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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Prehistoric man, Part II

After putting up that post of July 31st, I can't stop thinking about human evolution and some of our early ancestors. In particular, Neanderthals, Homo heidelbergensis, and Homo erectus, who lived from 1.8 million years ago to just 70,000 years ago.

Neanderthals are thought to have died out a mere 30,000 years ago, and the human genome has been unraveled to the point where it's now apparent that most non-African peoples have between one and four percent Neanderthal ancestry.


Acromegalic men, like Russian boxer Nikolai Valuev (a former two time WBA heavyweight champion), often have an eerily Neanderthal-ish look:


The word "Neanderthal" has been used as an insulting term for someone who is brutish, unintelligent, and boorish. In certain circles, it was used as an epithet for paleoconservatives.


But since it has emerged that all non-Africans do in fact have Neanderthal ancestry, this stigma seems to have abated. The idea that this fellow could have been one's great great grandfather is not entirely without appeal:


If you saw him walking down the street in New York City -- dressed a little differently -- you might just think he was a wrestler from (the country of) Georgia, like Eldar Kurtanidze:


In any case, "Neanderthal" is no longer a dirty word, and Neanderthal ancestry is even a point of pride to some.

It seems likely that sooner or later some well-preserved, analyzable piece of Erectus DNA will be found and we can solve the mystery of how many erectus genes have survived to the present day, and in which populations. If so, it certainly seems possible that Homo Erectus may undergo a similar image makeover, and that people will take pride in their Erectus ancestry.

The term "homo erectus" has long been used as a joke by those who go for obvious puns; there is even a gay dance troupe with that name now. But he should probably be rehabilitated as well. And in the meantime, let's hope his name will not be used as an epithet.

As with Neanderthal man, if you saw these specimens walking down the street in New York City, would you be all that taken aback? Would you think them less than human? Here's Homo heidelbergensis, who lived in Africa, Europe, and western Asia from roughly 800,000 to 200,000 years ago:


(You'd probably think, "Hmm, a funky street preacher.")

Or you might think he was a street fighter, like Kimbo Slice:


Or this fellow, Homo erectus:


("Uh-oh, I hope that homeless guy isn't going to ask me for spare change.")

Or this representation of Homo erectus:


("Wow, he looks like he could be on the Knicks.")

Bear in mind that Homo erectus is supposed to have died out a mere 70,000 years ago, which in the context of roughly four million years of human evolution is a mere blink of an eye. Neanderthal DNA made its way into certain populations; is it not possible that erectus DNA has done the same?

Anyway, the next time some liberal scoffs at conservatives for not believing in evolution, point him this way. Say, "No, no, not at all. I'm conservative and I'm a big believer in evolution. In fact, I find it fascinating, and I think we should study all of our primitive ancestors to see what they can teach us about ourselves. Take a look at these pictures for example….."

26 comments:

Mark Caplan said...

I've seen that statistic that Caucasian DNA contains around 4 percent Neanderthal DNA, but I don't quite understand it. Twenty-six percent of yeast genes are found in human DNA. Fruit flies, 44%; mice, 92%; chimpanzees, 98%. So there must be a flaw in either my understanding or the way the comparisons are being expressed.

If homo sapiens evolved from homo erectus, we should share a very high percentage of homo erectus genes, surely in the upper 90s, like 99%, no?

hooter tooter said...

"Anyway, the next time some liberal scoffs at conservatives for not believing in evolution ..."

Liberals aren't really that sciency. I mean, they believe evolution stops at the neck.

John Craig said...

Mark --
I think when people say that we have 26% of our genes in common with yeast (the figure I once heard is that we have 90% of our genes in common with a banana, along with that oft quoted figure of 98% of our genes in common with chimps), they're talking about the way the individual genes are structured molecularly, which is different from the way those genes cluster, and from actually having GOTTEN our genes from those organisms. There are evidently ways of tracing lineage through mitochondrial DNA that are pretty much foolproof. At least, this is my (very limited) understanding of how genes work, as I'm not a scientist. For instance, geneticists have not yet been able to isolate the genes for intelligence yet, despite many efforts in that direction. They've isolated a few genes which they think have to do with determining differences in intelligence between people, but evidently the key is how a whole array of genes interact with each other, not just having these genes in isolation.

