First Peoples and Neanderthals


This weekend, I finished off the last of the ‘First Peoples‘ PBS miniseries on prehistoric humans.  If  you’ve watched other documentaries on human prehistory and found them interesting, then you’ll want to watch this one to get the latest findings.  It was fascinating.  (A lot of people have mentioned ‘Becoming Human‘ to me, which I’ve seen and enjoyed, but its content is now dated by a few years.)

I did find the sound editing in the first hour to be poor.  Often I couldn’t hear what the narrator was saying over the music or sound effects.  Hopefully they’ll fix that by the time the series is available in other venues.  If not, don’t let it deter you from watching the rest.  It gets much better after that first hour.  And the actual content of that first hour, on prehistoric native Americans, is fascinating if  you can bear with it.

In the final episode, we see anthropologist John Hawks discuss a theory about Neanderthals that I wrote about a few months ago, that they actually didn’t go extinct, but were assimilated into Home sapien societies.

A couple of decades ago, there were two major theories on the evolution of Homo sapiens.  One, called the Multiregional theory, posited that modern humans evolved throughout the world, with gene flow between the continents keeping humanity one species.  The other was the Replacement, or Out of Africa theory,  which held that modern humans evolved in Africa and then spread throughout the world, replacing other archaic human species such as the Neanderthals.

In recent years, the evidence seemed to swing decidedly in favor of the Replacement model.  All of the oldest remains of modern humans were found in Africa, and all archaeological signs of behavioral modernity throughout the rest of the world were less than 50,000 years old.  Genetic studies revealing the prehistoric migrations that Homo sapiens followed seemed to be the nail in the coffin of the Multiregional model.

All of which didn’t have modern humans looking too good in our relationship with other archaic humans.  It was starting to look uncomfortably like we had invaded their turf and drove them to extinction, either directly through conflict or indirectly through resource competition.

Then someone sequenced the DNA of Neanderthals and discovered that all ethnic non-Africans (from relatively recent times) share between 1% and 4% of their DNA with Neanderthals.  There was some discussion that maybe that shared DNA went back to the common ancestor of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, but most scientists now see this shared genetics coming from intermixing.

In other words, Homo sapiens and Neanderthals mated.  If they did that, these two groups must have seen a lot more humanity in each other than had previously been supposed.  Neanderthals, since their discovery, have moved from an ape like conception to a branch of humanity that most of us have inherited from.

As Hawks discussed, Neanderthal population was probably never more than a few thousand individuals, while Homo sapiens migrating into their regions numbered in the tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands.  Neanderthals didn’t so much as go extinct as get swamped and assimilated.  Unless your ethnicity is African (again from recent historical times since we’re all Africans if we go far enough back), then you are part Neanderthal.

Depending on where your ancestors lived, you also may have bits of other archaic human population genetics in you, such as the Denisovans.

So, the verdict of evidence appears to be that the Replacement model was mostly right.  All of us are mostly descended from Africans, including the parts that make us modern humans.  But the Multiregional model was not completely wrong either since most of us have DNA from other branches of humanity.

First Peoples documentary series to air on PBS starting Wednesday

I’ve posted before on prehistorical societies, and the fact that, for virtually all of human history, including the history of our particular sub-species: Homo sapiens, we lived in nomadic hunter gatherer tribes.  The evidence points to anatomically modern humans first appearing in Africa over 200,000 years ago, and that much of what we consider normal human society: agriculture, cities, states, etc, only arose within the last 10,000 years, in other words, in the last 5% of the history of Homo sapiens.

If you find this as interesting as I do, then you might want to catch a new documentary that will be airing on PBS starting Wednesday evening: First Peoples.

Anthropologist John Hawks, who will appear throughout the documentary, has some additional information on it.

I’m looking forward to this series.  The story of where we came from and how the world as we know it developed always fascinates me.

World’s Oldest Art Identified in Half-Million-Year-Old Zigzag

I’ve noted before that I think capabilities like human language didn’t pop into being 50-75 thousand years ago, but developed over hundreds of thousands of years (if not millions).  Well, it looks like another piece of behavioral modernity may predate anatomically modern humans:
World’s Oldest Art Identified in Half-Million-Year-Old Zigzag.

A zigzag engraving on a mussel’s shell may transform scientific understanding of what has long been considered a defining human capacity: artistic creativity.

Until now, the earliest evidence of geometric art was dated from 70,000 to 100,000 years ago. Scratched into rocks found in South African caves, those engravings signified behavioral modernity: Homo sapiens’ unique cognitive journey into a sophisticated world of abstraction and symbol.

But new analysis of an engraving excavated from a riverbank in Indonesia suggests that it’s at least 430,000 years old—and that it wasn’t made by humans, scientists announced Wednesday. At least it wasn’t made by humans as most people think of them, meaning Homo sapiens.

Rather, the earliest artist appears to have been one of our ancestors,Homo erectus. Hairy and beetle-browed, H. erectus was never before thought to have such talents.

