Neanderthal Neuroscience

By Carl Zimmer | November 14, 2011 4:18 pm

When the Society for Neuroscience gets together for their annual meeting each year, a city of scientists suddenly forms for a week. This year’s meeting has drawn 31,000 people to the Washington DC Convention Center. The subjects of their presentations range from brain scans of memories to the molecular details of disorders such as Parkinson’s and autism. This morning, a scientist named Svante Paabo delivered a talk. Its subject might make you think that he had stumbled into the wrong conference altogether. He delivered a lecture about Neanderthals.

Yet Paabo did not speak to an empty room. He stood before thousands of researchers in the main hall. His face was projected onto a dozen giant screens, as if he were opening for the Rolling Stones. When Paabo was done, the audience released a surging crest of applause. One neuroscientist I know, who was sitting somewhere in that huge room, sent me a one-word email as Paabo finished: “Amazing.”

You may well know about Paabo’s work. In August, Elizabeth Kolbert published a long profile in the New Yorker. But he’s been in the news for over fifteen years. Like many other journalists, I’ve followed his work since the mid-1990s, having written about pieces of Paabo’s work in newspapers, magazines, and books. But it was bracing to hear him bring together the scope of his research in a single hour–including new experiments that Paabo’s colleagues are presenting at the meeting. Simply put, Paabo has changed the way scientists study human evolution. Along with fossils, they can now study genomes that belonged to people who died 40,000 years ago. They can do experiments to see how some of those individual genes helped to make us human. During his talk, Paabo used this new research to sketch out a sweeping vision of how our ancestors evolved uniquely human brains as they swept out across the world.

Before the 1990s, scientists could only study the shape of fossils to learn about how we evolved. A million years ago, the fossil record contained evidence of human-like creatures in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Roughly speaking, the leading hypotheses for how those creatures became Homo sapiens came in two flavors. Some scientists argued that all the Old World hominins were a single species, with genes flowing from one population to another, and together they evolved into our species. Others argued that most hominin populations became extinct. A single population in Africa evolved into our species, and then later spread out across the Old World, replacing other species like Neanderthals in Europe.

It was also possible that the truth was somewhere in between these two extremes. After our species evolved in Africa, they might have come into contact with other species and interbred, allowing some DNA to flow into Homo sapiens. That flow might have been a trickle or a flood.

As scientists began to build a database of human DNA in the 1990s, it became possible to test these ideas with genes. In his talk, Paabo described how he and his colleagues managed to extract some fragments of DNA from a Neanderthal fossil–by coincidence, the very first Neanderthal discovered in 1857. The DNA was of a special sort. Along with the bulk of our genes, which are located in the nucleus of our cells, we also carry bits of DNA in jellybean-shaped structures called mitochondria. Since there are hundreds of mitochondria in each cell, it’s easier to grab fragments of mitochondrial DNA and assemble them into long sequences. Paabo and his colleagues used the mutations in the Neanderthal DNA, along with those in human and chimpanzee DNA, to draw a family tree. This tree splits into three branches. The ancestors of humans and Neanderthals branch off from the ancestors of chimpanzees 5-7 million years ago, and then humans and Neanderthals branch off in the last few hundred thousand years. If humans carried mitochondrial DNA from Neanderthals, you’d expect Paabo’s fossil genes to be more similar to some humans than others. But that’s not what he and his colleagues found.

Paabo and his colleagues then pushed forward and began to use new gene-sequencing technology to assemble a draft of the entire Neanderthal genome. They’ve gotten about 55% of the genome mapped, which is enough to address some of the big questions Paabo has in mind. One is the question of interbreeding. Paabo and his colleagues compared the Neanderthal genome to genomes of living people from Africa, Europe, Asia, and New Guinea. They discovered that people out of Africa share some mutations in common with Neanderthals that are not found in Africans. They concluded that humans and Neanderthals must have interbred after our species expanded from Africa, and that about 2.5% of the genomes of living non-Africans comes from Neanderthals.

This pattern could have arisen in other ways, Paabo granted. The ancestors of Neanderthals are believed to have emerged from Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago and spread into Europe. Perhaps the humans who expanded out of Africa came from the birthplace of Neanderthals, and carried Neanderthal-like genes with them.