The best analogy I can think of is a computer. When they're reduced to their essence, they work on a binary code: 0's and 1's. (Two genes, if you will.) But what actually appears on our screens is an infinite array of things, and that's determined by different combinations of this binary code.

So, to answer your last question, yes, we would share an extremely high percentage of our genes with Homo erectus; but that is different from actually having INHERITED the genes directly from erectus; and having just a few genes that are different, and that interact differently, can have a huge impact in terms of what we see as human diversity.

John Craig said...

Hooter --
C'mon, you're not giving liberals enough credit: they believe that evolution stopped inside the skull. So we have differently shaped noses, eyes, and even skulls, and differently hued skin on our faces, but of course what's inside the skull must be EXACTLY the same. (And unless you have complete faith in this essentially religious dogma, you're an evil person.)

Anonymous said...

I know a woman who has a forehead like the man in the first photo, having a milder form of the feature (someone I've met through my work).

- birdie

Anonymous said...

I think our ancestors were rough, creepy looking. Since I believe that Adam and Eve existed (don't laugh), I wonder what they looked like. Growing up, I always envisioned them looking like us, modern day man. Now, I'm questioning what exactly did they look like?

- birdie

John Craig said...

Birdie --
I have a slight case of that myself, if you click on the photo at right. Strong brow ridges are associated with primitive peoples, but I've seen Nikolai Valuev on television shows and he actually comes across very calm and reasoned (especially by the standards of heavyweight boxing champions).

But I know what you mean, every now and then I see someone with a preponderance of Neanderthal traits (like Eldar kurtanidze) and I think, 4% must not be the upper limit for neanderthal genes.

Anonymous said...

The woman that I work with is a good person. She obviously has a genetic feature that she inherited (which doesn't detract from her good personality). It's just something that I notice whenever I interact with her.

-birdie

John Craig said...

Birdie --
I'm not religious, and find it fascinating to look at the pictures (artists' reconstructions based on found skulls) of Australopithecus and all the rest. There's a definite slow trend away from looking like apes to looking like modern man. Of course, we see them as funky-looking, but it did occur to me yesterday while I was perusing those pictures that if one of them had seen us, they would have undoubtedly found us grotesque as well.

John Craig said...

Birdie --
Stuff like that is hard to miss, but it's good you see her as a person and not as a forehead.

Anonymous said...

I laughed at your reply. Thanks for the laugh. Have a good day.

-birdie

John Craig said...

Birdie --
Thanks, you too.

Steven said...

If you really looked at the funky street preacher, the sloping forehead and low cranial capacity would be alarming.

I once saw a man in Manchester, England, who had a full neanderthal brow ridge. That was alarming. It looked like cave man prosthetics. Its interesting that some of the pictures of neanderthals look especially like some eastern Europeans, and in fact remind me of some Romanians I've seen, and apparently E. Europeans are the ones with most neanderthal dna.

I've always thought E. Europeans were particularly robust and strong; maybe this is part of the reason why.

Steven said...

The homo erectus, the second to bottom, looks more like an Australian aboriginal than an African. The bottom one looks more African.

I guess part of the resemblance could be that both modern Africans and homo erectus have features adapted to a tropical climate, as well as possibly dna input.

John Craig said...

Steven --
Was the Manchester man acromegalic? They tend to have a scary loo, to them, which is why Hollywood has often cast them as bad guys.

I wonder if that's true of Eastern Europeans. They -- and central Europeans -- do look more Neanderthal, now that you mention it. The Olympic results don't show them as being that much stronger. The British Isles -- which, according to this theory, has a higher proportion of Cro Magnon blood -- has at least as many Olympic champions per capita.

