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All in the (human) family?

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | May 9, 2010

Big news in anthropology this past week: Bonobos may instinctively shake their heads “no”; Myron Rolle of the Tennessee Titans is missing minicamp because he has to finish exams for his MA in Medical Anthropology at Oxford; and commissioners of Clark County, Nevada voted to preserve petroglyphs and archaeological sites in wilderness land northeast of Las Vegas.

Oh, and we are all 1% to 4% Neanderthal– or rather, humans of non-African ancestry are. Or maybe not.

As Serge Bloch of the New York Times framed the story, there are “cavemen among us” because “the species most likely had a dalliance or two in the Middle East 60,000 to 100,000 years ago”.

Nicholas Wade’s science story for the Times played it somewhat straighter, but still went for the sex angle with the headline “Signs of Neanderthals Mating with Humans”.

The distance from the more clinical “mating” to Bloch’s cartoon of a Neanderthal man holding a club offering flowers to a woman in a dainty skirt may seem like the span from science to popular imagination. But as UCSC Professor of Anthropology Diane Gifford-Gonzalez, Berkeley Anthropology Professor Margaret Conkey, and University of Southampton Professor Stephanie Moser have all shown in different ways, the science of human origins is drenched in the same images as the popular press.

So I have to ask: why is the man in Serge Bloch’s cross-species couple the Neanderthal? Shades of Clan of the Cave Bear! Apparently, in the popular imagination it takes a more evolved woman to make a husband out of a man…

The researchers sequencing Neanderthal DNA from three fragments of bone recovered from a Croatian cave have reportedly completed 60% of the Neanderthal genome. And while other researchers applaud the technical work done at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, they are cautious about the interpretation of the data.

The problems start with the proposed time and place for Neanderthal-human romance: not in the Europe of 40,000 to 30,000 years ago imagined in Clan of the Cave Bear, but in the Middle East, and at least 20,000 years earlier, maybe as much as 60,000 years before the period when we know Neanderthal and early modern humans co-existed in Europe. To quote the Times again, “There is much less archaeological evidence for an overlap between modern humans and Neanderthals at this time and place.”

The times draws the line of disagreement along disciplinary lines:

Geneticists have been making increasingly valuable contributions to human prehistory, but their work depends heavily on complex mathematical statistics that make their arguments hard to follow. And the statistical insights, however informative, do not have the solidity of an archaeological fact.

Archaeologists do have well-developed models for recognizing human and Neanderthal populations in Europe during their period of overlap through different stone tools and other cultural features. It is the lack of such well-defined models for the Middle East of 100,000 to 60,000 years ago that gives archaeologists pause.

As an archaeologist, I found the idea that archaeological “facts” have solidity interesting for other reasons entirely. Like the image of the club-toting Neanderthal with stubble on his chin, it is a commonplace of everyday understanding of my discipline. And it is not quite true, or not true in the way that writers think it is.

The image of “solid” archaeological facts stems from the idea that our discipline studies hard, visible things that everyone can agree about. And there are lots of things involved in every archaeological analysis. But we quarrel all the time about what exactly they mean; how best to measure them and quantify them; and how the solid things in archaeology relate to the not-so-solid theories we develop.

And increasingly, our studies are not limited to, or even dominated by, the “solid facts” of popular imagination of archaeology. Instead, archaeologists today may study microscopic grains of starch invisible to the naked eye, or the traces of past human actions like sweeping a dirt floor visible under a microscope, or simply the chemical traces left behind when people sit in one place or do some everyday task in a particular location.

So, are we “part caveman”? the question is meaningless. If the findings of the Neanderthal genome sequencing hold up, they will tell us that the history of humans and our closest relatives was even more intimate than many had thought.

But the popular image of the crude Neanderthal should long ago have been set aside, replaced by our understanding of this human species as a cold-adapted contemporary of early modern humans. The visible differences in Neanderthal stature and facial shape would not necessarily have given a contemporary human pause. Those humans occupied the caves of Europe that gave us the scene for our cave man image as much as Neanderthals did.

As Stephanie Moser has shown us, we have populated those caves in our professional and popular imagination, not with pre-human species, but with images of the Greek hero Hercules standing for the primitive, watching over what Diane Gifford-Gonzalez calls the “drudge on the hide”.

Less reflections of what the “solid facts” of archaeology tell us than mirrors reflecting our own vision of our past, the cavemen are us.

Comments to “All in the (human) family?