But Paabo doubts this is the case. One way to test these alternatives is to look at the arrangement of our DNA. Imagine that a human mother and Neanderthal father have a hybrid daughter. She has two copies of each chromosome, one from each species. As her own eggs develop, however, the chromosome pairs swap some segments. She then has children with a human man, who contributes his own human DNA. In her children, the Neanderthal DNA no longer runs the entire length of chromosomes. It forms shorter chunks. Her children then have children; her grandchildren have even shorter chunks.

Paabo described how David Reich of Harvard and other scientists measured the size of the chunks of Neanderthal DNA in people’s genomes. They found that in some of the Europeans they studied, the Neanderthal chunks were quite long. Based on their size, the scientists estimated that the interbreeding happened between 37,000 and 86,000 years ago. (This research is still unpublished, but Reich discussed it at a meeting this summer.)

The success with the Neanderthal genome led Paabo to look for other hominin fossils that he could grind up for DNA. DNA probably can’t last more than a few hundred thousand years before degrading beyond recognition, but even in that window of time, there are plenty of interesting fossils to investigate. Paabo hit the jackpot with a tiny chip from the tip of a 40,000-year-old pinky bone that was found in a Siberian cave called Denisova. The DNA was not human, nor Neanderthal. Instead, it belonged to a distant cousin of Neanderthals. And when Paabo and his colleagues compared the Denisovan DNA to human genomes, they found some Denisovan genes in the DNA of their New Guinea subject. Mark Stoneking, Paabo’s colleague at Max Planck, and other scientists have expanded the comparison and found Denisovan DNA in people in Australia and southeast Asia.

Paabo then offered a scenario for human evolution: about 800,000 years ago, the ancestors of Neanderthals and Denisovans diverged from our own ancestors. They expanded out of Africa, and the Neanderthals swept to the west into Europe and the Denisovans headed into East Asia. Paabo put the date of their split about 600,000 years ago. The exact ranges of Neanderthal and Denisovans remain fuzzy, but they definitely lived in Denisova at about the same time 50,000 years ago, given that both hominins left bones in the same cave.

Later, our own species evolved in Africa and spread out across that continent. Humans expanded out of Africa around 100,000 years ago, Paabo proposed. (I’m not sure why he gave that age, instead of a more recent one.) Somewhere in the Middle East, humans and Neanderthals interbred. As humans continued to expand into Europe and Asia, they took Neanderthal DNA with them. When humans got to southeast Asia, they mated with Denisovans, and this second addition of exotic DNA spread through the human population as it expanded. Neanderthals and Denisovans then became extinct, but their DNA lives on in our bodies. And Paabo wouldn’t be surprised if more extinct hominins turn out to have donated DNA of their own to us.

Paabo sees these results as supporting the replacement model I described earlier–or, rather, a “leaky replacement” model. If humans and other hominins had been having lots of sex and lots of kids, we’d have lots more archaic DNA in our genomes.

Now that scientists know more about the history of our genome, they can start tracking individual genes. When I first wrote about this interbreeding work last year for the New York Times, I asked Paabo if there were any genes that humans picked up from interbreeding that made any big biological difference. He didn’t see any evidence for them at the time. But at the meeting, he pointed to a new study of immune genes. One immune gene appears to have spread to high frequency in some populations of Europeans and Asians, perhaps because it provided some kind of disease resistance that benefited them.

The history of other genes is just as interesting. Some of our genes have mutations also found in Neanderthals and Denisovans, but not in chimpanzees. They must have evolved into their current form between 5 million and 800,000 years ago. Other genes have mutations that are found only in the human genome, but not in those of Neanderthals and Denisovans. Paabo doesn’t have a complete list yet, since he’s only mapped half the Neanderthal genome, but the research so far suggests that the list of new features in the human genome will be short. There are only 78 unique human mutations that changed the structure of a protein. Paabo can’t yet say what these mutations did to our ancestors. Some of the mutations alter the address labels of proteins, for example, which let cells know where to deliver a protein once they’re created. Paabo and his colleagues have found that the Neanderthal and human versions of address labels don’t change the delivery.

Other experiments Paabo and his colleagues have been running have offered more promising results. At the talk, Paabo described some of his latest work on a gene called FoxP2. Ten years ago, psychologists discovered that mutations to this gene can make it difficult for people to speak and understand language. (Here’s a ten-year retrospective on FoxP2 I wrote last month in Discover.) Paabo and his colleagues have found that FoxP2 underwent a dramatic evolutionary change in our lineage. Most mammals have a practically identical version of the protein, but ours has two different amino acids (the building blocks of proteins).

