Mum’s a Neanderthal, Dad’s a Denisovan: First discovery of an ancient-human hybrid

Aug 23, 2018

By Matthew Warren

A female who died around 90,000 years ago was half Neanderthal and half Denisovan, according to genome analysis of a bone discovered in a Siberian cave. This is the first time scientists have identified an ancient individual whose parents belonged to distinct human groups. The findings were published on 22 August in Nature1.

“To find a first-generation person of mixed ancestry from these groups is absolutely extraordinary,” says population geneticist Pontus Skoglund at the Francis Crick Institute in London. “It’s really great science coupled with a little bit of luck.”

The team, led by palaeogeneticists Viviane Slon and Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, conducted the genome analysis on a single bone fragment recovered from Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of Russia. This cave lends its name to the ‘Denisovans’, a group of extinct humans first identified on the basis of DNA sequences from the tip of a finger bone discovered2 there in 2008. The Altai region, and the cave specifically, were also home to Neanderthals.

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11 comments on “Mum’s a Neanderthal, Dad’s a Denisovan: First discovery of an ancient-human hybrid

  • Guy in the photo above is meant to represent “ancient human” but I wonder if they shaved (or other hair removal techniques) back then. It’s just that I imagined them and the females to present the full complement of facial and body hair. I shouldn’t assume that.



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  • Hi Laurie [#1],

    What a fascinating area to study!

    It is my understanding that in Somaliland they have cave paintings of prehistoric people, probably men, shaving their faces with flints and naturally occuring sharp edges such as shark’s teeth.

    As far as I know women removing body hair is a very recent phenomenon, and men tended to stick pretty much to facial hair. I do remember reading, in the far distant mists of time, that it was the Ancient Egyptians who popularised shaving – and a pre-historic knowledge of shaving would make this perfectly believable.

    Shaving, as every man knows (and these days most women too), is a time-consuming business and finding something sharp enough (a tool with many other potential uses) would also require significant time and energy. This suggests to me that shaving had better be worthwhile, for anyone in prehistory to actually do it.

    It seems likely that prehistoric men would therefore only shave on special occasions.

    I know of no studies into the possibility that shaving is a habit (even a meme) that has survived and thrived, at least in part, due to its value in sex selection. Not all women prefer men clean shaven, but it does seem to have more support than being hursuite.

    I have also read that shaving was encouraged in certain ancient civilsations because it gave an advantage to fighting men (one less thing for your opponent(s) to grab and/or pull).

    To summarise: Not only is shaving time consuming, you need to have the tools – and, shaving longer hair tends to be more uncomfortable. This leads me to hypthesise that the above picture is probably spot-on.

    Prehistoric men certainly shaved but, for the reasons outlined above, they did so only when women were around, when there was a possible fight coming up, or for some special occasion where cleanliness and tidiness were at a premium – suggesting certain social occasions; tribal, family, or personal celebrations for example.

    Thus, prehistoric men would have facial hair of varying lengths throughout their lives with intermittent days of being clean shaven.

    Does that sound about right?

    Peace.



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  • Shaving for 30,000years using razor shells.
    Status, lice, fashion, sex, etc..

    https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=ka6YDAAAQBAJ&pg=PT635&lpg=PT635&dq=razor+shells+used+as+razorrs&source=bl&ots=N3DlhWpUwh&sig=778C6KHfG9Fhm04ROKSukp6K1RU&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiN3cWvgITdAhWrAcAKHeWqDww4ChDoATABegQICRAB#v=onepage&q=razor%20shells%20used%20as%20razorrs&f=false

    I recall (probably) Aristophanes having a comedy turn about the tribulations of depilation by oil lamp flame for fashion reasons….



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  • Interesting!

    On the female side of the body hair thing, I was interested to observe that the North African women had no need of razors whatsoever. They cook up a sticky goopy lemon and sugar mixture that they use to remove all of their body hair. All of it. They smear it out over a small area and then rip it quickly off tearing the hair out by the roots. Painful but they tell me that they get used to it. The mixture has the advantage of costing nearly nothing and they can cook it up as needed.

    Shaving to avoid disadvantage in fighting rings true. On the rare occasion that I’ve observed women in physical altercations they inevitably grab hold of hair and drag the woman’s head down to the ground. Anyone who has ever been in a fight knows that wherever the head goes – the rest of you follows.

    After I finished writing comment 1 I started to wonder why there aren’t more cave paintings of prehistoric men and women. There are plenty of artistic representations of the animals of that time but they didn’t seem to find their companions to be artistically inspirational, did they? I wonder if there was a taboo involved. I need to peruse the material on this.

    Shaving with shells, sharks teeth and shells…Does this sound even possible? I’ve seen guys hack themselves up with nice new modern razors. Why don’t men just use the sugar/lemon goop method? Hirsute-be-gone!



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  • Hi Laurie [#5],

    I had not heard of sugaring – we curious few learn something new every day.