  1. thanks for your book, “women in prehistory.” i’m psychic and interested in the early inhabitants of north america. regarding neanderthal mon, i was given the impression they were a group of people with anomalies like those exhibited in certain areas of modern france, not necessarily a true variant. they could’ve been taken advantage of as slaves, like the hotentot.

  2. I was reading the linked-to pbs article about homo sapiens and neanderthal and about how they possibly competed for resources. Imagining the landscape and extreme climactic upheavals that all earthly species faced during ice ages transitions, it isn’t surprising how many paleolithic species disappeared. The article mentions that Neanderthals always inhabited the valleys and homo sapiens often lived on hilltops. I wonder if one of the great floods of the ice ages, and in old myths, one day washed away all the Neanderthals. Maybe we should worry about the ice caps melting.

  3. Professor Joyce, I have a question that should be in your area of expertise more than anyone else on this blog: Is there a lesson to be learned from the Mayan collapse that can save the “human family” from Global Warming?

    The fact is that we are not implementing stabilization wedges fast enough to prevent severely unacceptable changes in our environment that can produce calamity for most, if not all the human family.

    Similar to, but even worse than the Mayans we are already suffering escalating drought conditions along with failing water supplies and reduced crop yields, increasing illness and death due to severe weather, rising sea levels and coastal losses, migrations of animals and plants, ocean acidity, pollution and die-offs, etc.

    Like the Mayans, we also have out of control wars, overpopulation along with above noted environmental breakdowns and increasingly scarce resources, gross conspicuous consumption and a rising elitist class that care only for themselves in spite of the consequences of increasing violence for survival and dominance, but with escalating chaos throughout the world today.

    Will our intellectuals continue to talk and publish, or will they act in time to protect the human family from change this time when even the advances of the ancient Greeks couldn’t save them much better than the Mayans?

    Or does the human family still have too many brain limitations to allow us to survive any better than the Mayans?

    • Good question– and when I get back from a current research trip, I will give it a more thoughtful (and longer) reply in the form of a post.

      My short answer, though, may be surprising: in some sense, there was no “Mayan collapse”. And why that is the short answer may indeed have some bearing on the question of how we as humans deal with governmental failings that endanger our environment and very lives.

      It was not until people’s health was compromised that those Maya who were severely impacted by environmental destruction adjusted– and they seem to have adjusted, for the most part, by abandoning larger, cumbersome cities for either the countryside or smaller cities. The people who held on the longest, perhaps unsurprisingly, were those with the greatest prestige invested in the systems that were failing: the noble classes hanging on at the center of Tikal and Copan, for example.

      And the majority of the Maya people survived, with their city life reorganized. Not that this was a panacea: there was still war, and perhaps even more serious in some ways.

      • Thank you for your initial, rapid response Professor Joyce, and I look forward to your more in depth post when you get the chance.

        I should have noted that one other most important expertise that I respect about you is your dedication to race and gender issues, because I’m sure those are playing a major role in our current human family problems.

        As for where I am coming from, one person whose dedication has influenced me greatly is Mother Jones, and I have adopted her motto “— Fight Like Hell For The Living.” I believe wholeheartedly in this motto not only for sake of leaving a better legacy for future generations, but recently my wife-classmate and I have been blessed with a much greater purpose in life because of the birth of our six month old granddaughter who we babysit and take to the San Diego Zoo at least once a week. When she is capable of understanding, I want to be able to give her much better news about her future than we have available today.

        Best wishes on the success of your current research trip.

      • Never mind Professor Joyce, I couldn’t wait and found the answers to my own question.

        University of Pittsburgh Anthropologist Peggy Sanday’s studies of 186 hunter-gatherer cultures found that when men are involved in the care of their infants, the cultures do not make war.

        Further, UCSD neuroscience researcher Roger Bingham says that

        women have a proportionally larger prefrontal cortex, whereas

        men have a proportionally larger amygdala,

        which must explain why we have so many out of control problems in the world today.

        I’ll vote for women, as long as they are not republican because I will bet you that republican women have the same size, smaller prefrontal cortex as republican men, along with a larger amygdala than other women, as Meg and Carly keep proving.

  4. Can you explain why “we are all 1% to 4% Neanderthal– or rather, humans of non-African ancestry are.” Why are those of African ancestry different? How does the percentage differ?

    Perhaps, this information is widely known in anthropology studies, but I do not have any anthro background.

    Thank you.

