Neanderthal-human mating, months later….

By Razib Khan | July 18, 2011 3:27 pm


Image credit:ICHTO

Recently something popped up into my Google news feed in regards to “Neanderthal-human mating.” If you are a regular reader you know that I’m wild for this particular combination of the “wild thing.” But a quick perusal of the press release told me that this was a paper I had already reviewed when it was published online in January. I even used the results in the paper to confirm Neanderthal admixture in my own family (we’ve all been genotyped). One of my siblings is in fact a hemizygote for the Neanderthal alleles on the locus in question! I guess it shows the power of press releases upon the media. I would offer up the explanation that this just shows that the more respectable press doesn’t want to touch papers which aren’t in print, but that’s not a good explanation when they are willing to hype up stuff which is presented at conferences at even an earlier stage.

A second aspect I noted is that except for Ron Bailey at Reason all the articles which use a color headshot use a brunette reconstruction, like the one here which is from the Smithsonian. But the most recent research (dating to 2007) seems to suggest that the Neanderthals may have been highly depigmented. This shouldn’t be too surprising when one considers that they were resident in northern climes for hundreds of thousands of years.

But there are some new tidbits, from researchers in the field of study:

“There is little doubt that this haplotype is present because of mating with our ancestors and Neanderthals,” said Nick Patterson of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University. Patterson did not participate in the latest research. He added, “This is a very nice result, and further analysis may help determine more details.”

David Reich, a Harvard Medical School geneticist, added, “Dr. Labuda and his colleagues were the first to identify a genetic variation in non-Africans that was likely to have come from an archaic population. This was done entirely without the Neanderthal genome sequence, but in light of the Neanderthal sequence, it is now clear that they were absolutely right!”

The modern human/Neanderthal combo likely benefitted our species, enabling it to survive in harsh, cold regions that Neanderthals previously had adapted to.

“Variability is very important for long-term survival of a species,” Labuda concluded. “Every addition to the genome can be enriching.”

Since Nick comments here on occasion I probably should have asked him what he thought of these results back in January, but it goes to show that I’m not thinking like a journalist. Yet.

  • Darkseid

    i very often baffled at how long it takes people to react to “big” news like this. it’s almost as if they can’t be bothered with it until it’s “cool” to know it or something. you can post it on reddit, etc….no one will care until some months later NPR or some random news site will publish it and it will, all of a sudden, be HUGE. i don’t understand why. i’m guessing the melanesian/denisovan connection won’t ever have it’s time in the limelight like this story;)

  • Insightful

    i’m guessing the melanesian/denisovan connection won’t ever have it’s time in the limelight like this story

    That is because melanesians are not caucasians/european so Americans and other westerners of European descent cannot relate; so interest is hard to gin up and sustain and is therefore lost quickly…

    What I’m about to state is off topic, but if Casey Anthony were African-American do you think there would be this much interest in that news story?

  • Darkseid

    actually, i was alluding to the lack of a self-deprecating storyline. it would be seen as racist while this story fits the bill perfectly…

  • Anthony

    I wonder what our Victorian-era forebears would have made of this knowledge, if it could be proved to them.

  • Sandgroper

    One thing intriguing me is whether Denisovan ancestry contributed to blonde hair in Melanesians. I haven’t seen this alluded to specifically anywhere, although I think Razib hinted at it once.

  • Miley Cyrax

    @Insightful
    “That is because melanesians are not caucasians/european so Americans and other westerners of European descent cannot relate; so interest is hard to gin up and sustain and is therefore lost quickly…”

    I doubt the general public even knows what Melanesians are, much less Denisovans.

    “What I’m about to state is off topic, but if Casey Anthony were African-American do you think there would be this much interest in that news story?”

    Very off-topic indeed, but no, African-Americans are the media’s pet minority. Events or occurrences that may cast a negative light on African-Americans are played down, if not “contextualized.” Contextualized, like the media trying to accuse the victims of past racism when that one black guy shot a bunch of his co-workers, only to eventually have no evidence of racism turn up.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Very off-topic indeed, but no, African-Americans are the media’s pet minority. Events or occurrences that may cast a negative light on African-Americans are played down, if not “contextualized.” Contextualized, like the media trying to accuse the victims of past racism when that one black guy shot a bunch of his co-workers, only to eventually have no evidence of racism turn up.

    i think what insightful was implying that there’s a pretty robust trend of late of black children being abused and the media giving them nominal attention as opposed to white children. the dynamic you’re pointing to exists, but i think you have a hammer and everything is a nail.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    One thing intriguing me is whether Denisovan ancestry contributed to blonde hair in Melanesians. I haven’t seen this alluded to specifically anywhere, although I think Razib hinted at it once.

    we don’t even know the genetic architecture yet. once that’s understood, perhaps we could look?

