Wednesday, August 15, 2012

What, no rock 'n' roll in the caves?

Svante Pääbo, 57, is a Swedish geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.

In my blog post of 26 December 2010 entitled Prehistoric encounters [display], I mentioned the existence in Siberia, 30 millennia ago, of humanoid creatures—on an evolutionary par with Neanderthals—known as Denisovans. It was Pääbo's team that revealed the existence of these people, in March 2010, using mtDNA [mitochondrial DNA] that was lurking in a single Denisovan finger bone.

Two months later, Pääbo's team published a draft sequence of the Neanderthal genome. Noticing that a certain quantity of DNA is common to both Neanderthals and modern humans whose ancestors had moved beyond Africa, Pääbo's team announced that it was likely that a certain degree of sexual promiscuity had characterized relationships between Neanderthals and humans in the course of their many millennia together, side by side, on the planet Earth.

                          — photo Jochen Tack/Alamy

That idea doesn't surprise me at all. On the contrary. I can well imagine a randy Cro-Magnon gentleman running into a horny Neanderthal lady, on his way home from the hunt at the end of a wintry afternoon, and paraphrasing in his imagination the well-known Canada Dry words: "It looks like whisky, smells like whisky, and tastes like whisky."

I imagine myself in the Cro-Magnon's place, on the horns of a dilemma. Regardless of the respective species (or races, or whatever) of the Neanderthal wench and me, I would have surely decided, there and then, that a little bit of Guinness would be good for me... and for her, too, no doubt.

Now, I learn today from The Guardian [access] that certain sourpuss scientists are abandoning this delightful idea of intertribal rock 'n' roll. They suggest that the DNA stuff shared by Neanderthals and us humans was surely a remnant of code that existed already in our most recent common ancestor, half a million years ago, before we had differentiated into Neanderthals and humans. Their reasoning is perfectly plausible, but it strikes me as somewhat puritanical. I far prefer the friendly idea of a whole lotta prehistoric shakin' goin' on.

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