    • The study reported on recently compares DNA recovered from Neanderthal bones to the reconstructed modern human genome. The study is described in the New York Times as showing that “about 1 percent to 4 percent of the genome of non-Africans today is derived from Neanderthals”. That could only happen if some Neanderthals were co-parents with some human ancestors. The question this immediately raises is, where and when?

      The researchers suggest the Neanderthal-human inter-mixing happened somewhere in the Middle East among a group of humans who had left Africa, between 100,000 and 60,000 years ago, a period when they suggest Neanderthals and modern humans co-existed in the Middle East.

      That would imply that the original human ancestral population in Africa, where no Neanderthals were present, retained a distinct genetic make-up, without the 1%-4% Neanderthal genetic contribution estimated from the new study.

      The more generally accepted view is that modern humans expanded out of Africa around 50,000 years ago, and thus that all modern humans share a genome derived from that African population.

      Archaeologists skeptical of the new study don’t think Neanderthals and humans lived together in the Middle East; they think there was a gap in time between the two groups. Archaeologists accept that Neanderthals and humans co-existed in Europe from around 44,000 to 30,000 years ago. So if the time and place were more recently in Europe, the results would be easier to accept.

      The team doing the Neanderthal/modern human comparisons is not really explaining the discrepancy to the satisfaction of archaeologists.

      The main point here: this is still work in progress. The researchers reporting their results say they have only recovered 60% of the Neanderthal genome. They find similar genetic materials present in modern human samples, based on identifying 100 genes in common between Neanderthals and modern humans. The range they give– 1% to 4%– factors in uncertainty; best to think of it as saying a small, but not minuscule, amount of their reconstructed Neanderthal genome was passed down to modern humans.

      Skeptics worry that the Neanderthal sample could have been contaminated with modern human DNA. That would make the results inaccurate. Archaeologists also prefer to give greater weight to their excavations of sites than to statistical models, which are what leads the new research team to their conclusions about time and place of human-Neanderthal population mixture.

      To be clear: I am commenting here on the kinds of reporting done about archaeology. My own view of the new research is that it is interesting but the discrepancies have to be explained in ways consistent with other lines of evidence. In recent decades, we have begun to use genetic sequencing as if it was magical. And science reporting– even good science reporting– over-simplifies the issues. Thanks for giving me a chance to clarify the issues.

  5. A relatively new area of the brain’s cerebral cortex evolved to enable humans and other primates the necessary small motor skills to pick up small objects and deftly use tools.

    In most animals, including cats, rats and some monkeys, the brain’s primary motor cortex controls all movements indirectly through the circuitry of the spinal cord.

    Orangutans, not chimpanzees, are the closest living relatives to humans.

    Humans share at least 28 unique physical characteristics with orangutans but only 2 with chimps and 7 with gorillas.

    Humans and orangs have the widest-separated mammary glands, and they grow the longest hair. “Humans and orangs actually have a hairline, in contrast to virtually all primates, where the hair comes down to the top of the eyes.”

    • The scientific argument for orangutans being the closest relative of humans is not widely accepted. It is, as your comment suggests, based on physical characteristics. While comparison of physical characteristics was where the science of classification of species began, it has always raised the danger of making false classifications using structures that developed independently in unrelated animals, or that are common to long-distant ancestors, and retained independently in two species.

      Long hair is probably one of the kinds of characteristics that developed independently in two species. There may be adaptive reasons for this, and when adaptive pressures are similar, similar selection can lead to similar outcomes. Head hair in humans is often identified as likely providing insulation to protect the head (and the brain) from heat as humans developed upright posture. That explanation, needless to say, does not apply to orangutans.

      Another of the characteristics suggested by the authors of the human-orangutan study is thickly enameled molar teeth with flat surfaces. This is a trait that classically is related to diet, again likely due to parallel adaptation. The spacing of mammary glands is again more likely to be a result of adaptations that are similar between the two species.

      The reason the scientific community remains unconvinced by the orangutan argument is that genetic analysis has become the standard way to identify relationships– some of which are not as obvious in physical characteristics. Genetic sequencing strongly supports the chimpanzee as our closest relative.

      Accepting the orangutan hypothesis creates major difficulties for models of human evolution, since the orangutan line is entirely Southeast Asian. The chimpanzee-human common ancestor would have been in Africa about the right time to be the ancestor of all human ancestors, who we know archaeologically are present in Africa before anywhere else.