The fact that humans are the only living animals capable of full-blown language, and the fact that this powerful language-linked gene evolved in the human lineage naturally fuels the imagination. Adding fuel to the fire, Paabo pointed out that both Neanderthals and Denisovans had the human version of FoxP2. If Neanderthals could talk, it would be intriguing that they apparently couldn’t paint or make sculptures or do other kinds of abstract expressions that humans did. And if Neanderthal’s couldn’t talk, it would be intriguing that they already had a human version of FoxP2. As scientific mysteries go, it’s a win-win.

From a purely scientific point of view, the best way to investigate the evolution of FoxP2 would be to genetically engineer a human with a chimpanzee version of the gene and a chimpanzee with a human version. But since that’s not going to happen anywhere beyond the Island of Doctor Moreau, Paabo is doing the second-best experiment. He and his colleagues are putting the human version of FoxP2 into mice.

The humanized mice don’t talk, alas. But they do change in many intriguing ways. The frequency of their ultrasonic squeaks changes. They become more cautious about exploring new places. Many of the most interesting changes happen in the brain. As I wrote in my Discover column, Paabo and his colleagues have found changes in a region deep in the brain called the striatum. The striatum is part of a circuit that lets us learn how to do new things, and then to turn what we learn into automatic habits. A human version of FoxP2 makes neurons in the mouse striatum sprout more branches, and those branches become longer.

Paabo’s new experiments are uncovering more details about how human FoxP2 changes the mice. Of the two mutations that changed during human evolution, only one makes a difference to how the striatum behaves. And while that difference may not allow mice to recite Chaucer, they do change the way they learn. Scientists at MIT, working with Paabo, have put his mice into mazes to see how quickly they learn how to find food. Mice with human FoxP2 develop new habits faster than ones with the ordinary version of the gene.

So for now, Paabo’s hypothesis is that a single mutation to FoxP2 rewired learning circuits in the brain of hominins over 800,000 years ago. Our ancestors were able to go from practice to expertise faster than earlier hominins. At some point after the evolution of human-like FoxP2, our ancestors were able to use this fast learning to develop the quick, precise motor control required in our lips and tongues in order to speak.

I think what made Paabo’s talk so powerful for the audience was that he was coming from a different world–a world of fossils and stone tools–but he could talk in the language of neuroscience. As big as the Society for Neuroscience meetings can be, Paabo showed that it was part of a much bigger scientific undertaking: figuring out how we came to be the way we are.

[Image: Frank Vinken]


Comments (66)

  1. chuckgoecke

    I hope he didn’t name that mouse he put the human version of FoxP2 into Algernon.

  2. It will be interesting to see what secrets are in the other 45% of the Neanderthal’s genome. On the subject of experiments that would be fruitful but probably won’t be done I like to see a large group of Neanderthals cloned to give us insights into how the distributed system of their society functioned. For instance do they cooperate more or less than some modern humans?

  3. megan

    @chuckgoecke ITA, and IMMEDIATELY keep thinking the same about all of the mice they are doing this human/mice hybrid slicing to.

  4. Carol

    Very Exciting! If they can put the human version of FoxP2 into a mouse and its effect is viewed as “positive,” why NOT in the H. Sapiens S. suffering from a wide variety of FoxP2 related disorders? Seems no more outre’ than current acceptable stem cell “transfusions.” Paabo is not simply a brilliant scientist, he is a seeker and a visionary.

  5. zackoz

    Amazing stuff.

    I’d read about foxp2 before, but didn’t dream they could try mice with it.

    How likely is it though that foxp2 is the only gene involved with language? Surely there are many others not yet discovered.

    Obvious caption for the photo – “Alas, poor Yorick”.

  6. I don’t really see a reason not to put the FoxP2 gene in a chimpanzee.

    Why not?

  7. cfarnsworth

    Any chance that talk was filmed??

  8. Wesley

    This is the stuff I love! And as a dental student I can’t help but notice that the neanderthal skull has the proper room for wisdom teeth that we lack..

  9. David B. Benson

    Carl Zimmer — You excell even your superb writings with this one!

