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December 19, 2006

Alley Oop, Mon Semblable, Or At Least Mon Frere

Michael Blowhard writes;

Dear Blowhards --

The long-awaited paper by Greg Cochran and John Hawks arguing that it's likely we did the nasty with (and picked up some useful genes from) Neanderthals is now online. Was this the event that triggered the cultural Big Bang of 30-40,000ish years ago? You can download a PDF of the paper from this page. (Link via GNXP and Steve Sailer.)



posted by Michael at December 19, 2006


Best. Title. Ever.

Posted by: Brian on December 19, 2006 12:01 PM

Interesting. I did not read the whole study, and even if I did, not sure I would be able to answer the question I'm about to ask:

Does this mean that some of us might be more Neaderthal than others? And if so, in what ways?

Posted by: Steven on December 19, 2006 1:43 PM

I'm a Neanderthal and I'm alright,
I hunt all day, I boink all night,
I'm getting tired of my wife's overbight,
Cro-Magnon gals are outta sight.

Posted by: ricpic on December 19, 2006 2:52 PM

Michael – Thanks for the link. I’ll probably buy at least two of the books reviewed on the site link, “Reflections of Our Past: How Human History Is Revealed in Our Genes” and “After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5,000 BC.”

I’ve read the Cochran and Hawks paper, and find it very interesting, although I am not sure that one can reasonably conclude that picking up Neanderthal genes, if it occurred at all, was anything like a “single event” or that it triggered a cultural Big Bang. Although there have been a number of recent spectacular discoveries in areas where the ranges of Neanderthals and early modern humans overlapped, and although speculation about Neanderthals is a hot topic, I think that sometimes this area gets more attention as being pivotal to human evolution than it can realistically sustain.

In a recent interview on the NPR program “Talk of the Nation: Science Friday,” anthropologist Donald Johanson notes that there are a number of sites currently being worked in various locations around the world that may offer a number of new insights into human evolution. He also notes that some scientists have may be overzealously (and jealously) hoarding their previous work, denying other scientists an opportunity to review, assess and critique their discoveries. I don’t know how significant this issue might be, but it could affect the conclusions drawn about various hominid finds. Those interested can listen to this interview here:

The possibility of Neanderthals and early humans mating is very provocative since I think it argues that Neanderthals were more like humans than past depictions of these early peoples suggest. There has been a lot of speculation about whether Neanderthals were capable of speech, how social they were, and the nature of their communities. I cannot imagine and an early human and a Neanderthal just sneaking off and having an archaic love child. It seems to me far more likely that Neanderthal women or (less likely) Neanderthal men became members of an archaic human community via some form of barter or social agreement (it doesn’t matter as much if archaic humans joined Neanderthals since they would ultimately have gone extinct with the rest of the Neanderthals).

But here’s the rub. If Neanderthals could not speak, any Neanderthal/human offspring might be at a huge disadvantage, and the idea of early humans picking up Neanderthal genes becomes much less likely. On the other hand, the idea of two separate hominid species overlapping in time and territory, and mixing to some degree is incredibly provocative and would greatly expand our understanding of what evolution is all about. Except, of course, for creationists, who will miss out on all the fun. As an aside, I wonder sometimes if myths of giants might relate in some way to ancestral memories of interactions between early humans and Neanderthals.

Posted by: Alec on December 19, 2006 4:51 PM

"Does this mean that some of us might be more Neaderthal than others?"


Posted by: Dobeln on December 20, 2006 7:15 AM

"I wonder sometimes if myths of giants might relate in some way to ancestral memories of interactions between early humans and Neanderthals." And therefore myths of leprechauns imply what?

Posted by: dearieme on December 20, 2006 10:26 AM

"I cannot imagine and an early human and a Neanderthal just sneaking off and having an archaic love child."

I thought about this too. I wonder if most of the mating was anything but consensual? In fact, could it have been simply one of many methods used by one group to control the other?

Posted by: Steven on December 20, 2006 11:25 AM

Having married a Neanderthal, none of this is suprising to me.

Posted by: Bradamante on December 20, 2006 12:34 PM

- dearieme – RE: And therefore myths of leprechauns imply what?

