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

In doing so, those early planetary settlers carried Neanderthal DNA with them as they spread out over the world’s four quarters. Hence, its presence in all those of non-African origin. By contrast, Neanderthal DNA is absent in people of African origins because they remained in our species’ homeland.

Reich has since established that such interbreeding might have occurred on more than one occasion.

More importantly, his studies show that “Neanderthals must have been more like us than we had imagined, perhaps capable of many behaviors that we typically associate with modern humans.” They would, most likely, have had language, culture and sophisticated behaviors. Hence, the mutual attraction.

That itself is intriguing. However, there is another key implication of Reich’s work. Previously, it had been commonplace to view human populations arising from ancestral groupings like the trunk of a great tree.

“Present populations budded from past ones, which branched from a common root in Africa,” he said. “And it implies that if a population separates, then it does not remix, as fusions of branches cannot occur.”

However, the initial separation of the two lines of ancient humans who gave rise to Neanderthals and to Homo sapiens — and then their subsequent intermingling — shows that remixing does occur.

Indeed, Reich believes it was commonplace and that the standard tree model of populations is basically wrong. Throughout our prehistory, populations have split, reformed, moved on, remixed and interbred, and then moved on again. Alliances have shifted and empires have fallen in a perpetual, sliding global Game of Thrones.

An illustration is provided by the puzzling fact that Europeans and Native Americans share surprising genetic similarities. The explanation was provided by Reich, who has discovered that a now non-existent group of people, the Ancient North Eurasians, thrived about 15,000 years ago and then split into two groups. One migrated across Siberia and gave rise to the people who crossed the Bering land bridge between Asia and America, and later gave rise to Native Americans. The other group headed west and contributed to Europeans. Hence, the link between Europeans and Native Americans.

No physical specimen of the Ancient North Eurasian people had ever been discovered when Reich announced their existence. Instead, he based his analysis on the ghostly impact of their DNA on present-day people.

However, the fossil remains of a boy, recently found near the Siberian village of Mal’ta, have since been found to have DNA that matches the genomes of Ancient North Eurasians, giving firmer physical proof of their existence.

“Prior to the genome revolution, I — like most others — had assumed that the big genetic clusters of populations we see today reflect deep splits of the past. But in fact the big clusters today are themselves the result of mixtures of very different populations that existed earlier. There was never a single trunk population in the human past. It has been mixtures all the way down,” he said.

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