    But some answers for you:

    H. sapiens almost surely left Africa around 100,000 years ago with some of the best evidence from the genetics paper by Alan Templeton which you reviewed (and I read thoroughly) a few years ago. Since then there is additional field data suggesting a possibly even earlier date for leaving at least East Africa (caves in South Africa along the sea coast) and intriguing finds on Crete (which might be from humans other than H. sapiens). Also there are new datings in South Asia from around 74 kya which add evidence to an earlier departure from Africa as well as the fact that Australians arrived in Australia before 45 kya (and Tiwan, etc., not long after that). These later dates imp[ly either the ~100 kya out-of-Africa or else really hurrying along, especially as we now know that the Australians went (in a gnetic sense at least) via Siberia.

    Now for a non-answer: we simply do not know whether or not H. neandertal engaged in art much. After all, the evidence of H. sapiens doing so is rather sparce before ~50 kya. There is a recent art object uncovered in southern Germany which dates from ~ 45 kya(?) and AFAIK there is no evidence indicating which species of genus Homo did the art work. So don’t underrate our ancient and remote cousins; different they were but not that much different, methinks.

    So far Oppenheimer’s “Out of Africa’s Eden” is holding up quite well. IMO he puts the date of leaving Africa too late and proposes what might be the wrong routing to SOutheast Asia. Otherwise and still, a fascinating read made more so by these impressive finds (not to mention the body lice of Amerindians you posted on some time ago). The story isn’t all filed in but I think the story teller’s need to give far more credit to the intelligence and innovativeness of all our remote ancestors.

  10. Bob

    I would be careful about claiming Neanderthals could not do abstract things, when in fact we absolutely know they did. We know that in the Harz mountains in Germany, they made Birch bark pitch, which required them to understand how to control the temperature exactly, and how to keep air out of the birch bark, and prevent it from burning. Homo Sapiens would not make a similar leap for tens of thousands of years!

    We also know they made pendants, necklaces, painted themselves, and on one occasion, used bone and a rock to represent a face.

    Further, they may have made a flute of bone. I’ll leave out the fact that I don’t think it would be possible to teach someone how to do Levallois flaking without using language to explain it.

  11. Bill

    Excellent article. But Paabo has been in the scientific news since 1986:

    Molecular cloning of Ancient Egyptian mummy DNA

    Nature. 1985 Apr 18-24;314(6012):644-5

  12. fducedam

    I am curious about matching dates in the article with paleo-climatology periods. It may be that hominid migrations out of Africa are scheduled by climat changes. One could imagine successive waves of population going through speciation after being isolated during glaciation periods thus developing unique genetic traits which, combined, evolved into homo sapiens. How desappointing, I was kind of hoping to have been created by God.

  13. prentice

    I cannot, for the life of me, understand why anyone with the kind of talent Svante Paabo has would waste it living in the past. The info he gleens from 40,000 yr. old bones is probably obsolete due to evilution. Why not use all these talents on something worthwhile like trying to help people who are still alive? Evilutionists tell us once you die, then that’s it, there is nothing else for you. You’re kaput forever. And don’t try and tell me that a 40,000 yr. old bone can help me live longer. Disease and hunger run rampunt is enough countrys to keep Mr. Paabo busy for the rest of his life and then he will be kaput forever. When I die I’m looking forward to another better place to go. Mr. Paabo should consider letting his body decay in some institution of learning so 40,000 yrs. from now another person with his beliefs can find his bones without doing any digging. That would save a little time and effort anyway.

  14. i was an anthro/archaeology major once, and i’ll be interested to see what happens with the “hobbits” of Flores. i still like saying “hominid.” call me Paleolithic.

  15. John Kwok

    prentice –

    Why climb Mount Everest? Why send men to the Moon? The same desire to explore the unknown is one of the reasons why Svante Paabo – whom I had heard a few years ago at a Rockefeller University evolution symposium also attended by Carl – is continuing his work on hominid DNA. While his work may not have any direct medical implications now, who knows what they might lead to (Did the scientists and engineers working on the American NASA Apollo space program realize that they were developing technology that would lead eventually to laptop computers, cell phones and ipods? No.).

    As for someone leaving his or her body to science, may I respectfully submit that you leave yours? Would be most enlightening to understand why a barely literate man like yourself insists on trolling credible science-oriented websites like Carl’s in an effort to demolish sound mainstream science like Paabo’s work in favor of your religiously-oriented advocacy of “scientific” cretinism (oops, sorry, I meant, creationism)?

  16. InsolentPuppy

    7. Secret Squirrel Says:
    November 15th, 2011 at 9:46 pm
    I don’t really see a reason not to put the FoxP2 gene in a chimpanzee.

