My Big Fat Neanderthal Family Wedding

Was there a population that never experienced discrimination?  Prejudice has an ancient pedigree, perhaps wired into the human psyche. I was musing whether Neanderthal people bore it first and endured the stigma longest.  Thirty thousand years after they mysteriously disappeared, they are still regarded as oafish cavemen.

But at least we regard them as human, while ridiculing their long noses, brow-ridges, and prow-mouths. Besides the evidence of fossilized skeletons and DNA, I wonder if their humanity is also defined by our prejudicial attitudes, because we only look down on our own kind. We never hold animals in the same contempt as people, because even the great apes are subordinate beasts! It is not because other people are so different that we discriminate, but because they are too similar. When we look down our noses at other races, both archaic and modern, we reveal our deeper insecurities, and perhaps anxieties about losing superiority and being swamped.

Social scientists and anthropologists have not always been totally objective in their estimation of other tribes and races. I doubt there was ever a researcher who found his own race was inferior in character or intelligence to another, or if he did he never published it!

Sometimes people who know better don’t admit the facts. Over twenty years ago, my department hosted a distinguished British anatomist, who shall be nameless. He denied that Neanderthals had a slightly larger cranial volume (hence, brain size) than ourselves. It was useless arguing with him because he was a ‘Sir’ and a Fellow of the Royal Society. If he had admitted that their larger brain was merely in proportion to a larger body, we might have drawn a truce rather than ending the exchange in sulky silence. But he refused to discuss the hypothesis that they might have been our equals.

Neanderthal skull versus modern human skull

How much does size matter?

Poor Neanderthals need publicity agents to throw back slurs based on ignorance. There is so much we don’t know, and may never know. Did our first great encounter with these people begin with the exchange of gifts or at the point of a spear? According to a common fairy story, the dim Neanderthals were doomed when our brilliant ancestors arrived on the scene. We flatter ourselves with triumphal tales, even though this one is grotesquely reminiscent of the way we treated people when colonizing their lands, subjugating them in the name of civilizing inferior natives.

On the first world voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1826-1830), FitzRoy captured three natives in Tierra del Fuego and took them home to England. The Fuegians were dressed up as English folk, taught the language, instructed in the Christian faith, and even presented to the Royal Family. On the second voyage, with Charles Darwin as ship’s naturalist, the three were returned to their homeland where they quickly reverted to custom by throwing away their clothes and painting their skin with pigments. FitzRoy thought this behavior vindicated his theory that the gulf with civilized nations is too deep to cross.  Savages will always be savages, and always inferior.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin’s cranium – Neo-anderthal?

On the other hand, Darwin, an old-fashioned Whig or liberal, was awed by the mystery, “Whence have they come?” He accepted a hierarchy of human races, but believed it was moveable. He disagreed with Captain Fitzroy about most things, including slavery, which must have been awkward on a long voyage in a shared cabin. After they sailed home, immigrants started colonizing the southern tip of the continent. They treated the natives as feral humans, and those that survived epidemic diseases were otherwise exterminated.

Years later, Darwin was shown a skull excavated from a cave in Gibraltar (and is now at the Natural History Museum in London). This was the first fossil of an adult Neanderthal, and it predates by eight years another find in the Neander Valley which gave the people their name. Instead of sharing the general opinion that it represented a primitive brute, he cautioned, “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.”  Human genealogy has rolled out slowly since his day because our fossils are rare, but molecular genetics reveals branches on our family tree that challenge the stories we were told.

Recently, pure DNA was extracted from fossil bones to obtain a nearly complete sequence of the Neanderthal genome. I doubt if many people expected that between one and four per cent overlaps the genomes of modern Europeans and Asians. Today’s Africans have none of it though, which implies that the fraction possessed by the rest of humanity is not a residue from a common ancestor hundreds of thousands of years earlier. That Neanderthal DNA exists in us today is because our ancestors coming out of Africa about 50,000 years ago met Neanderthals living in the Middle East, with whom they intermarried (call the coupling what you will). Fossil evidence confirms that we did co-exist with them for 5,000 years, so there was plenty of time for integration, and our Neanderthal heritage is not the result of sporadic mating. I guess it was mostly consensual because I find it hard to imagine a Neanderthal woman being carted away unwillingly from her menfolk, who were like the beefiest NFL players you could imagine! But I digress.

Analysis of my own DNA reveals that I inherited 2.7% from Neanderthals. That is close to average for my ethnicity, and more than I share with my third cousins. The news amused me until I mused that it was ‘good DNA,’ for otherwise it would never have lasted so long after the weddings. Some bits of the genome have persisted more than others. We have acquired many genes associated with skin and hair, which implies that Neanderthal adaptations to cold were advantageous for our ancestors too when the next Ice Age arrived. However, we also hung on to genes linked with modern diseases, which seems perverse. Perhaps they were not so bad in the past before we adopted our current lifestyle and diet. Genes encouraging fat storage, but predisposing us to adult-type diabetes and obesity, might have helped us to survive cycles of feast and famine, perhaps thanks to ‘thrifty DNA’ from Neanderthals.

