Neanderthals & Denisovans — Who Were They? Comparison Of Evidence Against Pop-Culture Projection

November 6, 2016 in Fossils, Humans

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Neanderthals. Since the term was first coined more than a century ago, it has often been used to refer to people of supposedly low intelligence and brusque manner. But is there any truth to these characterizations?

Were the so-called Neanderthals, that lived in Europe, the Middle East, and Northern Asia for possibly more than half a million years — back when the weather was, going by the evidence, periodically far more extreme than it now is, and when enormous and intelligent carnivores such as cave hyena, cave lions, and others, actively hunted people — truly stupid? (Cave hyena and cave lions were much larger and more numerous than their modern equivalents). What about the so-called Denisovans?

Would that even have been a possibility? If a modern human was to be plucked out of the highly insulated, and relatively predictable, modern world and put in the place of a neanderthal would they actually behave more “intelligently?” Would a modern human behave more intelligently than a neanderthal during a hunt? In a fight? In small-scale warfare?

The truth, as noted by many of those in relevant fields, is that the behaviors associated by most modern people with “intelligence” are cultural solutions, not individual/genetic ones. They’re solutions of specialization and hierarchy. Solutions based on agriculture, food surplus, professional armies, relatively static social and symbolic structures, and deep enculturation.

Solutions of domestication in other words.

While on the mass scale you could consider these solutions to be effective ones (that will depend on your opinion of mass deforestation, desertification, extinction, and anthropogenic climate change), they don’t truly relate to increased individual intelligence — just to a greater focusing on specialized knowledge, and participation in a larger system that one doesn’t actually have direct knowledge of. (And they seem to have the effect of decreasing a sense of personal responsibility for one’s actions, neighbors, and the wider world, as well.)

You’ll recall that it was only a century ago that Irishmen were considered by many to be subhumans incapable of acts of genuine intelligence. That some of those living in England during the so-called Enlightenment genuinely believed that animals couldn’t experience pain and that the appearance of them being in pain was something created by God to illicit and develop sympathy in humans.

If you go back a few more centuries though, to the early medieval period, while still remaining in England, you’ll find that it was a somewhat common belief that everything was “alive,” that animals were fellow travelers in life, and that spirits could live in nearly anything.

And many early period Romans did indeed seem to believe that it was possible to force everything to behave and live according to “reason.” Which is, of course, simply an abstraction created by the very same culture. (One that led to the enslavement of vast numbers of peoples, and mass desertification, it should be added, not to a world based on “reason.”)

The point I’m making here is that one’s culture and/or civilization influences what one considers to be truth, “common sense,” and believable, to an enormous degree. All cultures have their blind spots, in other words. Just as individuals do.

…To the subject at hand, who were the “Neanderthals” (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis or Homo neanderthalensis, depending on who you ask), and the “Denisovans”? Below I will provide a basic overview of what’s currently known.

Fossil reconstruction Neanderthal man

Neanderthals — Fossils, Genetics, & Descriptions

So, who were the Neanderthals? Going by current evidence, they were various peoples that lived in relatively low population densities throughout Eurasia for hundreds of thousands of years, at the least, and for up to a million at the most — depending on which researchers you ask.

It’s clear that they were highly skilled hunters, though newer evidence also makes it clear that they definitely ate cooked plant/vegetable matter in fair quantity as well, at least when it was available anyways.

They seemingly definitely possessed sea-worthy boats, as recent evidence strongly implies that they were sailing the Mediterranean Sea at least as early as 110,000 years ago. It may be that their possession of sea-worthy boats (and navigation) goes back far further into time, as quartz hand-axes, 3-sided picks, and stone cleavers, dating back at least 170,000 years have been found on Crete. There was no land bridge between Crete and a mainland at any point (even remotely) near then in time.

Perhaps they were just incredible swimmers? 🙂

They seem to have possessed a sense of “ritual” not vastly different than what people possess, going on various discoveries — including a very elaborate group of 176,000-year-old stalagmite constructions found deep (336 meters or 1,102 feet down) in southwestern France in Bruniquel Cave.