    Why not?

    Planet of the Apes, my friend. Planet of the Apes. 😉

  17. Bob Dole


    I <3 your stupid.

  18. Michael Rieger

    “Paabo’s new experiments are uncovering more details about how human FoxP2 changes the mice. Of the two mutations that changed during human evolution, only one makes a difference to how the striatum behaves. ”

    Is this unpublished data? I haven’t seen anything about this in Paabo’s previous work characterizing the knock-in mouse (Cell 2009). I look forward to seeing which mutation this is exactly and if he proposes a molecular mechanism.

    [CZ: Paabo and his colleagues presented a lot of new data in the poster sessions at the meeting.]

  19. prentice

    Indeed! Why send men to the moon and why climb mt. everest? There is nothing that can be done up there that can’t be done here on the good old earth a whole lot cheaper. Prehaps a lot of people that claim to be highly educated and smarter than anyone else haven’t notice that the earth is their home. You should clean up around your own back door and stop littering the rest of the universe. Some of these so called scientists wouldn’t even make good garbage men. Give me a person with good old common sense any day and they can be trained to do exactly what you do and probably better. The problem with this idea is anyone with common scense doesn’t want to do it because they know it doesn’t make sense.

  20. John Kwok

    @ prentice –

    I endorse what Bob Dole said earlier this morning. Thanks for demonstrating anew your woeful scientific illiteracy; which, I am certain, has manifested itself via your steadfast religious zealotry on behalf of “scientific” cretinism.

  21. David B. Benson

    This thread has degenrated.

  22. John Kwok

    @ David –

    Yes, unfortunately so. On a more positive note, I found your earlier comments (@ 11) of interest with regards to the timing of hominid migrations out of Africa , which as an earlier poster suggested, may be tied to climatic change (though not for the reasons he/she thinks), which some, like Elisabeth Vrba (formerly of the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria, South Africa, but for more than two decades, a Yale professor who is a Peabody Museum of Natural History curator), have proposed that there are indeed strong correlations between drastic climatic change and speciation events. However, I concur with Bob’s observation (@ 12), especially when it appears that the Mousterian Culture may have been a tool-making one associated wtih European Neanderthals.

  23. Stefan van den Broeck

    Human genes in mice is reality imitating ‘art’, popular art at least: Don Bluth’s animated film ‘The secret of Nimh’ springs to mind.

  24. prentice

    The scientific world attacks the religous world every day, and tries to push it’s agenda and beliefs by drilling it into the heads of our most precious resourse, our small children. This is the only way they can make the majority believe as they do.They use our educational system and our children to further their agenda. There are a lot of people who are waking up to this fact. You should start a church of scientology and leave our schools to teach what is really important. Yet when a religous person shows the slightest move to talk about what they belive they are condemed by scientists. I seem to recall another who tried to push it’s agenda in this way. He was called Hitler. I believe he is burning in hell right now. I rest my case.

  25. Andrea D. Merciless

    Why does this article make a distinction between ‘humans’ and ‘neanderthals’? If both groups could interbreed and produce fertile offpsrings, neanderthals weren’t a separate species but simply another RACE of man. It’s like wolves, coyotes, and various breeds of dogs are really of the same species, indeed merely different ‘races of dogs’.
    So, it’s more useful to regard the differences between Cro-magnons and Neanderthals as something like the differences between Nigerians and Malaysians. Different races than different species.

    Members of different species either (1) cannot interbreed to produce an offspring or (2) can interbreed to produce an offspring but the offspring is infertile(like the mule).
    Since the offsprings of cro-magnons and neanderthals lived to produce fertile offsprings, whose descendants exist to this day, scientists should discuss neanderthals not as a separate species but as members of the human family. Not doing so would be like treating different races as different species.

    Btw, I’ve often heard people say ‘race is not a scientific category’, but is evolution even possible without the reality of race? No species can evolve directly into another species. Rather, it evolves into another race of itself, and this process keeps continuing(evolving into yet another race of itself, etc)until it gradually turns into another species.
    For example, suppose we designate ancestors of human as AH and ancestors of chimpanzees as AC.
    They share a common ancestry, and let’s call this common ancestor CA. Now, CA couldn’t have, overnight, evolved into species AH and AC. Instead, CA begin to split off into two races of itself. Race CA 1 was gradually evolving toward becoming AH while Race CA 2 was gradually evolving toward becoming AC. But, for a long while, CA 1 and CA 2 were different races of CA. Eventually, the two races of CA evolved into two separate species: one that became the ancestor of humans and one that became the ancestor of chimps.