John Craig said...

Steven --
I'd say the "homeless" homo erectus looks more black, but the funky street preacher looks more aboriginal. (You're right about his sloping forehead, by the way, which is probably why I used a straight on shot of him.)

A lot of aborigines do seem to have that sloping brow ridge.

Steven said...

Eastern Europeans seem to excel at boxing and possibly weight lifting. We Brits have excelled most in cycling in recent years I think, and maybe things like rowing which are a part of the culture. We also have quite a few African descent medalists in athletics.

I don't think he was acromegalic. I don't remember him being particularly big or imposing. I just remember seeing a man with a brow ridge that I honestly thought was outside of what is possible for modern humans, like a cave man had been brought in a time machine. I thought its might be prosthetics at the time.

John Craig said...

Steven --
sometimes cromegalics have their pituitary fixed if the disease is caught in time, and they don't grow to an outrageous size.

The Brits are good at swimming, and have a particularly rich tradition in the mile run, stretching back to Roger Bannister and extending through Steve Ovett, Steve Elliot, Sebastian Coe, and a few others. Plus there are others of British descent like John Walker and Jim Ryun who've held the world record. Peter Snell and Herb Elliott were also great runners. Paula Radcliffe was a great marathoner, and still holds the WR, despite the advent of the East Africans recently. Don't even get me started on the swimmers, and swimmers (like Australians) of British descent.

Steven said...

well, maybe he was acromegalic but I don't remember the rest of his face looking like Valuev. He just had a massive brow ridge. He was shorter than me I think.

Fair enough...I knew I wasn't really being exhaustive but the point being that eastern Europeans seem to excel at the events that involve pure strength and fighting.


Look at second kid to the left and compare to the homeless man.


https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=aboriginal&biw=1517&bih=741&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0CAYQ_AUoAWoVChMIr_umkqKmxwIVh3HbCh164At6&dpr=0.9#imgrc=-d0gcLB-5yGP8M%3A

And this one around the eyes.

https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=aboriginal&biw=1517&bih=741&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0CAYQ_AUoAWoVChMIr_umkqKmxwIVh3HbCh164At6&dpr=0.9#tbm=isch&q=aboriginal+kid&imgrc=t1OUpYp4z5dnGM%3A


I like how this isn't racist because we are also comparing Europeans to hominid ancestors.



John Craig said...

Steven --
I'd say Eastern Europeans are tougher, and perhaps more macho, than Western Europeans, but that's primarily cultural, not physical. My general impression is that the physically strongest people among whites are the Germanic (including Dutch) people. Among all peoples, from what I've seen, it's the Samoans, followed closely by other Polynesians.

You're right, there's a strong resemblance there. It's interesting how sub-Saharan blacks and Australian aborigines have come to resemble each other facially, though the two are as far apart in terms of kinship as any two groups can be. It's called convergent evolution, whereby similar conditions (i.e., a tropical environment) led to similar adaptations, such as dark skin to ward off the effects of too much sun, wide nostrils to breathe in more air (narrow Caucasian noses are an adaptation to preserve heat), and long limbs to dissipate heat.

Steven said...

Why is that your impression about Germanic people?


The Onge people of the Adaman islands are interesting. They look practically indistinguishable from Africans.

https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=onge+people&biw=1517&bih=741&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0CAYQ_AUoAWoVChMIodjXjaqmxwIVzCrbCh3rOwo1&dpr=0.9#imgrc=xehhAIRpGGE54M%3A

Wikipedia says:

"A genome-wide study by Reich et al. (2009) found evidence for two genetically divergent, ancient populations that are ancestral to most persons inhabiting the Indian subcontinent today: Ancestral North Indians (ANI), who are genetically close to Middle Eastern, Central Asian and European populations, and Ancestral South Indians (ASI), who are genetically distinct from both ANI and East Asians. The Onge Andamanese were observed to be related to the Ancestral South Indians, and were unique in that they were the only South Asian population in the study that lacked any Ancestral North Indian admixture. The authors thus suggest that the Onge populated the Andamanese Islands prior to the intermixture that took place between the Ancestral South Indians and Ancestral North Indians on the Indian mainland"

I find this interesting because you can see what the Dravidian South Indians would have looked like before admixture with Caucasians. They look pretty Caucasian now but still with very dark skin.

