Researchers Want to Get the Dirt on How Much Neanderthals and Modern Humans had Sex
Would you have sex with a Homo sapiens neanderthalensis if they hadn’t gone extinct? Your ancestors may have.
Scientists are testing cave dirt for the presence of Neanderthal DNA from disintegrated skeletons from many thousands of years ago to answer the question about how often modern Homo sapiens and Neanderthals coupled, along with other intriguing mysteries.
Modern humans have some Neanderthal DNA, so such unions did happen. This fact may be hard to believe because most depictions of Neanderthals these days show faces so ugly they might scare off a person of another species or subspecies. (There are different schools of thought as to whether Neanderthals are a subspecies or a separate but closely related species to modern humans.)
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The homme de Spy ("Man from Spy") (boris doesborg/CC BY NC SA 2.0), and other reconstructions of what Neanderthals may have looked like: at the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann, Germany (Stefan Scheer/Stefanie Krull/CC BY SA 3.0), in the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin, Germany (כ.אלון/CC BY SA 3.0), and in Zagros Paleolithic Museum, Kermanshah (Rawansari/CC BY SA 3.0)
Neanderthal DNA is hard to come by because archaeologists who’ve excavated their very rare skeletal remains are reluctant to share it - even though geneticists and other scientists need just about 0.001 percent of an ounce, says NPR in a story about the new research.
"We've been recently trying to explore new sources of ancient human DNA as the fossil record is very limited,” Matthias Meyer told NPR. He is with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
Researcher extracting Neanderthal DNA from a bone at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. (Public Domain)
Meyer and his group said many Neanderthal skeletons and bones that have survived have been found in caves. They theorized that there may be DNA from extremely ancient Neanderthals if their skeletons disintegrated into dust on the cave floor. He said it would be easy to extract if any was there: Just shovel it up and take it to the laboratory for testing.
Meyer and colleagues have found some ancient human DNA so far, and will now have to discern whether the DNA is from prehistoric human bones and not from recent cave explorers or from bacteria. They hope to find even minute amounts of DNA from various eras in Neanderthal existence to make revelations about how they adapted to the environment and possibly even how they became extinct.
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Reconstruction of Neanderthals burying an individual in a cave. National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC, USA. (Ricardo Giaviti/CC BY NC SA 2.0)
Janet Kelso, a colleague of Meyer’s at the Max Planck institute said scientists have also been wondering how often the two types of human, modern and Neanderthal, had sex. The Guardian reports the earliest known sexual relations between the two types of humans was at least 100,000 years ago. In 2010, scientists ascertained that modern humans have Neanderthal DNA of up to 4 percent.
"Was this something that was happening relatively regularly over some time?" Kelso asked. "Was it something that was quite rare?" By testing many samples of Neanderthal DNA over the course of their 300,000 years in West Asia and Europe, the researchers hope they can answer these questions. Most modern humans have some genetic relationships to Neanderthals, but scientists have to do a lot of research to tell where and when there was intermingling.
This reconstruction shows a much handsomer Neanderthal than is usually shown in depictions of the extinct subspecies or related species. (Cicero Moraies/CC BY SA 3.0)
Another avenue to explore is what Neanderthal reactions were to climate change. During the 300,000 years they were present, the climate underwent a lot of changes, and at points in time there were glaciers covering much of Europe’s landscape. Thus, researchers are wondering how Neanderthals adapted to the climate and weather, and what may have happened to cause them to die out about 30,000 years ago.
Top Image: Male and female Homo neanderthalensis in the Neanderthal Museum, Mettmann, Germany. Scientists are shoveling up dirt in caves in Europe and West Asia in an attempt at getting Neanderthal DNA to answer some enduring mysteries, including about how often modern humans and Neanderthals had sex. Source: UNiesert/Frank Vincentz/CC BY SA 3.0
By Mark Miller