    So, if ‘race is not a scientific category’, how can evolution work? Without the reality of race, I see evolution as impossible. If races don’t exist. one species would have to turn into another species overnight without race-ciation. Impossible.

  26. John Kwok

    @ prentice –

    There are many devoutly religious scientists who disagree with you, of which the most prominent include the likes of paleobiologist Simon Conway Morris, cell biologist Ken Miller, molecular biologist Francis Collins (currently the head of NIH, formerly head of the Human Genome Project), Vatican Astronomer (and Jesuit Brother) Guy Consolmagno, and ecologist Michael Rosenzweig, among many, many others.

    Other notable scientists like physicist Lisa Randall recognize that science and faith are different ways of knowing that need not be incompatible. It’s a shame you are blinded by your ignorance to see just that.

  27. mike mahler

    Freezedry a modern human and resucitate. As far as I can determine. You will still be doing time in San Quentin and your subject will still be dead. Why is this possible when we can can insert life that will reproduce? (gene therapy). What is the spark of life? And where does it come from? It seems to me we could create a petty good football team in a reasonably short time.

  28. Upright ape

    Ah. Playing the Hitler card again. You know, the creationist (“it is the iron law of nature that no species ever changes”) fan of Martin Luther.
    Now, troll, since you so much hate scientists, would you mind telling us why you are using the internet? In case you forgot, it was invented by the very evil scientists you despise.
    As for common sense, that is what tells you the earth is flat. But as we all know, the heretic Galileo should never have wasted his time on earth going around the sun, which had no practical use at the time.
    PS since you seem to be utterly confused as to what “Scientology” means I suggest you look it up.

  29. Doug M.

    Why are a bunch of supposedly smart commentes falling into the most basic of Internet traps, viz., feeding the troll?

    Seriously, dudes.

    Doug M.

  30. prentice

    Do you bash your science brothers for having religous beliefs? If not then your two faced as I presumed you were. What’s more your biased against the female sex sir. I am not a man. Assuming makes an ass-of -u & me. In this case moreso u than me.

    [CZ: I’m calling a time-out on this flame war. Once the Hitler card was played, it was just a matter of time. Comments that pointlessly extend this back-and-forth will be deleted.]

  31. David B. Benson

    Andrea D. Merciless — Use the botanical term, variety. Then a genus is diivded into species and the species further subdivided into varieties. That way lumpers such as you and me can lump the varieties — moderns, neandertals, denisovians and others — into species H. sapiens while recognizing these are varieities which rarely interbred.

    The boundaries at the species level are a bit murky. For example (Alaska) brown bears are considered to be a disctinct species from polar bears although the two can (and do) interbreed. Also, there are the famous ring species of gulls around the Arctic. Each species can interbreed with the one to the west but by the time the two ends meeet again the overlapping species cannot interbreed. As a lumper I’d put brown bears and polar bear into the same species with two (and more) varieties. I’d do the same with the ring gull species. Somehow the taxologists don’t like this.

    With regard to the special case of genus Homo, the archaelogists studying human origins (if archaeologist is the proper term) like to glory in naming a new species. Thus we have all sorts of species names such as the one for heidelberg man and the varieties found fairly recently in Georgia, just south of the Caucasus mountains. I find this distinctly unhelful myself; just rarely interbreeding varieties will do nicely.

  32. David B. Benson

    John Kwok @27 — Thanks. I suppose I should add the the effects of the Eemian interglacial in East Africa were, IMHO, a primary reason in causing many to leave in successive waves for elsewhere. Both genetic and linguitistic evidence combines to indicate first to leave were the Khosians (click language speakers; ancestors of Kalahari bushmen, etc.) and next were the ancestors of the African Pygmies. The ancestors of all the rest of us (except maybe some Africans who stayed) left for Asia and thence the rest of the world.

  33. Bari ben Harim

    We put the mouse version of Fox-P2 into humans. We found that they hoarded nuts and grains, slept all day, and scurried about at night. We eventually trapped them with cheese. I suppose this is unethical, and will never be repeated.

