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The story of human origins stretches back over 7 million years, which can mean there’s an awful lot to keep track of. From “fake” cave art to inbreeding Neanderthals, human origins is full of little known stories. So to help, I made a series of short videos on some of those cool stories titled “60 seconds of Human origins”. That went up on social media.
Rather than making you scour my tweet archive, I thought I’d just post the series here, with details and sources located below.
#1: Inbreeding Neanderthals
Eating plants wasn’t the only thing the Neanderthals from El Sidron were doing. The same careful excavation that meant scientists could recover the DNA from their plaque meant they could recover DNA from their bones as well1.
It turns out they were getting a bit too friendly with their family, with low genetic diversity suggesting there was a plenty of inbreeding going on in that population.
And this wasn’t just an occasional thing. It had such an impact on diversity it harmed their health. Normally rare medical conditions, like wonky vertebrae, were made commonplace by this drop in diversity. Although most of these are minor, they are often associated with a poor immune system. But since these Neanderthals weren’t kind enough to leave medical records, we can’t be sure1.
This isn’t the only case of inbreeding Neanderthals we’ve found. Prüfer and team recovered DNA a female Neanderthal found in Denisova Cave in Siberia shows they also had signs of incest. However, the researchers couldn’t identify exactly what sort of freaky family tree was responsible for this woman; narrowing it down to 4 possibilities2. None of which seem particularly pleasant:
Of course, not all Neanderthals show signs of such a Lannister-esque family tree. Prüfer et al. also studied Neanderthal DNA from Vindija Cave. Whilst there was less diversity than seen in most modern humans, nothing quite as dramatic as “incest” was going on3. Perhaps then, we’re looking at the regional collapse (and perhaps extinction) of Neanderthal populations.
#2: Sediba’s weird walk
Australopithecus sediba walked on two legs, like every known member of our family. However, their gait was unique. As their foot hit the ground it twisted, so the outside edge landed first. This is called “hyperpronation” and no other members of our family walk like this4.
Well, some modern people actually do. The resulting damage to their joints was also found in Au. sediba fossils; confirming this was also how they walked. But whilst only some modern people have hyperpronation, every Au. sediba fossil we’ve found did4.
As such, it looks like this was their normal way of walking; not a medical condition. What’s up with that?
Given that most other hominins walk the same, this could mean Australopithecus sediba‘s branch split off early; before our normal gait evolved. This would have happened early in our revolution, potentially pushing their origins back to before even Lucy lived5!
If this is the case then what’s the deal with all of their similarities to us? Were they independent adaptations in a lineage that was evolving along a similar path to us?
Although that’s a fascinating possibility, not all the researchers agree. The sheer number of traits they share with us has led some to conclude they have to be a close relative. Maybe then, they were an “evolutionary experiment” with bipedalism. A weird, short-lived offshoot that tried something different6.
Or maybe something about their lifestyle made them extremely likely to develop foot problems. Without more fossils to study, a mundane explanation like that remains plausible.
Read more: Australopithecus sediba’s weird walk
#3: The Neanderthal that used antibiotics
Not everything that happened at El Sidron was awful, like incest. They also seem to have had pretty good healthcare, as revealed by the same work that found their fondness for plants.
See, it turns out their dental plaque contained DNA from food that wasn’t particularly food-like. One Neanderthal from the site was also chewing on poplar trees and mould. Which makes sense once you realise they had a pretty bad dental abscess, and possibly an infection in their gut as well7.
See, poplar trees contain the same natural painkiller that makes up aspirin. And the mold was a source of penicillum, a natural antibiotic. It seems that this Neanderthal was using medicine to treat their illnesses7.
I don’t think I need to spell out just how cool this is. It shows their extensive knowledge of both their bodies, the natural world, and how to use the latter to help the former.
#4: Fake cave art
In 1879 Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola was conducting an archaeological excavation of the entrance to Altamira Cave, Spain. He’d just returned from a French conference on prehistory and was determined to make some discoveries of his own. Whilst he uncovered some Magdalenian tools (which we now know date to ~15,000 years ago) it was his daughter who made the most significant discovery. Playing in the next chamber, she called to her father claiming she’d found bulls. Sure enough, on the ceiling of the cave were over 30 massive paintings of bulls each drawn on an outcrop of rock to make them appear 3-dimensional8.
Knowing that the cave was inhabited during prehistoric times Sautola quickly realised that this artwork was also prehistoric. Yet when he presented these findings to the scientific community they were almost universally rejected. Most dismissed them as simply recent images drawn in a prehistoric cave, but others went further and accused Sautola of forgery Some even suggested he was perpetrating a deliberate creationist hoax to refute evolution! It was over 20 years before Sautola’s conclusions were vindicated, but by then he had sadly died8.
Meanwhile real creationists continue to hold up Altamira and other cave art sites to challenge human origins, claiming it’s evidence “Cro-Magnon” man was really advanced and not a transitional ape-man!
Read more: Cave art: A Creationist Hoax?
#5: The murdered Neanderthal
Of course, not every Neanderthal interaction involved medicine and niceness. For a prime example of that, we have to leave El Sidron and travel to Shanidar Cave, Iraq. There, Shanidar 3 tells a different story. They had a tough life, yet survived until the ripe old age of . . . somewhere between 40-509.
All of which seems fairly consistent with Neanderthals being nice and having good healthcare. Until we get to the ribs.
Their left, 9th rib has a stab wound, the damage, and angle of which is consistent with a long range projectile. It seems someone chucked a spear (or something similar) at this poor chap. The wound had partially healed, suggesting they’d survived this initial confrontation but soon died. Likely within a month of receiving the injury10.
Whilst this might be a case of Neanderthal murder, we aren’t sure if it was an example of a Neanderthal murderer.
