Tag Archives: Neanderthals

Hello, Dali


250 thousand years ago

This skull, from China, isn’t much like Homo neanderthalensis or modern Homo sapiens. Both Neanderthals and H. sapiens are specialized in different directions, in ways that aren’t just an automatic consequence of increasing brain size. In Neanderthals, the middle of the face is pulled way forward, in front of a football shaped braincase. In H. sapiens (us), the face is tucked well under the skull, beneath a globular braincase. (We’ll have more to say about these changes later: sapiens skull shape probably has to do with re-engineering the vocal tract.) The Dali skull by contrast looks like a generic transitional late Homo erectus / archaic Homo sapiens (the latter being just a wastebasket, “I dunno. Whaddayou think it is?” category). Most likely Dali is part of/ancestral to an East/Southeast Asian group called Denisovans. Denisovans have come to be known by their genes, which have been found in an ancient Siberian fingerbone, and (at low levels) in some modern Melanesians and Australian aborigines. But we don’t yet know for certain is whether Dali (and similar finds like the less securely dated Jinniushang skull) had these Denisovan genes.


Heidelberg and Bodo

By 600 thousand years ago we’re finding people who don’t fit comfortably into Homo erectus. A jawbone from around this time was unearthed in Germany, near Heidelberg, in 1907. Another find from the same period, often assigned to the same species, comes from Bodo, Ethiopia (below).


This guy clearly isn’t modern Homo sapiens, but his brain is starting to get out of the Homo erectus range (1200 cubic centimeters cranial capacity), and his browridge is a double arch, rather than an erectus-style straight bar. He’s also got cut marks on skull and face, from someone “defleshing” him.

The exact relationship of these guys to later humans has been unclear. A popular theory assigned both to an intermediate species, Homo heidelbergensis. However yesterday we reviewed very recent genetic modeling by Rogers and coworkers that suggests that a three-way split between Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, and Denisovans has already happened by this point, although the lineages haven’t had long to differentiate. So probably Heidelbergers in Europe are ancestral to Neanderthals (or at least closely related to their ancestors), while Bodo man is similarly related to Homo sapiens.

Post erectus

629-595 thousand years ago

We’re getting to a time on the blog when Homo erectus (and Homo ergaster, if we accept that erectus-like African specimens are another species) are starting to give way to the very earliest ancestors of later species – Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, and Denisovans. (Denisovans – known mainly from DNA rather than bones – are the contemporaries in East and Southeast Asia  of Neanderthals in West Eurasia, and early sapiens in Africa.) A recent article from Alan Rogers (a colleague of mine in Anthropology at the University of Utah) and Ryan Bohlender and Chad Huff (Utah Anthropology PhDs) sheds light on this period. The authors look at the distribution of shared derived mutations in two modern human genomes (African and Eurasian) and two ancient genomes (Neanderthal and Denisovan). They fit a model involving past divergence times and population sizes to the data. The model says that about 700,000 years ago. a small population split from the rest of humanity and then quickly split again to give rise to the Neanderthals and Denisovans. In other words, it looks like there was an Out Of Africa event in the Middle Pleistocene, well before the better known Out Of Africa event that gave rise to modern human populations around the world. The Neanderthals and Denisovans then replaced Homo erectus in Eurasia, although the authors find signs that some erectus genes may have made it into the Denisovan gene pool.

As paleoanthropologist John Hawks notes, in a commentary on the article, “Humans stand out among our close primate relatives as effective biological invaders. Our recent history has included range expansions into remote and harsh geographic regions, and invasions by some populations into areas long occupied by others.” We’ll be seeing more instances of this in days to come on the blog.

And here’s me on what a history of population replacement might mean for the evolution of ethnicity and ethnocentrism.

Talk Like a Neanderthal Day

Like “Talk Like a Pirate Day,” but more scientific!

Human language is probably more than One Weird Trick. It’s multiple weird tricks. We’ve already posted about phonemes, and how they can be strung together to make words. That’s (at least) one trick. And then words are strung together to make phrases and sentences: but there are a multiple weird tricks here as well. Consider this quotation from some language researchers:

Every human language sentence is composed of two layers of meaning: a lexical structure that contains the lexical meaning, and an expression structure that is composed of function elements that give shape to the expression. In the question, Did John eat pizza?, the lexical layer is composed of the words Johneatpizza … The sentence also contains did, which has two functions: it marks tense, and by occurring at the head of the sentence, it also signifies a question. (Miyagawa et. al.)

