Tue, Apr 10, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Neanderthals were perhaps capable of many modern human behaviors

Genome sequencing has changed everything we thought about our origins and how we relate to early human species

By Robin McKie  /  The Observer

Illustration: Yusha

For David Reich, research can be a harrowing experience. The 44-year-old Harvard University geneticist said he goes to bed terrified he will wake up to find his team’s recent, stunning discoveries about human ancestry have been proved wrong.

“We are now making so many startling insights I sometimes fear it must all be incorrect,” he said.

To be fair to Reich, no one has yet found any hint his results are invalid.

“That still doesn’t stop me worrying,” he said.

Reich’s work as a leader of prehistoric population studies includes the discovery that all people of non-African descent carry small amounts of Neanderthal DNA, showing that Homo sapiens — at one stage — must have interbred with this long-dead species of ancient humans.

Reich was also involved in uncovering the existence of Denisovans, a previously unknown species of ancient humans, using DNA found in fossil scraps in a Siberian cave.

In addition, he has discovered that 5,000 years ago northern Europe was overrun by invaders from central Asia, a migration of profound importance — for those newcomers became the first people of the British Isles.

These remarkable recreations of our past are outlined in Reich’s book Who We Are and How We Got Here, in which he chronicles the spectacular rise of ancient DNA studies in the past few years. Thanks to this remarkable new science, we now know that about 70,000 years ago, our planet was remarkably rich in terms of its human variety.

It was populated by modern humans, Neanderthals — and the Denisovans who, Reich has recently discovered, must have existed as at least two separate varieties: Siberian Denisovans and the more recently discovered Australo-Denisovans from southeast Asia.

In addition, we also know that the Hobbit folk — Homo floresiensis, a race of tiny humans whose remains were discovered in 2003 — were then thriving in Indonesia. In those not too distant days, there were many ways to be a human, it transpires.

The ingrained notion — that there has only ever been one species of human being, Homo sapiens — is a latterday fiction born of our own self-important view of ourselves.

Think instead of the bar scene from Star Wars with all those various people playing and drinking, Israeli paleontologist Yoel Rak said.

That gives a far better flavor of our evolutionary past.

In making constant new discoveries about humanity, Reich and his Harvard team are plunging into uncharted academic waters.

“We are going out on a limb on so many different studies,” he said. “It is very lonely and somewhat terrifying. We don’t have the comfort of standing on the shoulders of others. We are the first. That’s why I worry.”

Reich’s influence in this field has been immense and the output of his department monumental. This year alone he has been involved in producing an analysis that revealed the existence of a previously unknown group of ancient Native Americans from fossil remains uncovered in Alaska; a study that shows the ancient British people who built Stonehenge and other great neolithic monuments were almost completely replaced by invaders from central Asia 5,000 years ago; and a paper that indicates there were at least two waves of settlers, from Taiwan and then Papua New Guinea, which were responsible — 3,000 years ago — for the settling of one of the last pockets of the planet to be reached by humans, Vanuatu.

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