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

Monday, April 11, 2016

We probably infected European Neanderthals with our African diseases

Neanderthal populations of Europe and Asia were probably weakened by pathogens that we homo sapiens emigrants brought with us when we moved away from our African birthplace. We probably didn't actually kill them in an outright manner, but the Neanderthals would have surely picked up our diseases such as tapeworms, tuberculosis, stomach ulcers and herpes. And these new afflictions would have no doubt sickened members of the old community to such an extent that they could no longer care for themselves by foraging and hunting.

Neanderthals seem to have been driven to extinction around 40,000 years ago. We didn't necessarily act deliberately in killing them. It has been suggested that we Humans and certain Neanderthal friends even got around to friendly sessions of rock-and-roll, resulting in genetic traces that remain in our present chromosomes. But the Neanderthals nevertheless disappeared from Europe and Asia soon after our arrival. You might say that it wasn't really our fault. But in a sense, it was.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


The awkward term “de-extinction” designates the idea of recreating a living organism that had become extinct. This idea gives rise to two quite different questions:

• First, of course, it’s a matter of deciding how to attempt to perform such a de-extinction operation, at a purely technological level.

• Second, there’s the question of the ethical implications of such an act. In other words: Would we have a right, morally and socially, to perform such-and-such a de-extinction operation?

The de-extinction of dinosaurs would appear to be a failure at both levels. So, you should feel free to go ahead with plans for a nice wedding, say, with no fear of unexpected interruptions.

Things get somewhat more complicated when we envisage the de-extinction of Neanderthals.

Let’s suppose that we did in fact succeed in carrying out a successful de-extinction operation. What would you then do with such a fellow? It would be unwise to let him wander around freely as if he were a normal citizen of the world, because he would surely run into trouble, for countless obvious reasons. You could always try to get him adopted by a nice family of well-off God-fearing American Republicans. Or maybe you might think about packing him off to an outback cattle station in Australia to work as a jackeroo. But, as Donald Rumsfeld put it, there would be certain unknown unknowns… including the ugly idea that our Neanderthal friend might be enticed into becoming a militant in a jihadist organization.

The de-extinction of a woolly mammoth would appear to be a far more reasonable project.

On the one hand, with the help of modern elephants, the operation is probably feasible, and there would be room enough in the wilderness of lands such as Canada or Siberia to organize an ideal home-place for the resurrected creature, and maybe create a family environment.

In my native Australia, there are two fascinating candidates for de-extinction. The first is an amazing creature that was last seen as recently as 1985: the Gastric brooding frog.

Its mode of reproduction was really weird. The female swallows her fertilized eggs and then uses her stomach as a womb, finally giving birth to baby frogs through her mouth (as you can see in the above photo).

The other perfect candidate for de-extinction is the Thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger, which became extinct in 1936.

An Australian scientist, Mike Archer, has made a brilliant presentation of the case for de-extinction of these two creatures. Click here to watch his fascinating talk on this subject. At one point in his talk, Archer presents an old-timer who led him to his bush hut which used to be visited by Tasmanian tigers. And he introduces the marvelous theme of maybe keeping these animals as pets. Personally, I almost broke into tears of emotion when I heard Mike Archer making his case for this aspect of a de-extinction project. I looked fondly at this painting of a Thylacine and her pup:

And I said to myself that, since my dog Fitzroy has now developed the regular habit of sleeping inside the house, his charming old kennel is free to receive a guest.

So, if ever Mike Archer were looking for a nice place to house one of his future Thylacine pups, Fitzroy and I would be more than happy to receive such an adorable creature at Gamone. As for the idea of also accepting the Neanderthal fellow, to look after the tiger pup, I’m prepared to look into the question… but I would probably prefer a Neanderthal maiden who wouldn’t mind combining her Thylacine-care activities with housekeeping work at Gamone.

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…