The lexical level of language includes content words: nouns, most verbs, adjectives. The expressive level contains functional words (auxiliary verbs, conjunctions, articles, and so on), as well as tenses and other inflections, and even functional operations like moving around the parts of a phrase. We can think of a sentence like a piece of carpentry, a bookshelf, say. A typical bookshelf will consist of the parts that hold things up (shelves, sides, etc., analogous to lexical structure), and parts that fasten these parts together (dowels, screws, bolts, nuts, nails, glue, etc., analogous to expressive structure).
So language gets its open-ended expressive power by fastening together expressive and functional constructions in (more-or-less) alternating levels.

But there are other ways to build furniture. For example, here’s a desk with no fasteners. Instead, the load bearing parts have slots and tabs that fit together. This is simpler but less flexible than having boards and fasteners that you can put together however you see fit.

The analogy with language would be a protolanguage with nothing but content words – nouns, verbs, and adjectives, say – and lexical structure. The analogy works because verbs come with built in slots that nouns can fit into, even without any extra “fasteners” to hold them together. Linguists call this the “argument structure” of a verb. (Think about functions and their arguments if you’re into math or computer science.) For example fear and frighten are both transitive verbs, but they have different argument structures

  • Carg fear thunder.
  • Thunder frighten Carg.

In one case the experiencer goes in the subject slot, and the agent goes in the direct object slot. In the other case it’s the reverse. Some verbs, like burn, have more than one argument structure.

  • Carg burn meat.
  • Meat burn.

English verbs have some tens of different argument structures. (Note that I haven’t put any tense on the verbs. That would be part of expressive structure, which we’re leaving off here.)

So a protolanguage, one step along the way to a full blown language, could consist of a bunch of verbs and their argument structures, together with nouns slotted in the appropriate spaces as needed, and adjectives added to convey additional information. Is this what Neanderthal language was like? There is evidence that Neanderthal ancestors as far back as 430,000 years had hearing specialized for the frequencies of speech. (This is not the case with chimpanzees, or earlier hominins.*) But we don’t know yet how complex Neanderthal speech was. Eventually, as we figure out the genetics of language, we’ll find out. For now though, let’s make today – just about the last day on Logarithmic History that Neanderthals are around – “Talk Like a Neanderthal Day.”

Carg build shed. Carg nail trim today. Carg publish blogpost now. Tonight Carg dance. Goodbye!

*My spellchecker keeps changing “hominins” to “hominids.” Get with the 21st century, spellchecker!

The Inheritors

42.4-40.2 thousand years ago

“The Inheritors” is a novel by William Golding about the encounter between Neanderthals and modern humans. Like another Golding novel, “Lord of the Flies,” it is written with a mid-twentieth century awareness that advanced societies don’t leave behind the potential for cruelty. The novel isn’t all that scientifically accurate, though: Golding’s early humans have bows and arrows, for example.

Neanderthal 1, the first Neanderthal fossil recognized as probably belonging to another species, was discovered in the Neander Thal (=Neander Valley) in 1856. He is close in time to the last Neanderthals: the most recent review of the evidence finds that Neanderthals disappear as a distinct group around 40 thousand years ago. They were almost certainly outcompeted by Homo sapiens who had arrived in Europe earlier. There was probably some kind of coexistence between Neanderthals and H. sapiens over many thousands of years. Regional cultures from this period, like the Châtelperronian, may represent Neanderthals copying the Aurignacian culture of incoming H. sapiens. The final blow may have come between 39 and 38 thousand years ago, when a “Heinrich event” sent cascades of icebergs into the North Atlantic, drastically chilling Europe. Homo sapiens recovered from the cold spell; Neanderthals did not.

Just last year we have learned that one of the earliest modern human fossils from Europe, Oase 1, from Romania (40 kya), has substantially more Neanderthal DNA, 6-9%, than living Europeans. Furthermore, this DNA comes in the form of long stretches of chromosomes, rather than little bits broken up by millennia of recombination, showing that his Neanderthal ancestors go back just a few generations, maybe to some great-great-great-grandparents. We’ve also learned from isotopic evidence that Oase 1 got the proteins in his diet from a broad array of sources, including freshwater fish.

And here is some of the art produced by Homo sapiens 40 thousand years ago. lionman The lion man from Hohlenstein-Fels

And the earliest known cave paintings, from Sulawesi, Indonesia. indonesiancaveart


We have been treating Neanderthals here as a species, Homo neanderthalensis, distinct from our own species, Homo sapiens. Some researchers elect to call Neanderthals a subspecies, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, and classify modern humans as another subspecies, Homo sapiens sapiens.

