an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

humans and neanderthals and chimps and bonobos

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We now know for sure that humans and neanderthals interbred. How much, we don’t know, nor do we know the nature of the interbreeding. The spectrum presumably goes from love and flowers to warfare slaughter and rape, and I recently heard one pundit arguing for the latter option, and I tend to agree, especially given what information ancient DNA is providing about human populations over the last 50,000 years or so – that’s to say, it appears that it was much less a case of cultures and practises spreading from one place to another than populations replacing earlier populations. And it may well be that we’ll get a more gory-detail picture of human-neanderthal intimacies in the foreseeable.

We’ve also learned that chimps and bonobos bonked after their separation due to the creation of the Congo River between one and two million years ago. I wish I’d been there to see it. My guess is that would’ve been far less traumatic, though perhaps not too lovey-dovey either.

So if we accept that violence was involved – who were the perps and who the victims? My feeling is that humans were the rapists, for the simple reason that we’re still here. Neanderthals disappeared some 40,000 years ago, though a remnant population appears to have survived in the Iberian Peninsula for another few thousand years. With chimps and bonobos it was probably more fifty-fifty, though I’m prepared to accept that nothing is ever that simple.

The fact that many of us – I don’t know about me – have some neanderthal DNA is probably a mixed blessing (some genes for absorbing sunlight may have predisposed us to skin cancer, others may have affected our ability to process carbs), but it hasn’t prevented us from quadrupling our population in the last century. And since we’ve produced the first whole-genome sequence of the neanderthal genome, they’ll soon be back with us, so no worries. Unfortunately, their memories of what we did to them will have been wiped, but we’re working on it.

Seriously, humans most likely were one of many contributors to neanderthal extinction. The two species shared similar European territories for the last few millennia before their disappearance, with human numbers apparently growing as neanderthals dwindled. Maybe they were out-competed in hunting big game, and small,  as their diets would’ve been more or less identical to ours. Studies of neanderthal teeth from different environments (north-west and south-west Europe) indicate that they were opportunistic dieters, eating more meat in some regions, less in others, not all-out carnivores as previously thought, so this brings them even closer in line with humans, and in competition with them when habitats overlapped. And if anything, ancient DNA is telling us that our human ancestry was even more violent than previously thought – and we’ve long known how bad it was.

We don’t have any direct evidence that modern humans killed neanderthals, and we may never have such evidence. Professor Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum argues that, as we now know that both species inhabited Western Europe for about 10,000 years before neanderthals died out, there was more likely a kind of awkward balance between the two species for much of that time. So, maybe killing but not outright extermination. Of course the same can be said for the large mammals that humans hunted. There was never any intention to exterminate them, but the pressure they were put under did for them in the end.

With chimps and bonobos, that seems to me even more of a mystery. What does a chimp look like to a bonobo, and vice versa? Most of us wouldn’t be able to tell one from the other, but that’s because we’re humans. In the past, Europeans used to say that all Chinese looked the same. Back in Darwin’s day and before, the people of Africa, Australia and Indonesia were collectively termed ‘savages’ by ‘white’ people. It’s taken a while for us dumb humans to become more discriminating. So it’s hardly surprising that bonobos weren’t recognised as a separate species from chimps until well into the twentieth century. Speciation itself is a rather more complicated and questionable affair than it was thought to be in the time of Linnaeus – and it wasn’t particularly simple then. Here’s an interesting quote from a Science article on chimp-bonobo interbreeding:

These findings come on the heels of other genome analyses—such as between coyotes, dogs, and wolves—showing such gene flow between species. “The more we look at genomes, the more it seems to be found,” [Professor Jim Mallet] says. “It’s going to be pretty common,” he predicts.

An article in, a popular science site, linked below, provides a summary of the physical and social differences between bonobos and chimps, though I can’t vouch for its accuracy – for example it claims that bonobo males and females are ‘much closer in size’ than chimp males and females. I’d always thought that the sexual dimorphism difference was slight, now I’m not so sure. Another interesting difference, that I’d not noticed before in my reading, is that bonobos have dark faces from birth, whereas chimps’ faces are lighter, and darken with age. I can well believe though that there are individual differences, in this as in robustness and gracility, bonobos being in general more gracile. Of course, chimp males are more dominant, so I can well imagine chimp-bonobo interbreeding to be a violent affair. And with bonobo females tending to stick together it would’ve been difficult to pick off an isolated female. Perhaps we should build a few Pan-friendly bridges across the Congo River and see what happens….


Written by stewart henderson

February 24, 2023 at 1:22 pm

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