    Sugaring would seem to imply a slightly different set of motivations to shaving? That said, hairlessness, as Phil’s book points out, is a great way to remove (and deny living space to) parasites such as lice. I read somewhere, a few years ago, that a modern craze for shaved or waxed genitalia – a fashion started by the pornography industry – means that human genital lice (a.k.a. crabs) are now an endangered species. I also read, from a different source, about how initiates to some religious orders in past ages would have to go through a de-lousing activity though shaving, as I recall, was less popular than bathing while breathing through a straw.

    I think we can safely conclude, from the above, that for all genders hair removal has health advantages, and it’s also easier to stay clean with less surface area and nooks and crannies. This human desire to remove a feature bestowed on us by nature is fascinating – and it would seem likely that mutual attractiveness, sex, has a lot to do with it.

    Is this the reason Neanderthal Mama and Denisovan Papa we’re attracted to each other? Were the species differences easier to overlook because of a mutual interest in cleanliness?

    An aside: I thought that one of the defining features of speciation was an inability of individuals from different populations to breed? Perhaps there was a ring species thing going on between our ancestors? I haven’t read the full article yet, so I’ll move on.

    Sadly this set of questions about what was going on at the social level is one that can only be answered by more evidence, and more cave paintings would be good. Unfortunately, as I’m sure you must be aware, looking back this far into our family tree means evidence gets thinner, if only because the passage of time so often means a great deal has been destroyed or buried. Also, were Neanderthals and Denisovans time rich enough to apply significant attention to record-keeping? It seems unlikely in a world that was far more hostile and demanding than the relatively domesticated version we live in today.

    I like your idea of a taboo on representing people. I have heard of people’s around the world who, when first shown photography, shun it. A common theme is that these people are frightened that cameras are actually capturing the subject’s soul, rather than a mere image. Most of us moderns are also uncomfortable with having our picture taken. This would seem to be associated with a psychological discomfort at being confronted by a less flattering image than we have of ourselves internally. There may be other modern clues as to possible reasons for a taboo on taking someone’s likeness, I’ll put my thinking cap on.

    Given that shaving and sugaring seem to point to ancient rites -rites of passage, such as mate selection, more than any other kind of rite – it is odd, as you point out, that people took sharp objects and attacked their own persons with them.

    Sugaring may be a relatively recent innovation (and, from what little evidence I have seen so far, a female innovation) as claims for its history do not reach back as far as shaving. Assuming that to be the case, pending further inquiry, how do we discover why men decided to use sharp objects on themselves, and how did they find those sharp objects?

    Well lice can be pretty uncomfortable – or so I’m told – and the times I grew facial hair one of the unavoidable things I noticed, because it’s right under your nose, literally, is that keeping it free of dirt – particularly leftover food – is a job in itself. Men may simply have started shaving for practical reasons. Also, it has to be said, while many of us put off shaving, because it’s tedious, dull and uncomfortable at best, the post shave feeling is hard to beat as a mini daily pick-me-up.

    Once women were introduced to the idea, frankly, I believe it highly likely that shaving was never going to be anything other than a fixture in human society. I am regularly, almost daily, reminded of this by the women I know and love.

    As for sharp objects, well tool making was obviously a very early area of human invention and discovery. Stone knives and scrapers are some of the oldest known human artefacts found.and before that we know of tools made of shell, horn, antler (and other bones), and volcanic glass. Many of these materials would only be available in small areas, but our ancestor Homo Sapiens were no different to us – they only lacked inherited infrastructure and accumulated knowledge. They travelled, they traded.

    Shells from seafood come in all shapes and sizes. Like many of the early tool materials it is too soft to keep a keen edge for long – but also has the advantage of being easy to sharpen and re-use.

    The only question that remains is why did a man decide to use a knife or scraper on his face?

    To be honest, the more I think about this last question the more I’m inclined to think it’s the wrong question. The right question is surely: As soon as they had learned the skill of, say, scraping the flesh off the inside of a new animal skin prior to drying or curing – why would he not have a go at that itchy, scraggly, smelly, greasy thing on his face?

    I’m on holiday, so I have treated myself to a generous helping of speculation with no research this time. Do you know, I think I really will go and buy that book that Phil suggested now

    🙂

    Peace.



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  • In Islam, women used lime, to weaken the keratin in the hair at the skin surface so it could be wiped away. This also was the basis for a skin peel. Using it somewhere intimate doesn’t bear thinking about.

    Lime and lye (calcium and sodium hydroxide) products are still available, but have their skin dissolving capacity complemented by an appalling smell of hydrogen sulphide, I think the result of a buffering process.



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  • Stephen of Wimbledon #6
    Aug 24, 2018 at 6:16 am

    That said, hairlessness, as Phil’s book points out, is a great way to remove (and deny living space to) parasites such as lice.

    It is however limited in effectiveness, when sleeping on, and wearing, animal skins, in the absence of laundry facilities!



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  • SOW

    we curious few learn something new every day.

    haha.

    I’m on holiday, so…

    “Hey Stephen, how was your holiday? Restful?”

    “Yes great! I had an interesting conversation about historical shaving techniques and the impact that had on lice and pubic lice and sexual selection. Good times…”

    “Whoa! Way too much information”

    Interlocutor exit left with facial expression of horror and disgust.

    human genital lice (a.k.a. crabs) are now an endangered species.