“There were two annular (ring) structures, one 6.7 by 4.5 meters, and the other 2.2 by 2.1, with one to 4 layers of aligned broken stalagmites, and short pieces within the layers to support them. There were also 4 stack structures, 2 within the large ring and two outside it. Artificial lighting would have been required as the cave is far beyond the reach of daylight, and 57 of the stalagmite pieces are reddened and 66 blackened by fire. Burnt organic material was also found.”

They quite possible possessed better eyesight than humans, going by the findings of a 2013 study. Considering that they possessed larger eye sockets, and the part of the brain devoted to visual processing was much more developed, this shouldn’t be surprising if true.

On average, their cranial capacity (1600 cm3), and also their brain-to-body ratio was higher than that of humans. (Notably, most ice-age human populations circa 60,000 to 30,000 years ago seem to have possessed a larger brain-to-body ratio than modern humans as well. Though there is some debate on this count.) At birth, Neanderthals and humans were around the same size, but Neanderthal brains by adulthood were larger — considering that they seem to have reached physical “maturity” at a later time than humans (late 20s, rather than earlier as with people), this would make sense. Interestingly, one study found that Neanderthals seem to have possessed brains that are more asymmetric than other hominid brains. (Previously, humans were thought to generally have the most asymmetric brains of any animals, though this may simply be due to a lack of research on the subject.)

Going on best evidence, it seems that they generally lived in groups of lower-number than “humans” have tended to. Seemingly groups made up of extended family. Women seemingly often left the group that they were born into, and “married” into another, going on genetic evidence.

As far as their physical qualities, Neanderthals had a much more robust build than humans, and were likely to have been much stronger than humans — particularly with regard to their arms and hands, which possessed a musculature much more robust (more muscle groups and connective tissue attachment points), possibly at the expense of articulation. They were also shorter, with shorter limb lengths, and with a wider barrel-shaped torso/ribcage. Other notable qualities include large, long noses, reduced chins (a cold weather adaption), and heavy brow-ridges. Their noses also, notably, seem to have started higher up on the face than in most humans. Their bones also seem to have been more curved than those of modern humans.

Genetic evidence suggest that some Neanderthals may well have been red-headed, dark-haired, or blonde — a variety of hair colors in other words, with some regional variation. Light skin tones seem likely across the board, and genetic evidence seems to support this.

Recreation of Neanderthal infant from skull

Going on a very limited sample size of 45 long bones, from at most only 14 males and 7 females, Neanderthal males seem to have averaged 164–168 cm (65–66 in) in height, and females 152–156 cm (60–61 in).

Going on a sample size of only 26 specimens, average weight for males was 77.6 kg (171 lbs), and for females 66.4 kg (146 lbs). Without higher sample sizes, and a better knowledge of Neanderthal physiology, though, this is highly speculative.

As far as hunting goes, while early stereotypes postulated a lack of the sophistication required for large-game hunting, a great deal of accumulated evidence proves this projection wrong. Neanderthals seem to have been apex predators, going on actual evidence.

They are known to have been capable of bringing down everything from reindeer, to wild boar, to ibex, to red deer, to larger animals such as the auroch (the wild, much larger and more aggressive animal from which cattle were domesticated), and even, apparently, sometimes animals such as mammoth, straight-tucked elephant, wooly rhinoceros, and the unicorn (elasmotherium).

Family scene Neanderthal recreation

For those wondering about how such a competent sounding hominid could be replaced by people, it’s worth realizing that homo sapiens, by most estimates, seems to have outnumbered neanderthals by a margin of nearly 9 to 1 at the beginning of homo sapiens presence out of Africa. Also notable, is that homo sapiens is known to have introduced and brought with them to Europe and Asia a number of diseases that are still around today. Neanderthals having never been exposed to these diseases, are unlikely to have had any immunity to them. A key point in this is that neanderthals lived in much lower population densities, leaving them unequipped immunologically to deal with the diseases that thrive in high-density populations.

