Showing posts with label Neanderthals. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Neanderthals. Show all posts

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.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Neanderthal genome has been sequenced

Researchers have finally succeeded in using tiny samples of powdered bone, 40 thousand years old, to sequence the Neanderthal genome. The team included the Swede Svante Pääbo (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig), the American Richard Green (University of California, Santa Cruz) and Hernán Burbano (Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá).

This achievement—whose conclusions have just been published in the journal Science—comes a decade after the successful sequencing of the human genome, and five years after the publication of a draft genome sequence of the chimpanzee. It's henceforth possible to compare the three genomes, to determine which genes are shared, and which genes are found uniquely in Homo sapiens.

It's particularly fascinating to find genetic evidence of interbreeding between modern humans and Neanderthals. This lends weight to the idea that we might be two subspecies, Homo sapiens sapiens and Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, rather than two distinct species. This, of course, is good news for observers who like to imagine (as I do) the use of cloning techniques to bring Neanderthals back into existence.

Neanderthal clones might enable old men leading solitary lives in the mountains to find charming female companions for Scrabble on winter evenings in front of the fireplace. But this wishful thinking could well be illusory.

The ladies would insist on using old-fashioned Neanderthal spelling, and arguments would soon break out…