“The origin of such cognition, such abilities,” said archaeologist Josephine Joordens, “is much further back in time than we thought.”

I’m not entirely sure I would have bought that zigzag pattern as art, but based on the article, it appears to have been a rigorous analysis.

In their Nature paper, Joordens’s group avoids terms like art, symbolism, and modernity. It’s hard to know, she said, the intentions of the engraver. But if the shell was 100,000 years old and found amongHomo sapiens fossils, “it would easily be called symbolic or early art.”

It seems increasingly evident that behavioral modernity didn’t pop into being a few tens of thousands of years go, but developed gradually over hundreds of thousands of years, with the earliest examples going back to Homo erectus, who used several tools, knew how to use fire, might have cooked their food, and was the actual first branch of humanity to migrate out of Africa.  I don’t think we should be too surprised that they might have left simple art behind.

Maybe we’ve found Neanderthals, and they are us.

The intermixing of modern humans and Neanderthals is back in the news: BBC News – DNA yields secrets of human pioneer.

DNA analysis of a 45,000-year-old human has helped scientists pinpoint when our ancestors interbred with Neanderthals.

The genome sequence from a thigh bone found in Siberia shows the first episode of mixing occurred between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago.

The male hunter is one of the earliest modern humans discovered in Eurasia.

The study in Nature journal also supports the finding that our species emerged from Africa some 60,000 years ago, before spreading around the world.

A year ago, I was pretty convinced that we, modern humans, were pretty much responsible for the extinction of the Neanderthals.  Various theories about climate change causing it didn’t seem compelling, since the Neanderthals had been around for hundreds of thousands of years, no doubt weathering many climate variations, but had disappeared right around the time modern humans encroached on their territory.

But the findings in recent years that all non-ethnic Africans have 2-4% Neanderthal DNA, has raised another interesting possibility.  (I wish I could find the article of the anthropologist who speculated about it, but I can’t, so you’ll have to read my amateur snippet.)

It appears that the population of Neanderthals was always low, a few tens of thousands across all of what is now Europe.  When modern humans started encroaching on them, those modern populations were orders of magnitude larger.  Maybe we didn’t eradicate Neanderthals or out compete them for resources (at least not completely).

Maybe we intermarried with and assimilated them.  It might be that Neanderthals didn’t so much go extinct as meld into the population of modern humans.  As someone who is 3% DNA (at least according to 23andMe), I find this idea intriguing.

Given the long history of us regarding the Neanderthals as some kind of ape-like sub-human, there may be resistance to this idea.  But the more I read and think about it, the more it seems like that’s where the evidence is pointing.

Maybe we’ve found Neanderthals and they are us.

When It Comes to Neanderthals, Humans May Be the Borg

The extinction and competition hypotheses for the demise of the Neanderthals, notably suggested by interdisciplinary scientist and author Jared Diamond, hinge on the idea that humans were more advanced than Neanderthals. Commonly claimed are the following: that humans had more communicative abilities, were more efficient hunters, had superior weaponry, ate a broader diet, and had more extensive social networks.

But the archaeological record doesn’t back any of those claims, the authors found.

In 2010, scientists discovered that between one and four percent of the DNA of modern humans living outside of Africa is derived from Neanderthals, providing clear evidence that the two species were interbreeding to some extent tens of thousands of years ago. In January of this year, Benjamin Vernot and Joshua Akey of the University of Washington published a paper in Science that corroborated those results. They found that a fifth of Neanderthals’ genetic code lives on within our species as a whole.

via RealClearScience – When It Comes to Neanderthals, Humans May Be the Borg.

As someone who discovered last year that they were 3% Neanderthal, and given the now very low population estimates for Neanderthals, this strikes me as completely plausible.  Maybe Neanderthals didn’t die out so much as marry into the family.  In other words, we are Neanderthals.  (At least those of us who aren’t from recent African stock are.)

Neanderthals were not inferior to modern humans, says CU-Boulder study

Neanderthals thrived in a large swath of Europe and Asia between about 350,000 and 40,000 years ago. They disappeared after our ancestors, a group referred to as “anatomically modern humans,” crossed into Europe from Africa.

In the past, some researchers have tried to explain the demise of the Neanderthals by suggesting that the newcomers were superior to Neanderthals in key ways, including their ability to hunt, communicate, innovate and adapt to different environments.

But in an extensive review of recent Neanderthal research, CU-Boulder researcher Paola Villa and co-author Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, make the case that the available evidence does not support the opinion that Neanderthals were less advanced than anatomically modern humans.

via Neanderthals were not inferior to modern humans, says CU-Boulder study | University of Colorado Boulder.

There are still anthropologists who insist that the evidence for cognitive parity between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans is scarce, but they seem to be increasingly drowned out by all those concluding that Neanderthals were very similar to us.  This article makes an excellent point that often Neanderthals are compared to humans living in much later times, and therefore more advanced times, in other words, comparing middle paleolithic Neanderthals to upper paleolithic humans.

