All non-African humans – even the ones who are not British soccer fans – are part-Neanderthal, scientists have finally determined. This isn’t a huge surprise; all it means is that Neanderthals were essentially a type of Homo sapiens (or, to be fair to our evolutionary seniors, vice-versa). They were closer to us genetically than, say, donkeys or zebras are to horses, whose hybrids are sterile. And presumably they were not quite as off-puttingly hairy and jut-jawed as popular legend has it.
According to one theory backed by DNA research (archaeogenetics expert Peter Forster), all non-African humans are descended from one small ‘tribe’ – maybe just a few hundred strong – that left Africa around 70,000 years ago when low sea levels made it possible to cross the Red Sea (Africans are descended from around a dozen similar populations that migrated elsewhere on the continent). Neanderthals had been present in Europe and the Middle East for several hundred thousand years, so it might not have taken long in migratory terms for the newcomers to bump into these earlier settlers.
Did some of the modern humans capture a few Neanderthals to use as slaves? Did they hire some to do the accounts? We’ll never know how they got to mingle. With the number of modern Homo saps out of Africa initially being quite small, they would have had to adopt or absorb only a few half-castes to leave us all today with those traces of Neanderthal DNA.
It will be interesting to see how this is reported in those circles where there is still a strong impulse to believe that a Chinese ‘race’ evolved from a separate and much older Homo erectus lineage in Asia. The ability of Chinese to interbreed with non-Chinese and produce healthy, fertile offspring tells you all you need to know about the biology: we’re all one species, and ‘Chinese’ is no more than a citizenship, a language, a cuisine and possibly an overly impatient approach to equities investment. Like the Catholic Church accepting centuries ago that the Earth orbits the Sun, Mainland officialdom these days seems to have embraced the science (like this geneticist on a BBC documentary). But not everyone has. A quick sift through Google finds a Taipei Times article lamenting that school textbooks are still teaching that the Chinese are the descendants of Peking Man (Homo erectus).
This would require an evolutionary split over half a million years ago – from a common ancestor into the two sapiens and erectus branches – to have re-merged, which doesn’t happen. I have read a slightly less crazy version of Chinese evolutionary exceptionalism, which claims that a separate group of Homo sapiens had already formed in Africa and went on the become the Chinese. The tribe crossing the Red Sea 70,000 years back thus included the Wongs, who kept very much to themselves, didn’t let their kids play with anyone else’s, and headed off east as soon as everyone got to the Arabian coast.
This is a bit like the attempts by the relatively intelligent fringe of fundamentalist Christians to wedge human and other evolution into the 6,000-year time-span imposed by the Book of Genesis. According to this valiant attempt to cram the genetic science into the religious straitjacket, over 50,000 years’ worth of mutation and natural and sexual selection leading to today’s varieties of human skin colours, hair textures and eye shapes took place in a matter of centuries. To the authors’ credit, they do at least accept much of the genetics (serious fundamentalists just state blindly that God made us like this, end of story). As with the believers in an evolutionary separate Chinese species, there is something almost touching about their desperate attempts to match the modern world’s facts with their fiction.
The Neanderthal in me says it’s getting on time to hunt down some lunch.