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See Inside August 2010

Our Neandertal Brethren: Why They Were Not a Separate Species

Genome sequencing has revealed our common humanity

According to the late Harvard University biologist Ernst W. Mayr, the greatest evolutionary theorist since Charles Darwin, “species are groups of actually or potentially interbreeding natural populations which are reproductively isolated from other such groups.”

Reproductive isolation is the key to understanding how new species form, and many types of barriers can divide a population and split it into two different groups: geographic (such as a mountain range, desert, ocean or river), morphological (a change in coloration, body type or reproductive organs), behavioral (a change in breeding season, mating calls or courtship actions), and others. After isolation, if members of the split populations encounter one another and cannot produce viable offspring that can themselves later successfully interbreed and produce viable offspring (hybrids such as mules are infertile), then these two populations constitute two different species.

Let’s say that a species migrates out of Africa into Europe around 400,000 years ago and becomes reproductively isolated from its ancestral population for the next 320,000 years. It evolves distinctive anatomical features and adaptations for the colder climes. Moreover, even after other descendants of the original ancestral population move into Europe around 80,000 years ago, the skeletons from both groups show no obvious signs of blended characteristics. Modern scientists classify the creatures as two different species.

Then, however, genetic analysis reveals that members of these two species interbred and produced viable offspring that populated Europe and spread eastward as far as China and Papua New Guinea. By Mayr’s definition, these two interbreeding populations are not two species after all, but two sibling subspecies of the original African species. A subspecies has a characteristic appearance and geographic range, Mayr explains, yet he adds this significant qualifier: “It is a unit of convenience for the taxonomist, but not a unit of evolution.”

Thus it is—revealing the identity of my example—that we must reclassify Homo neanderthalensis as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, a subspecies of Homo sapiens. A comprehensive and technically sophisticated study published in the May 7 issue of Science, “A Draft Sequence of the Neandertal Genome,” by Max Planck Institute evolutionary anthropologists Richard E. Green, Svante Pääbo and 54 of their colleagues, demonstrates that “between 1 and 4% of the ge­nomes of people in Eurasia are derived from Neandertals” and that “Neandertals are on average closer to individuals in Eurasia than to individuals in Africa.” In fact, the authors note, “a striking observation is that Neandertals are as closely related to a Chinese and Papuan individual as to a French individual.... Thus, the gene flow between Neandertals and modern humans that we detect most likely occurred before the divergence of Europeans, East Asians, and Papuans.” In other words, our anatomically hirsute cousins are actually our genetic brothers.

This modified Out of Africa theory holds that around 400,000 years ago a population of hominids migrated northward through the Middle East and into Europe and parts of western Asia. Between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago another population from the ancestral continent journeyed a similar route into the Eurasian landmass, and there the two populations met and mated. We are their descendants. The Neandertal species did not go extinct, because it was never a separate species; instead population pockets of Neandertals died out around 30,000 years ago, whereas other Neandertal populations survived through interbreeding with their modern human brothers and sisters, who live on to this day.

I always suspected that Neandertals and anatomically modern humans interbred, based on a simple observation: humans are the most sexual of all the primates, willing and able to do it just about anywhere, anytime, with anyone (and even with other species if the Kinsey report is to be believed in its findings about farmhands and their animal charges). Given the viable hybrid offspring that the most diverse members of our species have produced as a result of cultural conjoinings through both ancient migrations and modern travel, one has to suspect that close encounters of the corporeal kind occurred not infrequently in those dark and lonely cave nights over the course of those long-gone millennia.

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