(This is the second installment of a post from a few days ago entitled, Some Fun with Human Genesis.)
While rooting around in the bowels of the internet a few months ago, I was surprised to discover that it is true that science never sleeps. After the five or so books I had read on the subject written in the past three years had been published or were in galley or proof, too late for the authors self-congratulatory words to be changed, a few new discoveries regarding the genetic history of humanity emerged that if not throwing everything into a tizzy at least has left a lot of people bemused.
During the latter portion of 2010 the genetic code of a finger bone of a female living about 40,000 years ago was unravelled and lo and behold it was discovered that some of it also appears in the genetic structure of our merry band making its way along the coast of Asia on its way to Australia.
Several things makes this discovery especially surprising. The first of which was that the lady in question was not human. Well, not human human or Homo Sapiens Sapiens (so named by scientist Carl Linnaeus in a fit of fervent racial superiority, and meaning the "really smart one" as opposed to other homo sapiens whatevers who are just "pretty smart") but a hitherto little known group named the Denisovans after the cave in which their remains were found. (We do not know what they will be officially called yet. Perhaps, Homo Sapiens Denisovans or "the pretty smart people who lived in the Denisova cave a long time ago and where we much smarter people found their bones and figured all this out.") Among the remains in this cave were also found those of Neanderthals and Neanderthal-Denisovan hybrids. Eventually, after the others had left, humans found their way there and for the last 20,000 years or so have kept coming back.
This seemingly lusty group had other surprises in store. One of which is that this love cave is in the Altai Mountains in Southeastern Russia, a long way away from the beaches of Southeast Asia where Homo Sap Sap on his way to Australia was lazing his days on the sand eating oysters and drinking Mai-tais. It is a pretty long way to go for recreational sex, if you ask me .
So after a lot of study and thought, it was determined that that part of Russia was about as far as the Denisovans would travel for trysting with the Neanderthals and that they in fact spent most of their time in and around, you guessed it, that 50,000 year old center of sex tourism Thailand, where H sap sap dallied for a while and where the Denisovians contributed their genetic material to a long line of Australians and Melanesians (about 8% of their genetic code).
Around about the same time, it was also discovered that more or less somewhere in the modern state of Israel, Neanderthals interbred with with members of our H Sap Sap ancestors too. (Now I will leave for another time a discussion of whether the insane Sand-god of the Peoples of the Book was actually a Neanderthal rapist. But, I suggest you consider Michelangelo's depiction of the Creator on the Sistine Ceiling that appears to look a lot like HSN [Homo sapiens neanderthalensis] with his beetle brow, hirsutism and broad muscled upper body.)
In fact, a lot of the attempts by archeologists to show what a Neanderthal looked like had many of the physical qualities Michelangelo liked in his men. Equip him with long white hair and beard, dress him in a toga and our Neanderthal could look a lot like God. (Unfortunately he also looks a lot like the photographs of some of my Sicilian relatives.)
All of us, other than Africans and Melanesians, have 1 to 4% Neanderthal genes.
So it seems wherever they went on their beach-side vacation either Mrs. or Miss HSS slipped off into the bushes to spend some quality time with a local. And, after the birth of the somewhat strange looking offspring, it was all hushed up until it disappeared into family legend only to be eventually revealed by a bunch of nosey scientists.
Now you may think I am being sexist in telling this story. But strangely enough, I am not, at least not as much as one would think. According to Professor Dr, Svante Paabo who unraveled the mystery of this ancient interspecies mating:
" So the most reasonable thing is that this was, yes, modern human women [had sex] with Neanderthal men that were presumably very attractive to them."Also, surprisingly, it seems that only HSS females were impregnated. HSS men, if they tried, do not appear to have succeeded.
Why did it not work with the men? No one really knows. Perhaps it was merely chance. I believe, however, that the Neanderthals and Denisovans, who were much stronger than the relatively skinny HSS and had larger cranial capacity, simply were more physically or mentally able to resist their approach. Or perhaps, even had HSS males resorted to gang rape, to which I suspect they may have been more accustomed, their sperm may simply have been too puny.
My sister is coming to me
my heart dances
and I open my arms to her.
My heart is at home
like a fish in its holding tank
O night, be mine forever,
now that my queen has come!
Ancient Egyptian poem (Cairo vase, poem A, #5)
In any event, it is believed that among the benefits of HSS breeding with Neanderthals and Denisovians is that the latter gave to HSS certain genes that made them immune to a number of diseases. As Dr. Jonica Newby another member of the scientific team that unravelled the gene sequences in these early hominids observed:
So seize the day! hold holiday!
Be unwearied, unceasing, alive
you and your own true love;
Let not the heart be troubled
during your sojourn on Earth,
but seize the day as it passes!
Ancient Egyptian poem 1160 BC
"What that means is that sex with Neanderthals and Denisovans helped our ancestors colonize the world. So it looks like our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmothers took one for the team."(Note: these interspecies trysts among our ancestors were not a common experience. Apparently, over a period of about 10,000 years or so, they occurred only a few in the Near-east and somewhat more than that in Southeast Asia.
(to be continued - Next: Maybe we are not in Mr. Rogers Neighborhood anymore Toto.)