderthal-like morphology (Occipital bun in N. Europeans), but trying to say that this is evidence of Neanderthal genes is difficult.

There was even a theory fairly recent that homo sapiens evolved from three sources. Homo neanderthalensis in Europe, Homo erectus in Asia, and Homo erectus in Africa. I don't think this is the case, but is interesting nonetheless.

Neanderthals where pretty intelligent (and had a larger brain then we do), but may have suffered due to environmental pressures. They had pretty large hunting grounds and depended primarily on meat. A reduction in hunting animals available paired with encroachment from a species with a more omnivorous diet and smaller body/brain caloric demands could have been the final push. Meaning we where better able to out consume and populate the Neanderthals.

If there was interbreeding then our female ancestors would have had a hard time of it. Neanderthal baby heads (and weight overall) where pretty substantially bigger then we are use to.

I doubt that we will know what happened for quite awhile. As mentioned before the current mtDNA evidence is pretty discouraging to those who hold out for substantial interbreeding, but perhaps a wider sample will prove otherwise.

As to the ability to interbreed. When species split there is still quite a long period of time where interbreeding is possible. It is not like a switch is thrown and suddenly there is no offspring whatsoever. Ligers (lion/tiger cross) are not sterile, but are "unnatural" because this mating does not occur without drastic outside pressures. But it serves to show that two know separate species can produce viable offspring.
posted by edgeways at 10:20 AM on January 16, 2007


I have long thought that there was at least some interbreeding that went on, not least because of my father. Dude not only has the heavy brow ridge, he has an occipital lump. Many other typical features as well. Of course, that's not evidence, but I always thought it was interesting.

I read once that red hair was actually originally a Neanderthal trait ... anyone have any idea where that theory comes from?
posted by kyrademon at 10:36 AM on January 16, 2007


In related news, archaeologists have discovered a 24,000 year old pair of "beer goggles."
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 10:56 AM on January 16, 2007


If you can mate with it and your children can have children, you're the same species.

Except when that's not the case, for example:
dogs (Canis familiaris)
wolves (Canis lupus)

Enthusiastic and very fertile inter-specific breeders.

The fact is, "species" is an extremely awkward unit of analysis, unsystematically applied, that is not very consistent with evolutionary theory, which works with trends, probabilities, proportions and variability.
posted by Rumple at 11:04 AM on January 16, 2007


If the skull is meaningless like the anthropologist says, then this really shouldn't be news.
posted by xammerboy at 11:11 AM on January 16, 2007


The fact is, "species" is an extremely awkward unit of analysis, unsystematically applied, that is not very consistent with evolutionary theory, which works with trends, probabilities, proportions and variability.

The example you cite is a good example of poor application -- clearly by genetic or reproductive criteria, Canis lupus and Canis familiaris ought not be regarded as separate species. So what we have is a problem of terminology, not analysis. Morphologically, we shouldn't even consider beagles and greyhounds to be the same species.

Presumably when biologists talk about "species" in a context like the Neanderthal/Cro Magnon debate, they have something mroe precise in mind. No?
posted by lodurr at 11:15 AM on January 16, 2007


As Rumple points out, species is a unit of analysis, not a natural rule. GENERALLY species are defined as genetically isolated, and how they get there is dependent on man factors, the inability to interbreed because of genetic incompatibility only occasionally being a criterion. It can also be a geographical isolation or behavioral isolation but if the difference are maintained long enough, the animal/plant/what have you population will become genetically distinct from others. Which is why sometimes different species from other sides of the world can mate and produce fertile offspring. They aren't the same species, geographic isolation created enough differences to make them their own species - but they don't have incompatible dna so their babies do just fine.

Not only that, but natural hybridization may be involved in the creation/evolution of new species. Red Wolves are thought to be the outcome of natural hybridization between wolves and coyotes.

This is, of course, just my layman's explanation. Someone in the science-y fields could probably explain it. But rest assured, the ability to cross breed is not what defines a species.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 11:22 AM on January 16, 2007


Presumably when biologists talk about "species" in a context like the Neanderthal/Cro Magnon debate, they have something mroe precise in mind. No?

They may have any number of formal or informal (and in the case of Anthropologists, more often naive versions of the latter) things in mind. The problem is, they are trying to implement a unit of analysis that is imposed on a stream of present (synchronic) variation in form and behaviour, and infer it from strictly morphological (skeletal) features in past (diachronic) populations. You can't put two skulls together and watch them interbreed. So a whole variety of morphological traits get lumped in as proxies for genetic distance and/or interbreeding abilities. Since most Anthropologists are not well trained in biology they may not check off basic concerns like "is the trait under selective pressure and if so could there be convergence between distinct populations". Instead, they reify canonical "neanderthal traits" and "sapiens traits", and mixtures of the two must be signs of interbreeding.

Which they may well be, but, it would be the right answer by the wrong means and therefore awfully difficult to verify or test.
posted by Rumple at 11:48 AM on January 16, 2007


kyrademon: Red hair genes 100,000 years old. There's some discussion of this on the Dawkins website - ""It has been postulated" based on the fact that, like the existence of God, it can't be proven false".
posted by paduasoy at 1:31 PM on January 16, 2007


All that mitochondrial evidence suggests is that the female Neanderthals have not contributed to our current gene pool. It says nothing about Neanderthal males boning modern homo sap women. Perhaps they did but their contribution was eventually swamped by the influx of modern homo saps into the local gene pool?

I've often wondered if a female Neanderthal could handle giving birth to a modern homo sap child. The birth canal might not have been large enough.
posted by geekhorde at 1:37 PM on January 16, 2007


Well, that suggests something interesting: That sapiens either didn't practice raiding for capture, or they didn't (or weren't able to) practice it against neanderthalensis bands. Because the general pattern when you take female captives is to breed with them.

Neanderthals could be capturing sapiens and breeding them them, of course.

What I'm saying is this: Maybe the whole "neanderthal genocide" scenario is basically backward. Maybe every time they got into a fight, the neanderthalers kicked the sapiens' asses and took all their women. Maybe the "conquest" was a function purely of environmental competetiveness, and not hostile dominance.
posted by lodurr at 2:48 PM on January 16, 2007


WHY, HOLLY?
WHY, CHAKA?
posted by Smart Dalek at 2:59 PM on January 16, 2007


Hm. Is Jean Auel psychic or what.
posted by deborah at 3:31 PM on January 16, 2007


Yeah, different species are not neccesarily unable to breed together. For example in Hawaii a False Killer Whale and a Bottlenose dolphin breed and produced a non sterile offspring.
posted by afu at 7:58 PM on January 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


edgeways writes "I use to be a big proponate of nontrivial interbreeding as the force behind the replacement model, but fairly recent mtDNA evidence has made me quite a bit more reserved."

isn't mtDNA all about the mother? Could it be the that the mixing was all Neanderthal male and HomoSapien female? Several possibilities come to mind of how that could come to pass.
posted by Mitheral at 8:40 PM on January 16, 2007


« Older Adultery could mean life, court finds.   |   The ferrofluid king's new thing Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post