The number of generations separating races of modern people from our common African ancestors is like a twig on the evolutionary tree compared with the much older branches shared with Neanderthals from whom we separated over half a million years earlier. Neanderthals are our cousins, but mutations and natural selection caused genomes to drift so far apart that geneticists suspect that hybridization was barely viable. When crosses are made between closely-related species like horses and donkeys, the products are usually sterile if any offspring can be produced at all. That hybrid humans may have had fertility problems is suggested by the absence of Neanderthal DNA in our genes that control the manufacture of sperm in testes. Perhaps it didn’t ‘fit’ there, and maybe absorption of Neanderthals into the new society contributed to their disappearance.

If the image of a Neanderthal man courting your beautiful greatetc-grandmother is repulsive, look at sculptures by the American paleo-artist, John Gurche. His art is based on careful studies of the physiognomy of archaic humans. He created a Neanderthal profile which is imposing, almost handsome, even noble.

phrenology

The Phrenological magazine

Appearance matters, but intelligence often carries greater weight in our estimation of others. In the Victorian Age, phrenology was in vogue and its adherents trotted around the globe measuring the size and shape of skulls of rich and poor, saints and sinners, civilized nations and primitive tribes. They expected these measurements would predict people who were inferior in character and intellect, who always turned out to be the most disadvantaged in their studies. The discovery of Neanderthal bones gave them a new opportunity for skullduggery. In 1880, The Phrenological magazine declared, “The Cro-Magnon skull is superior to the Neanderthal skull in regard to intellectual and moral development … he was indeed a savage.” We may never know for sure, but I doubt that Neanderthals were dim people, or less bright than ourselves. That may seem contrary to signs that their tools and culture hardly evolved over eons, but neither did those of our ancestors advance much until the recent Agricultural Revolution. Could Neanderthals have struck a smarter deal, opting for a more stable relationship with nature than we have?

The German lion of Darwinism, Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), would be flustered by modern research and scholarship because he suggested that Neanderthals should be called Homo stupidus to distinguish them from our brilliant selves, Homo sapiens (literally, ‘wise man’). It was a proposal that revealed prejudice, but our cousins had fortunately been named already, and precedent counts in taxonomy. They were designated a new species, Homo neanderthalensis, although taxonomists continue to argue whether they were a distinct species or the subspecies, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. I don’t understand the debate. To be a separate species, two populations must be reproductively isolated, either genetically (they can’t mate with each other) or geographically (they can’t hang out with each other). Since Neanderthal DNA exists in our genome, they ought to be regarded as a sub-species: more different than modern races are from each other, but inside the species fence.

The popular image of Neanderthals is gradually being turned upside down by advances in traditional and molecular paleontology. Contrary to the stereotypes, we now know they were fair-skinned with reddish hair, not strict carnivores but ate a mixed diet with cooked vegetables, probably had a language, and evidently created symbolic art on stone walls and decorated their bodies. Most touching of all is the suggestion of a tender humanity, and that they were not emotional icebergs. Since some of their skeletons have badly worn joints and are almost toothless, these people probably needed carers to help them to survive with disabilities. After death, their bodies were not discarded like carcasses of game animals, but given a respectful burial. Can you imagine last rites performed by a Neanderthal shaman?

This revisionary anthropology throws refreshing light on a maligned people, although over a century ago a Danish anthropologist, Hans Peter Steensby, rejected the impression of Neanderthals as ape-like, inferior beings. But prejudice is deeply imbedded, and despite efforts to exorcize the demon we easily express it unconsciously. The other day, I caught myself joking that I have less Neanderthal DNA than the rest of my family!

Next Post: Thanks given for Wild Turkeys

About Roger Gosden

British-born scientist specializing in human and animal reproduction & embryology. Academic career spanned from Cambridge and Edinburgh to McGill and Cornell's Weill Medical College in Manhattan where he was Professor & Research Director. Married to Lucinda Veeck Gosden, embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America, he retired early to Williamsburg, Virginia, to write and to recover from 'nature deficit disorder'
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2 Responses to My Big Fat Neanderthal Family Wedding

  1. Jen Krapez says:

    I particularly enjoyed this Roger, and was fascinated to see John Gurche’s reconstructions, not at all the image I had in mind. You may be interested in this BBC R4 podcast on Neanderthals from Melvyn Bragg’s History series: https://itunes.apple.com/au/podcast/in-our-time-archive-history/id463700741?mt=2&i=97068148

  2. jennykrapez says:

    I particularly enjoyed this article, thank you Roger. I didn’t know we still had bits of Neanderthal DNA! Fascinating to see John Gurche’s reconstructions, not at all the image I had in mind. You might enjoy this podcast on Neanderthals from BBC R4 Melvyn Bragg’s History series, there’s some interesting discussion.

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