The Onge are a subgroup of Negritos. I read in the past that these African looking people had evolved that way independently (the convergent evolution you talked about) but now I suspect they just migrated from Africa and never lost their African features. The out of African people who stayed within the tropics would have had no need to.

Aboriginals look slightly different but they lived in a big desert which may have meant some modifications, whereas the negritos were tropical jungle people.

I guess SS African features are just those adapted to the tropics...evolution in a tropical climate taken to its greatest extent.

Caucasians and NE Asians are obviously both northerly, cold climate peoples. SE Asians like Thai are admixed and have more prognathism than the Chinese.

Steven said...

...I mean, as for the Onge people, it seems improbable that Africans left Africa, evolved non-African features and then re-evolved African features, doesn't it?

They have diverged a lot genetically from Africans but kept the features as they were already adapted to the tropics, imo. I don't know what evidence there would be against this.

John Craig said...

Steven --
Interesting. I don't know about the Andaman Islanders' ancestry, would be reluctant to guess, but i did write about some of them in the "Isolated Tribes" post from a little while ago. (North Sentinel Island is part of the Andamans). They can tell from DNA how closely related various populations are.

My understanding is that the Negritos of the Philippines are fairly closely related to the Melanesians of the South Pacific, both the Australilan aborigines and the Papuans and New Guineans and Tongans ad Fijians. I think the other Filipinos and thais are basically a result of admixture between east Asians and Melanesians.

I have no numbers to back me up regarding the Germans, it's just a general impression. Maybe I've just known a large number of German-Americans here who've been quite big.

John Craig said...

Steven --
Yes, agree completely with your logic. And the DNA, mitochondrial and otherwise, is always telling. The only group I've seen which I think are such an admixture are the natives of Madagascar, who've always looked part (sub-continental) Indian and part black to me.

Steven said...

yeah, I believe one of the five or so major genetic clusters of human populations is SE Asians and the negritos are part of that group. Also, yes I think Thais are the NE Asians mixed with the indigenous SE Asians.

WIKI page on the history of Madagascar says:

"The majority of the population of Madagascar today is a mixture of Austronesian, Bantu, North Indian, Arab and Somali settlers. Centuries of intermarriages created the Malagasy people, who primarily speak Malagasy, an Austronesian language with Bantu, Arabic, French and English influences. Most of the genetic makeup of the average Malagasy, however, reflects an almost equal blend of Austronesian and Bantu influences, especially on coastal regions"


I read elsewhere that the the ocean currents go from Indonesia to Madagascar and people and ships that went missing near Indonesia have been known to wash up there. Indonesia, I think Borneo, is apparently the source of the Austronesian heritage of Malagasy people.

I can definitely see the Indonesian part of Malagasy people.
This little girl for example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malagasy_people#/media/File:Malagasy_girls_Madagascar_Merina.jpg

I can see why you might think Indian though, since South Indians are part Austronesian and there are also modern North Indians settlers there. (Nearby Mauritius is mostly Indian).

John Craig said...

Steven --
Interesting, thank you. Indonesian and Bantu, that makes sense. All of those little girls are cute, and there was a woman from Madagascar in my class at business school in the early 80's whom I also thought was quite attractive.

I was surprised when I found out a little while ago that the northeast Asians had separated from Europeans genetically more recently than they had separated from the Southeast Asian/Pacific Islanders. I'd always just thought of the northeast Asians as a higher-IQed subgroup of Asians.