  34. Gail Cotton

    Everywhere the author says “our” ancestors or “our” species or “humans,” he should more specifically say “Africans,” since apparently the only “fully human” people today are those whose ancestors have lived continuously in (sub-Saharan) Africa since evolving from predecessor species. The rest of us are apparently hybrids to some extent, by this account.

    Since the ancestors of us hybrids left Africa to follow game or favorable weather, I would have hypothesized that a version of a human gene (in this case, FOXP2) inserted into mice would have made the mice MORE likely to explore novel places. And apparently I would have been wrong.

    I would enjoy informed feedback on these reactions. Thanks for the article and any answers the author could provide.

  35. Glen

    I find it interesting that Foxp2 affects learning since Humans are the only animals that teach. Anybody think there might be a connection?

  36. prentice

    Widely held scientific theories have later been shown to be fads or just bunk, from phrenology to the odious eugenics(the latter broadly accepted as settled) science by an embarrassingly wide array of scientists and intellectuals.

  37. You use the spelling ‘Neanderthals’ and Science News uses the spelling ‘Neandertals’.

  38. prentice

    Upright ape? You said it, I didn’t. I thought Al Gore invented the internet!

  39. “The fact that humans are the only living animals capable of full-blown language -” I’d be hesitant to say that, until we know more about dolphins and whales. Of course, FoxP2 may be irrelevant in their case; but still…

  40. > They become more cautious about exploring new places. … Mice with human FoxP2 develop new habits faster than ones with the ordinary version of the gene.

    How does that work? Is there some sort of conservation of novelty going on here? “I don’t always explore new places, but when I do, I learn them quickly.”

  41. Erlene

    Been thinking about these (nonvocal) conversations…. Seems like most are so interested in banging their own drum they forget about the rest of orchestra! I’m a “commoner” in the scientific world but I believe I’m an important part of the orchestration….the audience! Wrote a thesis in 1966 called “Africa the womb of man” got an A but had to drop out of school because of a sick child. That does not mean my interest has waned! Loved the article…Love Discover… THANKS. Wish we could have had this kind of technology (iPad) “back in the day”. Livin’ to Learn

  42. Torbjorn Larsson, OM

    Great news and summary! It is encouraging to see that neuroscientists and paleoanthropologists are working together.

    Not so encouraging to see people still rejecting accepted science:

    @ prentice:


    Evolution is working and accepted, which is why Pääbo works on it. And we don’t see any alternatives that works!

    Evilutionists tell us once you die, then that’s it, there is nothing else for you.

    That is, famously, not a prediction out of biology but physics. Thermodynamics tells you a dead body has stopped metabolizing. Blame Carnot.

    And keep your sciences apart. Creationism rejects all of them, but physics most of all.

    @ Andrea D. Merciless:

    another RACE of man

    Race is a concept of artificial selection (dogs et cetera) and ethnicity, not biology. They see demes and subspecies AFAIU.

    is evolution even possible without the reality of race?

    Certainly you don’t have to have more than one ‘deme’ at any specific time that continually evolves.

    An example over space instead of time would be ring species where demes are spatially dispersed and linked along a cline. You’ll note that after a sufficient distance along a cline (or time), speciation occurs despite there is only one deme present locally.

    So this contradiction with observation fells your proposal. Racism has no biological basis.

  43. dan

    good article, but what was that nonsense about Neanderthals having no art? Their art is oldest in the world, it pre-dates that of humans…
    [indeed what ever happened to the research a few years back pointing to the awkward view that they were in fact smarter than us, and their late development was their downfall as we, the dumber more brutish race, outbred them by developing just that two or three years faster and thus killing them all off?]

  44. Jeeve Stobs

    “Autism: The Eusocial Hominid Hypothesis”

    “Will some of these Neanderthal fragments be found to be important in cognition, language ability, and other higher brain functions? To find out, it will be necessary to understand the human epigenome and transcriptome in detail, so that we can determine the true impact of both structural and regulatory genes on the development and function of the brain.”

  45. Renee

    Would it be too much to ask to have a forum where we will not be invaded by creationist religious cretins? This is Discover and it is a Science magazine. I truly wish you would monitor and not publish comments that are not related to the topic. Thank you.

    [CZ: Renee, please check my comment policy. I actually do monitor my comments, but not in order to ban creationists. When people present scientific errors in the comment thread, Loom readers regularly do a great job of explaining why they’re wrong. Here’s an example. I find this kind of exchange more useful than deleting comments.]


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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