It now seems clear that modern Humans, being the lascivious monkeys that we are, interbred with Neanderthals 50 or 60 thousand years ago. We know this not because of some ancient cave-painting porn but because most of us actually have Neanderthal genes in our very DNA.
This landmark scientific achievement, was recently announced after a 4 year effort by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and Universities around the world.
The fact that they could reconstitute 60% of the genome from people dead tens of thousands of years is amazing, They did this by first grinding pieces of bone from 3 separate Neanderthal individuals. You then have to wade through all the modern dna that contaminates it and all the bacterial dna to find just the neanderthal dna. Fortunately ancient dna chemically degrades in a predictable way that allows the software to detect it and correct it.
They then compared this dna to modern european, asian, french, and Popua New Guinean dna. Finally, they compared it to dna from western and southern Africa.
They found that 1 to 4 percent of the Neanderthal dna was part of all the modern dna except the African dna. The most likely interpretation of this data then is that after modern humans left africa but before they could really separate and colonize the world, they interbred with the Neanderthals 60 to 80,000 years ago. The mixing probably occurred in the mid-east somewhere.
1 to 4 percent sounds trivial but that means that our 30 thousand genes contain about 600 neanderthal genes. That’s a lot of genes.
That the interbreeding did occur was not a huge surprise but the amount of dna was. Recent genetic evidence seemed to indicate that any gene mixing was probably minuscule and happened in Europe, not the mid east.
The Australian website had a quote that made me laugh.
“But, until now, many have doubted that the hominins would have stirred romantic passions in our species.”
Hello, McFly!….I don’t know who doubted that but my guess is they’re not too familiar with humans.
Some people may wonder how could 2 species mate and produce fertile young? Well actually, the designation of Neanderthals has gone back and forth over the years. For decades, most scientists considered them to be a completely separate species (which is a fuzzy concept anyway) calling them Homo neanderthalensis. Lately it seems that most considered them a subspecies of home sapiens calling them Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. My guess is that this latest research will solidify them as a subspecies to us. On the other hand, perhaps we should be a subspecies to them since they were were around first……….nah!
What does all this mean for these interbreeding events?
First off, we don’t know yet if we’re talking about one or a few drunken one night stands or if we’re talking about orgies that lasted for years and years. The data’s not there to determine that yet. Considering as much as 4% of our dna can be Neanderthal, my guess is that the gene mixing was going on for a while.
A though occurred to me.
Does the fact that we have this DNA within us necessarily mean that Neander males impregnated Homo sapien women? Presumably homo sapien women could give birth to these hybrids who would then integrate into our early society and spread their genes far and wide. This seems more likely to me than the opposite in which a male homo sapien impregnates a Neanderthal woman. It just seems less to me likely that this woman could integrate her children into our society. I’m sure what actually happened was much more complicated. How did these societies regard each other? Perhaps they mingled freely together for generations in ways not obvious in the archaeological evidence. On the other hand perhaps they feared each other and stayed away except for the occasional dalliance.
Unless we find some of that cave art porn, we may never know.