As with the introduction of European/urban diseases to North America by De Soto, such an introduction would have probably had a devastating effect on the local populations. Following first exposure to European diseases, roughly 95% of the people living in North America, South America, Australia, and the Polynesian islands, died.

Such an incredible loss of life obviously led to instability, and the collapse of various cultures, traditions, social structures, and probably languages, and the loss of a great deal of accumulated knowledge and cohesion. Such huge losses (speaking with regard to the proportion of the total population that dies) have knock-on effects that echo on for centuries and millennia afterwords.

A similar situation is thought to have happened in Europe when the ice age homo sapiens populations were first subjected to the mass migrations of various agricultural peoples (which live in higher population densities, and are carriers for diseases that those living in lower population densities don’t have resistance against) over the last 10,000 years.

The only people living in Europe currently who have partial descent from the “original” ice age “homo sapiens” are the Sami (including those of partial descent that they don’t acknowledge), some of those living in Finland, in some parts of Scotland (the Orkneys in particular), Ireland, Cornwall, Wales, the northern part of the Netherlands (Friesland), and some of the mountainous (refugia) terrain of the continent (Basque country, Catalonia, Andalusia, and various parts of Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, and neighboring countries).

(Recent mass migrations into Europe include: the Germanic migrations from West Asia 2,000 or so years ago; the Celtic mass migrations from the Middle East around the time of the late-bronze age collapse; the Italic mass migrations before that; the Iberian mass migrations before that; etc, on and on.)

A reminder, though, over longer time periods, genetic markers tend of be spread far from earlier points of concentration (if they don’t disappear). The mitochondrial haplogroup “X” is a good example of this truth. It’s the rarest of the primary mtDNA haplogroups, and even at points of maximum population concentration are never found in percentages higher than 25-30% (of total population).

While various lineages are found throughout the Middle/Near East, Europe, and North America (American Indians), the highest proportions are found at the edges of this geographic range — particularly, in the Druze populations of Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria; in the Orkneys in northern Scotland; in Georgia (the country); in the Caucasus; in various North American Indian groups, in particular the various Algonquin and Iroquoian peoples; and in the people inhabiting the El-Hayez oasis in Egypt.

These different populations, though, all contain highly diverged forms of haplogroup X. Indicating a common origin likely somewhere between these diverged hot spots. The image below should give one an idea where:

Haplogroup X world map

“Haplogroup X is found in approximately 7% of native Europeans, and 3% of all Native Americans from North America. Overall, haplogroup X is found in around 2% of the population of Europe, the Near East and North Africa. It is especially common among Egyptians inhabiting El-Hayez oasis (14.3%).”

“Sub-group X1 is much less frequent, and is largely restricted to North Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Near East. Sub-group X2 appears to have undergone extensive population expansion and dispersal around or soon after the Last Glacial Maximum, about 21,000 years ago (this is rough estimate, dispersal could have occurred far earlier). It is more strongly present in the Near East, the Caucasus, and Southern Europe, and somewhat less strongly present in the rest of Europe. Particular concentrations appear in Georgia (8%), Orkney (in Scotland) (7%), and amongst the Israeli Druze community (27%). Subclades X2a and X2g are found in North America, but are not present in native South Americans.”

“The greatest frequency of haplogroup X is observed in the Druze, a minority population in Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, as much in X1 (16%) as in X2 (11%). The Druze also have much diversity of X lineages. This pattern of heterogeneous parental origins is consistent with Druze oral tradition. The Galilee Druze represent a population isolate, so their combination of a high frequency and diversity of X signifies a phylogenetic refugium, providing a sample snapshot of the genetic landscape of the Near East prior to the modern age.”

Haplogroup X is one of 5 haplogroups that are known to have been present in the Americas before European colonization. It’s present (mostly) only in North America though, and is only found in a few of the indigenous populations of South America. As noted above, the form of haplogroup X found in the Americas is highly diverged and not descended from the form found in Europe.