  6. Rosemary,“All in the (human) family?” emphasized very important points for me to think about.

    Most importantly though, I am sitting here with my classmate-wife performing the most wonderful task in the world, loving, babysitting and wondering about the future for our first, five month old grandchild whose most recent ancestors are from three separate continents, China, Latin America and Europe. She is a most wonderful product of evolution, California style.

    I am most concerned about another evolutionary consideration, our brain and our ability to survive. It appears most imperative that the “Us” versus “Them” evolutionary state of humanity must be overcome if we are going to be able to continue existence with an acceptable quality of life. And I wonder if the caveman genes that enabled us to do whatever was necessary to survive still dominate our prefrontal cortex to the point where survival in an age where we have so far survived the threat of nuclear holocaust, but with accelerating threats of global warming that appear to be beyond our ability to control unless our brain leaps to much higher level of common sense with the required sense of urgency before we run out of time at last.

    So my question to you and your colleagues is, considering the current evolved state of our brain, lack of progress being made by IPCC, and failure to gain widespread attention to the seriousness of of Global Warming during Earth Week 2010, do we have the ability to implement a better way to get enough people to overcome the politics of greed and destruction that control far too many countries, especially including Washington, to demand the implementation of necessary climate change tipping point solutions with the required sense of urgency before it is too late?

    Needless to say, the future for our grandchildren and future generations depend on preventing calamitous failures by our political and intellectual cultures to meet the challenges of change, before one last civilization becomes extinct.

    • The fault is not in our genes, or our brains: it is in our political structures, and in particular, in a detachment from a sense of responsibility that seems to come with large-scale human societies. The human species is distinguished by is plasticity– its ability to adjust to new situations, and live with a wide variety of conditions. To the extent that pop-science portrays the evolution of the human lineage as the outcome of competition, and then translates that into a claim of inherent human violence or destructiveness, we need more real scientists explaining that human survival and progressive change is a product as much of collaboration in our social species.

      So why do we make bad choices, especially bad choices about the environment? I think we have seen one of the problems this winter, when short term events (snowstorms) were interpreted as evidence against a long term process (global warming). Not that the scientific attempts are inadequate here: there have been plenty of sophisticated demonstrations of global climate change. But it is possible to confuse people when you make arguments at the wrong chronological scale, something I see all the time in my own most local discipline of archaeology.

      Societies do rise and fall; that is something our discipline has shown repeatedly. And one way to think about these repeated failures is that governance structures become rigid and unable to respond to changing conditions, or even fail to see information that contradicts an assumed way of life. One could take some comfort in that pattern of repeated disintegration and successive reformation, if it weren’t for the fact that living through disintegration is not something enjoyable; and of course, the issue of scale that I mentioned.

      One of the directional tendencies in human history is a continual exploitation of more and more energy and resources. That makes our current situation much different than previous ones, because the scale of our social systems is so large, and the entanglement of our societies with their environments is so profound, that we are doing damage on almost unprecedented scale.

      So does anthropology offer any help? maybe, in the sense that we could contest the kinds of arguments that cite past challenges and human survival as a kind of proof that we will (somehow) weather this one. I would say that history does suggest we have the basic ingenuity to solve the technical problems– to shift from petroleum dependency, for example. But the scale of our current societies and systems is much larger, and we should be contradicting people who take unwarranted comfort in past ecological crises.

      • Rosemary, I thank you and greatly respect your sharing your insights with me, such as focusing on “The fault — is in our political structures, and in particular, in a detachment from a sense of responsibility that seems to come with large-scale human societies” which makes me wonder if far too many people on earth are too easily manipulated by leaders that promote “Us” and “Them” divisions, for too many political, religious, economic and/or cultural reasons that keep us on the path to self-destruction.

        Also your focus on “the scale of our current societies and systems is much larger, and we should be contradicting people who take unwarranted comfort in past ecological crises” makes me think that humanity most desperately needs a highly respected “universal” spokesperson for all of humanity to stimulate global conversations and actions that are inclusive of the entire human race, because today the best discussions appear to occur all too frequently within limited groups that basically insulate themselves into “Us” groups to the exclusion of “Them” groups that are the rest of humanity.

        The saddest, if not tragic reality check is that the dreams we had for the success of the UN to bring humanity together peacefully have failed due to the “Us” versus “Them” culture of destruction that tyrannizes humanity today.

        It sure would have helped if our genes and brains were designed for “Us” that includes “Them,” such as having an amygdala that has evolved to suppress fear, anxiety and aggression so we can all focus on surviving together.

        Anyway, there must be a better way, and we had better find it quickly.

