Friday, February 13, 2009


A team in Leipzig, Germany has announced a rough draft of the Neandertal nuclear genome, which promises to tell us--eventually--a lot more not only about our closest evolutionary cousins but also about ourselves, modern humans. My Science colleague Elizabeth Pennisi has a long piece about the genome and its implications in this week's issue, with reporting by Ann Gibbons, and it's accompanied by a "Neandertal Primer" prepared by yours truly. These links require a subscription to Science or institutional access, but here are a few teasers, beginning with the first paragraph of Elizabeth's story:

A half a gram barely tips the postal scale. But from a Neandertal fossil, it's a whopping big chunk of priceless material. Yet Croatian geologist Ivan Gušić readily gave that up on the gamble that 38,000-year-old bones from a cave in northwestern Croatia might help provide a glimpse of the Neandertal genome. This week, researchers announced that Gušić's gamble paid off: They have gotten their first peek at 3 billion bases of Neandertal DNA, and the view, although still hazy, is spectacular. Paleogeneticist Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and his colleagues have compiled a very rough draft of this genome, they reported in a press conference in Leipzig and in a talk at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Science's publisher) in Chicago, Illinois, this week.

And here is one segment of my Neandertal primer, which tells you everything you wanted to know about Neandertals but were afraid to ask:

What did they look like? Neandertals were once portrayed as brutish creatures, but scientists now think they resembled modern humans in many ways. Indeed, the late anthropologist Carleton Coon once suggested that a Neandertal dressed in a suit and hat riding the New York City subway would go unnoticed. The next time you ride the subway, look for someone with a stocky, muscular body with short forearms and legs; a large head with bony brow ridges; a jutting face with a very big nose; and perhaps reddish hair and fair skin.

Finally, I have written a post for Science's Origins blog on whether or not Neandertals were artists; that you can read for free at this link.

Photo: Neandertal in front, modern human in back, display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York/Frank Franklin II / AP file

Cheating over Cheeta? An article by Scott Gold in the Los Angeles Times suggests that someone switched chimps. Read it and weep.


Anne Gilbert said...

I've been absolutely overwhelmed the last few days with all this material about the Neandertal genome -- and this is only a draft! Yours is one of the more level-headed essays, and I really appreciated both your "Neandertal Primer" and your "artistic" link. BTW, I felt the two Science articles were both worth paying for, though I often don't feel that way, though someone connected with some academic institution often kindly uploads significant human evolution articles for me to look at and share with my e-mail list.
Anne G

Chauvetian said...

While DNA studies of Neanderthals are topically interesting, they are seriously flawed. It would be like taking DNA from a subway rider in NYC and saying now we know all about the NYC genome. If a gene for red hair has been discovered in one sample, that doesn't mean all Neanderthals were redheads. By natural selection, like the polar bear and fox, they had probably developed white hair. The DNA samples have no sensible criteria for admission to the study. We have not yet defined what a Neanderthal is or how much the pre-Neanderthal genes existed in any specific Neanderthal. The 500+ fossils are different because their DNAs were different. If the study cannot identify which grade of Neanderthal/Neanderthaloid it is studying, it is whistling in the dark. The Vindija population was as mixed as a NYC subway ride. Tabloid science is not very scientific.

Michael Balter said...

This comment from Chauvetian makes little sense to me. Of course there was genetic variation among Neandertals, just as there is genetic variation between modern humans. But we already know both from mitochondrial DNA sequencing of the two hominins, and from previous partial nuclear sequencing, that they are two different species that can be distinguished genetically. So just as we have learned much more about genetic variability in moderns as a result of the HapMap project etc, we will learn more about Neandertal variability as we sequence more Neandertals--something which now appears not only technically feasible but which is actually taking place as I write. This kind of poo-pooing of important scientific breakthroughs is based on what appears to be a limited familiarity with the facts, unless Chauvetian wants to reveal him or herself as a qualified expert.