I think that most of the mythology about fanciful creatures is the result of humans erroneously believing that since they were alive and self-conscious, everything else in the world was alive and self-conscious as well. From this you get wood and sea nymphs, fairies, elves, ogres, gods of the sea and sky, even perhaps leprechauns and other beings that often were associated with some part of the natural world. Giants might well be a variation of this as well.

However, I find it interesting that some cultures (e.g., Greeks and Scandinavians) have myths of a time when giants or Titans ruled the earth and of later battles betweens giants and (sometimes) gods and humans to establish a new order.

This of course is idle speculation. When we get to the level of hard evidence, I find it interesting that so far no cave paintings have been found depicting anything that could remotely be interpreted as a confrontation or even social interaction between early man and Neanderthals.

Steven - I wonder if most of the mating was anything but consensual? In fact, could it have been simply one of many methods used by one group to control the other?

Interesting. Of course, we don’t know much of anything about the social organization of early human societies, let alone their sexual practices, and one of the most glaring weaknesses of most writing about evolutionary psychology is the lame assumption that most or all early human societies were a variation of the typical contemporary American household, monogamous, with 2.5 kids, etc.

However, looking at the history of human societies, I am not sure about the issue of “control.” When two groups or tribes are fairly evenly matched (technology, war-making ability, etc), women are often traded as wives or concubines to help maintain truces. When one side is materially superior to the other, men are slaughtered and the women simply taken when conflicts between the two groups take place.

If Neanderthals and early humans inter-reacted, I can easily accept that a variety of sexual encounters might have occurred, consensual as well as non-consensual. But successful human-Neanderthal hybrids assume much – such as that human and Neanderthal female anatomy, gestation periods, etc., were similar enough to permit successful births, that hybrid offspring would be viable, that offspring could thrive in an early human community. It is here that the question of Neanderthal speech also becomes an issue.

Posted by: Alec on December 20, 2006 2:42 PM

Okay, I'm ignorant -- why do they think that Neandertals didn't have speech? How do they know?

Posted by: missgrundy on December 20, 2006 9:29 PM

If they need proof about the interbreeding of Neanderthals and humans - I give you, Nicolai Valuev (

Posted by: Mild Colonial Boy on December 21, 2006 2:42 AM

- missgrundy – RE: why do they think that Neandertals didn't have speech? How do they know?

Keeping in mind that I’m just an amateur who tries to keep up with some of the literature concerning human evolution, I’ve found it fun to watch the assessment of Neanderthals evolve from that of a stereotypical brutish cave-man to an almost equally intelligent cousin to modern humans. Many scientists thought that Neanderthals were incapable of speech. But recently researchers have tried to figure out whether or not this was the case.

As a recent BBC news story notes, “A tiny bone in the throat, called the hyoid, offered a clue. This bone supports the soft tissue of the throat, and several groups of scientists are attempting to model that soft tissue from the bones and discover what Neanderthal might have sounded like.” Some think this analysis demonstrates that Neanderthals could speak, while others dispute this hypothesis. A couple of links to non-technical stories about this issue and recent thoughts about Neanderthals can be found at some of the links noted here:

The icy truth behind Neanderthals

Neanderthal's Gift Of Speech

Transcript of a BBC Science and Nature program on Neanderthals

There’s also this: “Aside from archaeology, another line of evidence for speech would be genetics. The announcement in August 2002 of the unique form of the FOXP2 gene in modern humans was seen as a possible line of evidence for the lack of language in human ancestors. The FOXP2 gene seems to be vital in allowing human to speech to develop much more clearly, as mutations cause problems with movements of the lips and tongue as well as selection of the correct word tense.

The human version of the gene does not seem to appear until 200,000 years ago, after the neanderthals split from the ancestors of modern humans. This suggests neanderthals may have lacked a fine-tuned speech ability. However, there is unlikely to be a single 'language gene'. Language relies on an incredibly fine-tuned interaction between brain and throat, and is likely to be dependent on several genes. Further studies may show neanderthals used different genes to perform a similar function. The debate continues.”

More at “The Day We Learned To Think - questions and answers”

A recent BBC news story which touches on many of these issues can be found here

Hope this helps and is fair to the research.

Posted by: Alec on December 21, 2006 4:13 AM

Very interesting, Alec -- thanks for the links.

Posted by: missgrundy on December 21, 2006 11:00 AM

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