UW, science and the slow recognition of our Neanderthal heritage

A University of Washington scientist has helped overcome the long-held belief that humans and Neanderthals never mated.
A cast of an adult Neanderthal male skeleton displayed at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. (2012).

A cast of an adult Neanderthal male skeleton displayed at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. (2012). Tim Evanson/Flickr

I may have Neanderthal hair. Unless you're African, you may, too. Or not; let's just say many of the genetic sequences that determine what kind of hair we have come from Neanderthals. 

That's not what most of us were taught. Long ago and far away, when I was an undergraduate studying physical anthropology, I helped restore a skull — the fragments of a skull — that had been in the university's natural history museum for many years. I used dental tools and a weak acid solution to rid the bone fragments of the caked mud in which they had been imbedded for millennia. (Using the acid, I panicked when I thought I had managed to dissolve the ancient bone, but the Ph.D. candidate in charge of my work assured me that I was only dissolving hardened mud.) The skull and others found with it were clearly from modern humans and yet ... they clearly had some Neanderthal characteristics.

The explanation seemed obvious: Humans and Neanderthals had interbred. But at the time and for many years afterward, the scientific establishment rejected the obvious: Science said that interbreeding hadn't happened. I never believed it, so I was interested but not surprised four years ago, when genetic researchers announced that those of us who didn't come from Africa carried genes from Neanderthals after all. (Neanderthal genes make up some 2 percent of our own genomes.)

And I was intrigued in January when University of Washington geneticist Joshua Akey and his graduate student, Benjamin Vernot, and a group of Harvard Medical School geneticists published papers suggesting that we incorporate perhaps 20 percent of the Neanderthal genome. (East Asians have up to 25 percent.) Both groups found that those genes aren't sprinkled uniformly across our own genetic structure. Rather, they are bunched in areas that control the development of different body parts and characteristics: We may have Neanderthal hair and skin (at least a lot of the Neanderthal genes are concentrated there) but, since none of those genes appear in areas linked to language, no trace of a Neanderthal accent — assuming there was such a thing.

Why did it take so long for the scientific establishment to acknowledge this? No doubt, religion played a part. My friend Sally suggests it was because we thought we were made in God's image — but God has turned out to be somewhat hairier than we supposed. Were Neanderthals really as hairy as we imagine them? When I sat down with Akey in his office at Foege Hall, just west of the university's health sciences complex, he said his department chairman had asked him that. He doesn't know. Maybe. But perhaps, he suggests, Neanderthals were a lot more like us than we tend to think.

Why, apart from religion, did scientists believe for so long that we were too unlike Neanderthals for mutual attraction? Personally, I tend to hear echos of old American racist rants against the horrors of "miscegenation." Akey is more charitable. "A lot of people, especially in the public at large, believe human beings stand outside of nature," he suggests. If you're all alone at the top of the pyramid, everyone else is beneath you. Besides, if you're a separate species, and one characteristic of a species is — as we were taught — that it won't breed with anyone else, that's the end of the discussion. Or not.

Akey suggests that the old idea of a species as a group that won't breed with others hasn't been especially useful. There is a species barrier, but it's permeable. He said he prefers to think of that barrier as quantitative — i.e., interbreeding doesn't happen often — rather than qualitative — it doesn't happen, it can't happen, it would be an unnatural act. In fact, he says, inter-species hybridization happens all the time; look at wolves and dogs.

Akey is OK with the old saw that "extraordinary results require extraordinary proof," but he suggests that the idea of human beings mating with Neanderthals isn't really so extraordinary. "If you look at the Internet," he says, "you see that humans will mate with" just about anything."


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 8:04 a.m. Inappropriate

Time to re-read the Clan of the Cave Bear series!

m-t-e

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 9:19 a.m. Inappropriate

What is the difference between sharing some of the same DNA, and having the DNA from...?

I mean, how do you know these multiple species hooked up?

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 9:54 a.m. Inappropriate

I find the irony delicious that the light-skinned races are the result of pre-historic good old boys getting it on with a lower species.

dbreneman

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 3:17 p.m. Inappropriate

One look at Alley Oop's main squeeze Ooola would be enough to convince most skeptics that inter-species dating occurred.

Djinn

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