Humans and Neanderthals: Kissin’ Cousins in More Ways Than One

Humans and Neanderthals: Kissin’ Cousins in More Ways Than One July 7, 2017

Apparently, humans will shag anything in sight. At least anything even remotely looking like a Homo sapiens. That’s what the latest scientific evidence show regarding our closest homo genus kin, Neanderthals and Denisovans.

I know, you’re shocked, shocked.

Our early Homo sapien ancestors shagged Neanderthals and any related species, looking past superficial differences. Maybe we're not as advanced as we think.
What a Neanderthal would look like on the modern dating scene. Via Einsamer Schütze, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Recently, mitochondrial DNA extracted from 430,000-year-old Neanderthal fossils showed that our ancestors mated early and (probably) often with Neanderthals. The “genetic mixing” had to have occurred with very early archaic Homo sapiens or a closely related species.

A few weeks before, it was revealed that redated human fossils discovered in Morocco provided evidence that Homo sapiens not only evolved much earlier than previously thought, but began to spread out of Africa long before the better-documented migrations 60-70,000 years ago. Dated to approximately 300,000 years old, these North African fossils far predate the previous champ, the 195,000-year-old fragmentary remains found in Omo, Ethiopia.

Taken together, these reports shine a light into the foggy windows of our ancestors’ profligate mating habits.

Now, the average Homo neanderthalenis didn’t look like they would’ve gotten much action on a Paleolithic Tinder, if such a thing had existed in the Middle Paleolithic. Yeah, the hybridization scientists are finding may have happened through rape, but it’s just as likely that we’re seeing this interspecies miscegenation through biased modern eyes.

The rape theory itself can’t be divorced from contemporary biases. The repeated instances of inter-species mating genetic testing reveals may well have been a combination of natural hominin randiness and rapaciousness.

Our early Homo sapien ancestors shagged Neanderthals and any related species, looking past superficial differences. Maybe we're not as advanced as we think.
At about 160,000, the Herto skull is a tyke compared to the Moroccan fossils. Via Alessandrosmerilli, Public Domain.

Still, we have to recognize that the idea of racial animus is deeply ingrained in our mindsets. That why it’s so hard for us to imagine migrating humans coming upon squat and thick-browed Neanderthals and thinking, “Oooh, I’d like to do that!”

(Our archaic Homo sapiens forebears wouldn’t have won any beauty contests, either. They had much rougher features than we have, as displayed in the Herto skull to the left.)

Yet the mitochondrial DNA evidence doesn’t lie. We also have a triumphalist idea that these couplings would’ve been initiated by the last hominin standing — us. Hey, maybe it was the equivalent of dating the homely girl because she would be more eager to please.

But mitochondrial DNA is only passed through mothers. That means a human mother carried a mixed-species baby to term and, in turn, her offspring spread her mtDNA to his or her mixed-subspecies descendants.

The evidence suggests that, for an unknown reason, Neanderthals eventually discarded their original mitochondrial DNA for mDNA inherited from this human mitochondrial Eve. Yet their nuclear DNA — the main component of genetic inheritance — was more closely related to the mysterious Denisovans, from whom they split about 450,000 years ago.

The Denisovans had as much DNA in their little pinkies as you have in your entire body. That’s fortunate, since a pinkie — and three teeth — are the entirety of Denisovan remains we’ve uncovered so far. Humans apparently got it on with the Denisovans too.

We were spreading our seeds around long before the Neolithic farming revolution.

Neanderthals, Humans, and Denisovans: Anthropoids Will Be Anthropoids

So, our great-great-great-great, great, etc. ancestors were busy getting busy with our hominin cousins, but what prompted them to leave Africa in the first place? Timeshare deals in Gibraltar?

We can only speculate. But we can say what it most certainly wasn’t: The spirit of discovery.

But that’s not what you’ll hear on the Discovery Channel. Or even most PBS documentaries on human evolution. I know, I’ve watched too many to count.

No, humans didn’t boldly go where no man (or woman) have gone before simply to go on missions of exploration. Our early Homo sapiens ancestors didn’t populate the earth because of their pioneering spirit and insatiable thirst for discovery, as countless “documentaries” on hominin evolution I’ve watched have contended.

They were following herds of aurochs — those enormous predecessors of cattle — or Irish elk, or whatever migrating herd the band was tracking. Or, a group of females on a gathering trip or chasing small game chance upon a lush valley. And when that began to be exhausted, they moved on.

Very likely, droughts were often a factor in the search for more fertile lands. But too many surviving children would also be a problem even in the richest of environments. And sometimes internal strife causes members of a hunter-gatherer band to split off and head for other lands.

There are countless other reasons why hunter-gatherer bands would creep across the landscape over a span of hundreds and thousands of years. Yes, humans are inherently curious, but the contention that our species spread because our pioneering spirit has more to do with our egotistical self-image than an ingrained exploratory drive.

Hunger is far more likely than a hunger for discovery.

Another hominin documentary pet peeve of mine is straight up racism. Even now, these evolutionary docs tend to depict Cro-Magnons — relatively recent migrants from Africa — with white skin, while Neanderthals, which had lived in Europe for hundreds of thousands of years, are presented as dark-skinned.*

This makes my blood boil every time I see it. 

In fact, genetic tests have shown that at least some Neanderthals carried mutations for red hair and light skin color.

Sure, let’s play to the outdated idea of Neanderthals as brutes. Dark skin is primitive, right? Hey, at least we’re not showing them stooped. What do you want from us?

I dunno, you’re supposed to be a documentary. Maybe accuracy?

This only goes to show that, in some respects, our archaic human ancestors were more advanced than we are.

Our early Homo sapien ancestors shagged Neanderthals and any related species, looking past superficial differences. Maybe we're not as advanced as we think.
Reconstruction of a Cro-Magnon skull with his skin depicted as white. Via Cicero Moraes, CC BY-SA 3.0.

*The appropriately pale-skinned Neanderthal in the featured photo was taken in the Neanderthal Museum in Germany, which I would love to see someday.

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