Various Algonquin peoples possess particularly high concentrations, with haplogroup X comprising up to 25% of mtDNA types in the total population pool (that’s been tested). In particular, amongst the Ojibwa peoples the haplogroup is very common.

Various Iroquoian peoples show high frequencies of haplogroup X as well, as do the Sioux (15%), the Nuu-chah-nulth (11%–13%), the Navajo (Diné) (7%), the Yakama (5%), and others.

Notably, while haplogroup X is very rare in Asia, it is present in the native peoples of the Altai Mountains in southern Russia. Interestingly, recent research has shown that the haplotype present in the Altaians isn’t intermediate between the American Indian clades and the European ones, and that the American Indian clades seemingly split from all the others very early, “likely at the very beginning of their expansion and spread from the Near East.”

It should be noted here again, that while haplogroup X2 is more or less not present in Asia, and is only found in various North American Indians, Middle Easterners, and Europeans, the forms found in the different populations (“New” and “Old World”) is highly diverged — with the New World haplogroup X2a (and X2g) being as different from the Old World X2b, X2c, X2d, X2e, and X2f lineages, as they are from each other. What this means is that the different lineages likely diverged early.

“X2a has not been found anywhere in Eurasia, and phylogeography gives us no compelling reason to think it is more likely to come from Europe than from Siberia. Furthermore, analysis of the complete genome of Kennewick Man, who belongs to the most basal lineage of X2a yet identified, gives no indication of recent European ancestry and moves the location of the deepest branch of X2a to the West Coast, consistent with X2a belonging to the same ancestral population as the other founder mitochondrial haplogroups. Nor have any high-resolution studies of genome-wide data from Native American populations yielded any evidence of Pleistocene European ancestry or trans-Atlantic gene flow.”

In other words, despite having the same tag of “haplogroup X” applied to them, and a common origin, the two forms are highly independent rather than the sign of a population intergression. Notably, much recent evidence shows that Ice-Age-European and American Indian populations had quite a lot in common genetically, with the ancestors of both groups having apparently continued exchanging genetics with each other long after both groups had ceased doing so with the ancestors of East Asians.

As with the spread of haplogroup X throughout the northern hemisphere (apparently) from an earlier point of concentration, a similar situation has occurred with the neanderthal genetics that have been left behind in humans as a result of “interbreeding.” Neanderthal genetics are spread throughout the genomes of Turks, Europeans, American Indians, Avars, Tatars, North and East Asians, Arabs, Georgians, etc, but the genetics in question aren’t the same. Different populations seem to have gotten different “pieces of the puzzle” despite common origins. “Common origins” being with regard to a generalized “Neanderthal genome,” not necessarily to the same population mixings.

Recreation of Neanderthals

Interestingly, Neanderthals themselves seem to have picked up quite a bit of DNA (~8%) from other unknown hominid species — presumably ones living somewhere in Asia, Africa, or Europe, that were encountered at some point.

Notably, the 5300-year-old Ötzi the Iceman mummy found in the Ötztal Alps seems to have had a higher proportion of Neanderthal ancestry (by a fair bit) than most modern people do. Other remains found in Europe and the Near East from the time, and before, often show relatively high proportions of Neanderthal ancestry as well. This suggests that Neanderthal ancestry in Europe has been slowly being bred out of existence since the Upper Paleolithic as mass migration waves from elsewhere continue (the Germanic migrations into Europe during the late-Roman period, the Celtic migrations into Europe around the time of the late-Bronze Age collapse, the Italic, the Iberian, etc, on and on).

Those looking for a blog that carries regular technical discussions pertaining to Neandertals (to use the spelling that he does), may like John Hawks’ blog. It’s quite good. (This article in particular is excellent.)

I’ve had to split the article into two as a result of it crashing otherwise (too long I guess), so those looking to read the section on Denisovans will have to click here: Denisovans — Fossils, Genetics, Artifacts, & Speculation.

Tools and jewelry of Neanderthals

Neanderthal necklace ancient

Sea shell Neanderthal makeup paint case

170,000 year old Neanderthal skull

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