Whilst they did have the sort of projectile weapons responsible for this wound, so did modern humans. And there’s some evidence of modern humans in the area around this time9. Could this not just be one of the earliest murders we’ve found, but the earliest case of an inter-species murder in human origins?
*cue dramatic music*
#6: Vegetarian Neanderthals
Inbreeding and using antibiotics weren’t the only weird things the Neanderthals from El Sidron were doing. It turns out they were also vegetarian, as the same careful excavation that meant scientists could recover the DNA from their bones meant they could also investigate their diet7.
This is important for human origins because for years archaeologists thought the Neanderthal diet was”a crap-tonne of meat”7. And with good reason. The chemical composition of their bones, which varies with what you eat, suggests they had a diet similar to wolves11.
In fact, scientists once thought this focus on meat was why they died out. When we turned up and started pinching their mammoths, they simply couldn’t adapt to other food sources and soon went extinct. Perhaps because they needed high-calorie food, like meat, to sustain their muscular bodies7.
But it turns out not all Neanderthals were such big fans of mammoth burgers. In fact, some seem to have shunned them entirely. This revelation comes from the plaque on Neanderthal teeth from El Sidron Cave, Spain. This trapped fragments of the food they ate, preserving its DNA. Scientists were able to sequence this, finding they were eating mushrooms, grasses, and nuts, but no meat7!
As best we can tell, they were vegetarian Neanderthals.
And this wasn’t a problem with the method. The same study used this technique on the teeth of Belgian Neanderthals, finding they had a fondness for rhino. Clearly, this technique can detect meat, it’s just that the El Sidron group wasn’t eating any7.
These findings don’t just challenge ideas about Neanderthal extinction. They reveal that they were much smarter and more adaptable than we thought, challenging their place in human origins as the “primitive cousin”.
Read more: Vegetarian Neanderthals discovered
#7: Caring Neanderthals
This use of medicine shouldn’t seem too surprising, given the lengths Neanderthals went to take care of each other. For a prime example of that we have to leave El Sidron and travel to Shanidar Cave, Iraq. There, Shanidar 1 was buried ~36,000 years ago and was only around 40 years old when he died. He was also a rather unlucky Neanderthal9.
His right arm, for example, was missing below the elbow. Accordingly, what was left was thin and atrophied, suggesting he’d been missing the arm for years. He’d also suffered a severe injury in his face that would’ve crushed his left eye socket. This would have rendered that eye either partially or totally blind. However, this seems to have happened in his youth and he survived despite this injury9.
Clearly his ability to fend for himself would be greatly reduced by the loss of an arm and an eye, yet he managed to survive. All these injuries show signs of having long since healed. The only way this could’ve happened is with outside assistance. In the harsh world of the Palaeolithic he would have perished long before the age of 40 unless his group was helping him9.
He was a sick man being cared for by his tribe. Doesn’t that just fill you with all the warm fuzzies about human origins?
Read more: Caring Neanderthals
- Ríos, L., Kivell, T.L., Lalueza-Fox, C., Estalrrich, A., García-Tabernero, A., Huguet, R., Quintino, Y., De La Rasilla, M. and Rosas, A., 2019. skeletal Anomalies in the Neandertal Family of el sidrón (spain) support A Role of Inbreeding in Neandertal extinction. Scientific Reports, 9(1), p.1697.
- Prüfer, K., Racimo, F., Patterson, N., Jay, F., Sankararaman, S., Sawyer, S., Heinze, A., Renaud, G., Sudmant, P.H., De Filippo, C. and Li, H., 2014. The complete genome sequence of a Neanderthal from the Altai Mountains. Nature, 505(7481), p.43.
- Prüfer, K. et al. A high-coverage Neandertal genome from Vindija Cave in Croatia. Science358, 655–658 (2017).
- DeSilva, J.M., Holt, K.G., Churchill, S.E., Carlson, K.J., Walker, C.S., Zipfel, B. and Berger, L.R., 2013. The lower limb and mechanics of walking in Australopithecus sediba. Science, 340(6129), p.1232999.
- Schmid, P., Churchill, S.E., Nalla, S., Weissen, E., Carlson, K.J., de Ruiter, D.J. and Berger, L.R., 2013. Mosaic morphology in the thorax of Australopithecus sediba. Science, 340(6129), p.1234598.
- Irish, J. D., Guatelli-Steinberg, D., Legge, S. S., de Ruiter, D. J., & Berger, L. R. (2013). Dental Morphology and the Phylogenetic “Place” of Australopithecus sediba. Science 340(6129)
- Weyrich, L.S., Duchene, S., Soubrier, J., Arriola, L., Llamas, B., Breen, J., Morris, A.G., Alt, K.W., Caramelli, D., Dresely, V. and Farrell, M., 2017. Neanderthal behaviour, diet, and disease inferred from ancient DNA in dental calculus. Nature, 544(7650), pp.357-361.
- Bahn, P. 1998. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
- Stewart (1977). The Neanderthal Skeletal Remains from Shanidar Cave, Iraq: A Summary of Findings to Date Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 121 (2), 121-165
- Churchill SE, Franciscus RG, McKean-Peraza HA, Daniel JA, & Warren BR (2009). Shanidar 3 Neandertal rib puncture wound and paleolithic weaponry. Journal of human evolution, 57 (2), 163-78 PMID: 19615713
- Richards, M.P. and Trinkaus, E., 2009. Isotopic evidence for the diets of European Neanderthals and early modern humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(38), pp.16034-16039.
- Demay, L., Péan, S. and Patou-Mathis, M., 2012. Mammoths used as food and building resources by Neanderthals: Zooarchaeological study applied to layer 4, Molodova I (Ukraine). Quaternary International, 276, pp.212-226.