Tag Archives: Ardi

Caveman sex: a little Neanderthal on the side?

By Bob Hicks

Artist's rendering of a Neanderthal clan, about 60,000 years ago. National Aeronautics and Space Administration

The family tree just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Or the roots get more and more tangled.

This morning’s most intriguing news was the revelation that, yes indeed, Neanderthals seem to be among our ancestors. At least, a team of biologists doing DNA analysis of Neanderthal bones has determined tentatively that between 1 and 4 percent of non-African contemporary humans’ genome derives from that brawny, slope-headed side of the family. Once upon a time most scientists pretty much figured there’d been intermingling. Then they decided there hadn’t been. Now, it seems, caveman sex was pretty liberal, after all.

Several versions of this story are floating around. We like Nicholas Wade’s report in the New York Times, because it’s complete for a general audience and comes with the necessary cautions that more research needs to be done and not all scientists agree that the evidence leads to the conclusion. Even in matters sexual, peer review is important.

Here at Art Scatter World Headquarters we have a longstanding interest in the prehistoric links between culture and biology. We’ve talked about them in relationship to natural selection in the Pleistocene era and celebrated the discovery of Ardi, our 4.4 million-year-old beauty of a cousin. Something’s been making the world go ’round for a long, long time.

We also note with gleeful irony that today’s announcement comes as bad news for the rear-guard intellects of the Aryan Nations: Because this interbreeding hanky panky took place in the Middle East, after humans had migrated there from Africa but before the wanderers had split off into their European and Asian arms, the shared genetic material isn’t found south of the Mediterranean. In other words: If there’s such a thing as a “pure” race, it’s in Africa. Ha!


Illustration: National Aeronautics and Space Administration artist’s rendition of a family of Neanderthals about 60,000 years ago. The extinct animals of the Pleistocene epoch pictured are the Woolly Mammoth, the Bush Antlered Deer, and the Sabre Toothed Cat. Pleistocene animals in this image that still exist are the Eurasian Horse, the Oryx, the Banded Lemming and the Musk Ox. Some of the plant life of the Pleistocene epoch consisted of grasses (which did not exist until this time), ferns, trees, sedges and shrubs.

Nice to meet you, Ardi. See you at the family reunion.

Meet the family: Ardi, or Ardipithecus ramidus, in the flesh. Illustration: Jay Matterns, Science magazine

Meet the family: Ardi, or Ardipithecus ramidus, in the flesh. At 4.4 million years old, she’s our REALLY great aunt. Illustration: Jay Matternes, Science magazine

As we all know, modern life seems to be zipping around us at something approaching light speed: Whole trends and movements sometimes flower and die before we’re even aware of them. Whatever happened to the New Kids on the Block?

Thank goodness for science, which tends to take a longer, more measured view of things. It was a pleasure to look at the front pages of my two newspapers this morning and make the acquaintance of Ardi, a distant relative, and welcome her to the sort-of human family.

Ardi — short for Ardipithecus ramidus — is our newest oldest relative. At about 4.4 million years, she’s roughly a million years older than our old friend Lucy, who clocks in at 3.2 million. Ardi and Lucy grew up not too far from each other, about 45 miles distant in what is now Ethiopia. (A couple of even older specimens, Orrorin tugenensis and Saheanthropus tchadensis, might stretch the old family tree back to more than 6 million years, but apparently their fossils are too few for paleontologists to make a definitive case for them.)

Ardi stood about 4 feet tall and weighed a muscle-bound 120 — almost a foot taller and twice the weight of Lucy, according to John Noble Wilford’s typically lively and graceful story in the New York Times. (Brian Switek also has an interesting discussion at scienceblogs.com.) But although Ardi was bigger, Lucy was more advanced in most ways we think of as typically human, including walking. Lucy was much more of a stand-up gal. Despite the drawings, Ardi was likely in climbing mode most of the time: Note the stretched-out arms, huge hands, and relatively short legs.

Ardi’s first bones were discovered in 1992 and scientists have literally been piecing together her story since. At long last she’s having her debutante ball, and — speaking of speed — already she’s a star: Television’s Discovery Channel will air a two-hour special about her, Discovering Ardi, on Oct. 11. She’ll be dressed up in fur for the big event.

This morning, before he left for school, I showed Ardi’s picture to the Smaller Large Smelly Boy.

“She lived 4.4 million years ago,” I said. “That’s pretty old.”

“Yeah, but not as old as you,” he replied. “What was it you were doing on the day of the Big Bang?”

For the record, I was trying to take a nap.

Time Line of the Universe  Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team; Wikimedia Commons

Time Line of the Universe, with Big Bang. NASA/WMAP Science Team; Wikimedia Commons