The line between subspecies and species is not clear cut, nor – given the way evolution works – should we expect it to be. Recent work on ancient DNA recovered from fossils has shown just how complicated the subject is. The spectacular finding of the last few years is that modern humans are hybrids, getting most of their ancestry from a single founding population (we can call them Homo sapiens), but incorporating limited ancestry from close relatives. Thus human beings outside Africa have 1-4% Neanderthal DNA. So it looks as if early in the course of expansion(s) out of Africa, there was a limited amount of interbreeding with Neanderthals.* And not just with Neanderthals. Populations in Melanesia get an additional 4-6% of their DNA from a widespread East/Southeast Asian population known as Denisovans, while some African groups may have ancestry from non-sapiens populations in Africa. (The fossil record for Denisovans is a lot sparser than for Neanderthals, and it’s even sparser for African non-sapiens.)

This isn’t reason enough to put Neanderthals and sapiens in a single species: plenty of species occasionally hybridize with related species. And in fact the DNA evidence implies that sapiens and Neanderthals were moving toward being reproductively isolated. Specifically, we find that a lot of Neanderthal genes related to testis development and male fertility are underrepresented (i.e. at a lot less than 1-4% frequency) in modern humans. The likely explanation is that those genes didn’t work well against a H. sapiens genetic background. In other words, if you were mixed sapiens/Neanderthal man, you probably had fertility problems, albeit not to the point of complete sterility. On the other hand, other Neanderthal genes  – especially genes related to immune function – were useful to modern humans moving into Neanderthal territory and are found at high frequency in Europeans today.

There is an extensive older literature in physical anthropology on “race crossing.” Researchers were concerned with whether people with mixed racial ancestry might have reduced fitness as a result of combining incompatible genes. This literature is reviewed at book length here. The overwhelming evidence is that “race crossing” has no harmful biological consequences (in contrast to close inbreeding, which is a bad idea: check out this post on the Habsburgs.)

Some new data put this in perspective. My colleagues Alan Rogers, Chad Huff and Ryan Bohlender have just shown that the population ancestral to Neanderthals and  Denisovans separated from the ancestors of Homo sapiens somewhat more than 750,000 years ago, passing through a narrow population bottleneck, probably in an early Out Of Africa episode (before the later modern human Out Of Africa episode). This population then split somewhat less than 750,000 years ago into Neanderthal and Denisovan branches. So Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis evolved separately for the better part of a million years, and were some way on the path to reproductive isolation. By contrast, different populations (“races”) within Homo sapiens have been evolving separately for 100,000 years or less outside Africa, and perhaps 250,000 years within Africa. This has been enough time to evolve major differences in traits like skin color and hair form, but apparently not to create appreciable biological barriers to interbreeding.

And here’s a link covering some recent research suggesting that across a wide range of organisms it takes a surprisingly clock-like average of two million years separation to split one species into two.

* Hence, my Neanderthal name is Carg, and my website is cargshome.


From 50 thousand years ago, Shanidar 1 is one of the most complete Neanderthal skeletons known, from the famous Shanidar site in Iraqi Kurdistan. He stood about 5’8” tall, on the tall side for a Neanderthal. He died around 40 years old.

creb shanidar 1

The poor guy was also a mess. His right arm had been useless for a while before he died, and he may have been missing his right forearm entirely. His right foot was injured and arthritic, and he must have walked with a limp. He had also suffered a crushing blow to the left side of his head, which healed, but probably left him blind in that eye. And he had a bad scalp wound on his right. Not a pretty picture, but it tells us something interesting about Neanderthal social life: somebody cared enough about him to keep him alive, although he was probably too disabled to contribute much as a hunter.

Jean Auel used Shanidar 1 as a model for Creb, a crippled Neanderthal shaman, in her Earth’s Children series (Clan of the Cave Bear, etc.).

Shanidar 3, another skeleton, not quite contemporary with Shanidar 1, tells us about another side of Neanderthal life. He’s got a deep gash in one of his ribs, almost certainly inflicted by a knife or spear point. The wound had begun to heal, so he probably died a few weeks after being injured. An interesting interpretation of this wound comes from Steven Churchill (gated, sorry). In experiments with reconstructed weapons and pig carcasses, he found that the closest approximation to Shanidar 3’s injury came from a spear cast by a spear thrower. Neanderthals are not known to have used spear throwers, so it’s possible that Shanidar 3 fell victim to Homo sapiens moving into the area.