It does seem increasingly evident that if Neanderthals were in front of us right now, that we’d regard them as people, not any kind of beast or semi-beast.  We may never know for sure though.

Neanderthals and Cro-magnons did not coexist on the Iberian Peninsula, suggests re-analysis of dating — ScienceDaily

The meeting between a Neanderthal and one of the first humans, which we used to picture in our minds, did not happen on the Iberian Peninsula. That is the conclusion reached by an scientists after redoing the dating of the remains in three caves located on the route through the Pyrenees of the first beings of our species: L’Arbreda, Labeko Koba and La Viña.

more at Neanderthals and Cro-magnons did not coexist on the Iberian Peninsula, suggests re-analysis of dating — ScienceDaily.

So the cross breeding between anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals happened outside of Europe, and much earlier than the entry of modern humans into that region, most likely in the middle east based on what I’ve read.

Talking Neanderthals challenge the origins of speech

I’ve posted before about how I think that language is very ancient, probably evolving over hundreds of thousands of years, possibly millions.  The evidence for this view continues to mount.  It now looks like there’s stronger evidence that Neanderthals could talk.

We humans like to think of ourselves as unique for many reasons, not least of which being our ability to communicate with words. But ground-breaking research shows that our ‘misunderstood cousins,’ the Neanderthals, may well have spoken in languages not dissimilar to the ones we use today.

via Talking Neanderthals challenge the origins of speech — ScienceDaily.

Did Neanderthals have religion?

It’s been a while since Coolidge and Wynn posted an entry.  Now they’ve done one looking at whether Neanderthals intentionally buried their dead.

What did Neandertals do with dead people? And what does this tell us about Neandertal behavior? These questions are perennial favorites for undergraduates and lay persons interested in human evolution. Indeed, one of the ‘facts’ many people remember about Neandertals is that they buried their dead, which suggests to some that Neandertals also must have had a rich religious and symbolic life. Recently, a new study of the site of La Chapelle aux Saints (which literally means chapel of the saints, and it is about 320 miles south of Paris) has reignited interest in this long standing debate, so it is timely for us to introduce the topic of Neandertal mortuary practice.

via Did Neandertals Bury Their Dead and Why? | Psychology Today.

They note the lack of evidence for any ritual practice associated with the burials, noting that there are simpler explanations than religion for the very few, simple, and shallow Neanderthal burials that have been found.  For example, they might have simply wanted to remove the smell.

One question I had reading this is, how do Neanderthal burials compare with those of anatomically modern humans, particularly those older than 100,000 years?  From what I understand, there isn’t any evidence of ritual burials before then.  Of course, it’s possible that modern humans themselves didn’t have religion until after then, which would raise the interesting question of what triggered its development.

I’ve noted before that I think language is pretty ancient, probably developing gradually over hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions.  Based on what I’ve read, I have a tendency to think the same thing for religion.

Although the religion of 100,000 years ago would almost certainly be better described as proto-religious, so a stickler might insist that it developed late.  Given the wide variety of cultural systems we call ‘religion’, the dividing line may always be debatable.

Of course, this is all supposition since our evidence is scant.  Nevertheless, I find it fascinating.

BBC News – Neanderthals could speak like modern humans, study suggests

Credit: Stefan Scheer via Wikipedia
Credit: Stefan Scheer via Wikipedia

An analysis of a Neanderthal\’s fossilised hyoid bone – a horseshoe-shaped structure in the neck – suggests the species had the ability to speak.

This has been suspected since the 1989 discovery of a Neanderthal hyoid that looks just like a modern human\’s.

But now computer modelling of how it works has shown this bone was also used in a very similar way.

Writing in journal Plos One, scientists say its study is \”highly suggestive\” of complex speech in Neanderthals.

via BBC News – Neanderthals could speak like modern humans, study suggests.

This article talks about new evidence that Neanderthals could speak, and could speak fluently.  And since we and Neanderthals forked evolutionarily some 400,000 years ago, it implies that speech and language is at least that old.

This doesn’t particularly surprise me.  While I’ve read about a lot of theories that speech was only around 50,000 or so years old, that’s never made a lot of sense to me for a few reasons.

  1. Speech and language is a well developed feature.  The idea that it sprang out of nowhere a few tens of thousands of years ago, without a lot of time going through intermediary stages seems implausible.
  2. Monkeys communicate with each other about predators and such with various screeches.  These screeches aren’t language in the sense of having sentences and semantics, but they are communication and very much strike me as early protolanguage.  A stage our remote ancestors probably went through.
  3. Part of our anatomy seems evolved for speech, and now it looks like part of Neanderthal anatomy is too.  We also have parts of our brain dedicated to speech and understanding language.  Evolution of these features took time.  Of course, these could be repurposed functions, but then what were the original functions?

All of this, it seems to me, points to speech being very ancient.  The Neanderthal evidence seems to push it back at least half a million years.  My own (admittedly inexpert) intuition is that speech development probably ran more or less in parallel with the development of sophisticated tools, meaning it developed gradually over millions of years.