    Yes, the lice problem must have been so severe that hair removal, no matter how inconvenient and painful must have been well worth it. If lice are endangered I’ll not shed a tear. Do they contribute a single positive service to the biosphere? Lice and mosquitos, as far as I know, contribute nothing but misery. If they both vanish into the dust of time we’ll have an appropriate moment of silence and then move on. (Specieist? ok, ok, I’ll take my lumps.)

    a de-lousing activity though shaving, as I recall, was less popular than bathing while breathing through a straw.

    Shaving would have been much more effective than bathing for de-lousing. Those nits are tenacious little bastards and must be removed by hand. Chemicals can kill the live lice only. I once took a tour of the Plymouth Plantation here just south of Boston where the Mayflower passengers set up housekeeping. The Plantation is a recreation of that settlement with actors who interact with guests in the style of clothing and language of the 1600’s. While I was strolling around trying to figure out how the Mayflower passengers had managed to stay alive in those times, a woman in character approached me and held out a couple of small wooden objects. She indicated in archaic English that she was on her way to get help in the repair of her lice combs. At that point she was one foot away from me holding the things in front of my face. My response, “Eyeew! Gross!” and backed away. She prattled on about the inconvenience of having broken them etc. My takeaway from that interaction was that it seems likely that these lice combs were a common household item due to the constant personal battle with resident lice. But I really don’t see how a bath with a straw would be effective unless they were bathing in a caustic substance like the lye substance described by Phil above.

    This human desire to remove a feature bestowed on us by nature is fascinating

    Yes, and removal of hair seems quite benign compared to removal of foreskins and clitoris, teeth, etc for reasons of vanity, puritanical concerns, s. selection and coming of age ceremonies.

    Is this the reason Neanderthal Mama and Denisovan Papa we’re attracted to each other? Were the species differences easier to overlook because of a mutual interest in cleanliness?

    Right. A more hairless guy shows up in her domain and is now the unique guy around town. All the others appear to be boring. Did less hair translate into more modern and progressive? ha! On the downside though, wasn’t there something on here previously that discussed the apparent distinctive lack of a chin or a weak chin in Neanderthals? If true then a full beard might play in their favor if they were trying to cozy up with the sapiens chicks. I’m assuming that sapiens chicks have always favored a stronger chin in their males since the beginning of sapiens time. Chins may be a useful shock absorber in a fight and not just purely the result of sexual selection of course.

    An aside: I thought that one of the defining features of speciation was an inability of individuals from different populations to breed?

    Yes, right. I thought of the same thing and I put a comment about it on the other thread. This species/subspecies issue is still being sorted out, right?

    Also, were Neanderthals and Denisovans time rich enough to apply significant attention to record-keeping?

    Interesting to speculate as to how they spent their days and seasons. How much time on the move? How much time spent hunting, gathering, socializing, crafting, etc. How much time spent out in the open and how much time spent in shelter? Were they out much at night? I imagine it must have been dangerous to be out at night. That’s why I imagine that cave art taking place in the time between a retreat to the safety of the cave and the time that they would snuggle up and fall asleep. If they had a fire then they had charcoal for drawing and other materials that could be gathered or fabricated from natural pigment materials. Those depictions of animals must have been from memory but as any artist (especially children) has been told by the instructors, when you have no inspiration then just look around you and draw/paint what you see. In a closed environment in the twilight of the day, the very thing that was around them was other people. Why didn’t they draw more of them? Did kids grab some charcoal and scrawl images on those walls?

    There may be other modern clues as to possible reasons for a taboo on taking someone’s likeness,

    There’s an eerie power associated with the revelation of another person’s likeness whether it be created with pencil, charcoal, paint or other medium and even more so when revealed by means of photography. The artist, even in current times is capable of attracting attention and admiration by others who do not have skills and talents to produce the creative object that the artist has made. A masterpiece in any of the arts inspires the viewer to think – How could a mere human produce this?! I can’t believe a human made this! It must be magic or a gift from God(s)! Non artistic viewers are astounded to witness an artist in the process of whipping off a painting and this goes for music as well. Since I have no musical skill or talent, when I see a musician pick up a guitar or other instrument and launch into a song or hear someone with a beautiful singing voice belt out a song ex tempore it really does seem like magic! Given that, we can’t be surprised that photographs, in their astounding realistic presentation of an individual, would elicit strong feelings from them. As you mention, I hate to see photographs of myself and I have strong emotions when I view photographs of certain family members who have died. With all of this emotion tied to artworks and photographs I can see how this would lead straight to taboos and superstitions built all around these things.

    why did a man decide to use a knife or scraper on his face?

    Right and use of a scraper on animal hides and then a short detour to the face seems plausible. If beards really do accumulate a load of debris as you indicate, (taking your word on that one!) then it seems convenient that if the situation resulted in an unsanitary matted mess then the whole thing would need to be removed and then start over from scratch. All hair when excessively matted is nearly impossible to straighten out by combing.

    Back to your holiday Stephen!



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