  • http://lyingeyes.blogspot.com ziel

    i think what insightful was implying that there’s a pretty robust trend of late of black children being abused and the media giving them nominal attention as opposed to white children.

    Generally black-on-black crime commands near zero interest. But I think there’s something more here – I think this story has such a hold on the public because it involves one of society’s most precious assets – beautiful young fertile women – grossly abusing that preciousness by killing her daughter to behave promiscuously (or so it seems). I doubt such a case involving an overweight, unattractive white mother would have held all that much interest either. Now would a very attractive young black woman have held such mystique? I don’t think so – I don’t think African-American women tap into these primal, fertility-based reactions among the general (white-dominated) American public.

  • Sandgroper

    #8 Yeah, what I meant.

  • Mike S

    Great article, thanks. OT: the fellow portrayed in the headshot, pigmented or not, looks 10 times smarter than my boss!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #9, i haven’t followed the story closely, but i think you’re right. perfect storm. the anthony chick seems like a head-case too.

  • Ali

    for the picture, how do you know neandertals did not have golden hair and blue eyes? lol, you racist Europeans :)

  • http://www.parhasard.net/ Aidan Kehoe

    Ali, most people don’t have golden hair and blue eyes, it was a reasonable guess.

  • Sandgroper

    #13, #14 Don’t you people even read the post? What, you just look at the pictures?

  • http://www.parhasard.net/ Aidan Kehoe

    Sandgroper, I read the post; I read Ali’s comment as deriding those who, decades ago, came up with the popular image of Neanderthals as brunettes, given the information in the post, and my reply disagreed with him. I don’t follow your question.

  • Jim Johnson

    Forgive me if this sounds naive, but I’ve begun to wonder why, if neanderthal-hominids were so closely related to human-hominids as to make interbreeding possible, that we still refer to them as a different species. It would seem to me to be more fitting to current usage to refer to them as a different race (since that is how we refer to radically separate strains within our species). Or paleo-race, if that makes one feel more comfortable.

    Per Wikipedia: “A species is often defined as a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring.”

    I’m aware that isn’t a hard and fast rule – taxonomic units are notoriously arbitrary and slippery (wolves & coyotes famously interbreed to produce fertile offspring, yet few people would argue they aren’t separate species) and “race” is even worse, because of our own blind spots regarding it.

    However for many people the statement, “2 percent of your genes come from a different species” has a negative connotation that “2 percent of your genes comes from a now-extinct race” does not. (I wonder if that might partially explain the apparent lack of media interest you mentioned.)

    Mostly though, when the news was first released, this revelation seemed huge to me – it absolutely rocked the world of recent hominid development and the standard perception of who we are, and I felt now “race” more neatly captured my perception of Neanderthals than “species” did.

    Among scientists, such a change in labels might have little effect, but it might open up the topic to acceptance and understanding by non-scientists.

  • Sandgroper

    Ali referred to ‘the picture’, which I take to mean the picture in the post.

    I was pointing out that it’s already dealt with specifically in the post.

  • juan

    Is there a good picture somewhere that illustrates what the depigmented neanderthals might have looked like?

  • Miley Cyrax

    @Jim Johnson, #17
    That’s not a naive thought at all. This sort of discussion comes up every other post on blogs like Tetrapod Zoology concerning various taxa. “Species” is indeed a slippery and arbitrary concept (different thinkers and scientists have different suggested definitions for it), more for our conceptual convenience than for some infallible reflection of reality. Terms like “genus” and “family” are even worse and are close to meaningless in some contexts. Some taxa are lumped and some taxa are split for no particular reasons.

  • Sandgroper
  • Sandgroper
  • http://lyingeyes.blogspot.com ziel

    I thought they were hairy – at least I recall Cochran and Harpending noting that they’ve found little notches in the fingers like chimps get from holding on to their mother’s fur.

  • Me5000

    I have allways been taught the we evolved directly from APES – So this is good news to me that weeeee didn’t!

  • Me5000

    You either evolved from APE’S or NEANDERTHALS – I prefer NEANDERTHALS how about you????

  • Leon

    I’ve read the research paper with a very poor knowledge of genomics and statistics and without english being my native tongue (ouch). My question to you Razib is, since you’ve obviously made sense of it all, what does this implies in regards to the halotype presence in limitrophe population in the nortmost parts of sub-saharan Africa and populations of contemporary sub-saharan origin in the Americas, particularly in the Caribbeans and in South-America, which I guess are still essentially sub-saharan population even considering out-of-africa admixture.

  • Steve C

    Humans mating with Neanderthals? Hmmm, could this be the first evidence of alcohol use?

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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