  7. What links the two studies is that the argument that chimpanzees and humans are closest relatives starts with a critique of using genome sequencing. What scientists realize– and what usually gets lost as the media circulate these stories– is that the reconstruction of genetic sequences always needs to be carefully interpreted: in the Neanderthal case, there are concerns about possible contamination of Neanderthal samples with modern human samples (since we have had tens of thousands of years to take over the territory once occupied by Neanderthals, contamination is almost unavoidable); in the chimpanzee case, the orangutan boosters “say that the DNA evidence cited by many scientists only looks at a small percentage of the human and chimp genomes” and claim that “the genetic similarities likely include many ancient DNA traits that are shared across a much broader group of animals”.

  8. The only problem about bonobo’s shaking their heads for “no” is that this doesn’t exclusively mean no to humans. Anyone who has ever visited india will remember the confusion of asking a local a question only to get a verbal “yes” while they were shaking their heads “no”.
    Still a very interesting and informative article though.

  9. Poor bonobos! so much weight on their backs… and to add insult to the injury of watching humans mess up their world, the long-held view that chimpanzees are our closest primate cousins was challenged last year, by researchers who claimed orangutans have the most physical similarities to humans.

    What links the two studies is that the argument that chimpanzees and humans are closest relatives starts with a critique of using genome sequencing. What scientists realize– and what usually gets lost as the media circulate these stories– is that the reconstruction of genetic sequences always needs to be carefully interpreted: in the Neanderthal case, there are concerns about possible contamination of Neanderthal samples with modern human samples (since we have had tens of thousands of years to take over the territory once occupied by Neanderthals, contamination is almost unavoidable); in the chimpanzee case, the orangutan boosters “say that the DNA evidence cited by many scientists only looks at a small percentage of the human and chimp genomes” and claim that “the genetic similarities likely include many ancient DNA traits that are shared across a much broader group of animals”.

    Concern about contamination is being directly addressed by the researchers studying the Neanderthal genome. Advocates for chimpanzees as our closest relatives have responded satisfactorily to the criticisms of the orangutan boosters. The mainstream conclusion still remains in favor of chimpanzees. The orangutan theory would require a radical rethinking of human evolution that not only contradicts existing evidence, but requires assuming an unknown primate ancestor over all Africa, Europe, and Asia, violating the criterion of parsimony that says we should accept the theories with the smallest number of assumptions unless evidence contradicts the theory.

    So bonobos are safe for now. But maybe, as you suggest, they would rather not have such an embarrassing relative?

    • Thanks for the additional insight Rosemary, I hope that our relatives don’t have to suffer the consequences of our failures anymore than they already have.

      But as Pogo was quoted at the first Earth Day in 1970 “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

      I wonder if we shall ever learn from the lessons of history in time to save ourselves, our cousins, and everything else on earth from a calamity of our own making.

        • Pogo really should have played a bigger part in Earth Day 2010, but like so many others who warned us over the last half century Pogo has been marginalized also. It looks like refusing to learn the lessons of history may very well make “Us” the greatest “enemy” we ever encountered.

          I really like your posts on bonobos, chimpanzees, orangutans and Neanderthals. I visit the ape exhibits at the San Diego zoo frequently and it always appears that they are having more fun than Us cousins, especially when you keep track of their social habits. And last years celebration of Darwin’s anniversaries at our Natural History Museum were excellent learning experiences even though they downplayed our cladogram relationship with our cousins to remain PC.

          I always felt sorry for the Neanderthals because I thought it had to be one of the first “Us” versus “Them” encounters, and “Them” were probably too nice to survive our “Us” culture of consuming everything in sight until we left nothing for “Them” to survive on.

  10. Rosemary, when I read “Bonobo chimps like humans may be hardwired to shake their heads to say ‘no’” I was reminded of a major conclusion Will and Ariel Durant made at the end of their great career discovering and documenting the lessons of history:

    “When a civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitation of a corporate life, but through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenge of change.”

    Indeed, when bonobos shake their heads to say ‘no’ it must be that they can’t believe that they are watching yet another civilization decline and fall, if not becoming extinct from over half a century of political and intellectual failures to prevent climate change calamity.

    Considering our failures due to the dominant cultural values of arrogance, indolence, greed, immorality and ignorance of our political and intellectual leaders I really wonder if our prefrontal cortex is evolved from that of a chimpanzee, if not in the devolution phase because we are most certainly failing to meet the challenge of change worse than ever before.

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