Europeans looked down on Neanderthals—until they realized they shared their DNA

Excerpt: Superior

We are forever chasing our origins.

When we can’t find what we want in the present, we go back, and back further still, until there, at the dawn of time, we imagine we’ve found it. In the gloomy mists of the past, having squeezed ourselves back into the womb of humanity, we take a good look. Here it is, we say with satisfaction. Here is the root of our difference.

Once upon a time, scientists were convinced that Aboriginal Australians were further down the evolutionary ladder from other humans, perhaps closer to Neanderthals. In 2010 it turned out that Europeans are actually likely to have the most drops of Neanderthal blood, metaphorically speaking. In January 2014 an international team of leading archaeologists, geneticists, and anthropologists confirmed that humans outside Africa had bred with Neanderthals. Those of European and Asian ancestry have a very small but tangible presence of this now-extinct human in our lineage, up to around 4 percent of our DNA. People in Asia and Australia also bear traces of another known archaic human, the Denisovans. There is likely to have been breeding with other kinds of human as well. Neanderthals and Denisovans, too, mated with each other. Many in the deep past, it seems, were pretty indiscriminate in their sexual partnerships.

“We’re more complex than we initially thought,” explains John Shea. “We initially thought there was either a lot of interbreeding or no interbreeding, and the truth is between those goalposts somewhere.”

The discovery had important consequences. It raked up a controversial, somewhat marginalized scientific theory that had been doing the rounds a few decades earlier. In April 1992 an article had been published in Scientific American magazine with the incendiary title “The Multiregional Evolution of Humans.” The authors were Alan Thorne, a celebrity Australian anthropologist, who died in 2012, and Milford Wolpoff, a cheery anthropologist based at the University of Michigan, where he still works today. They hypothesized that there was something deeper to human difference, that perhaps we hadn’t all come out of Africa as fully modern humans after all.

Although this notion had been mooted before, for Wolpoff, this idea became cemented in the seventies. “I traveled and I looked, I traveled and I looked, I traveled and I looked,” he tells me. “And what I noticed was that in different regions, big regions—Europe, China, Australia, that is what I mean by regions, not small places—in different regions, it seemed to me there was a lot of similarity in fossils.” That is, they were “similar” in their difference: “They weren’t the same and they all were evolving.”

His big realization came in 1981 when Wolpoff was working with a fossilized skull from Indonesia slightly to the northwest of Australia, dated at roughly a million years and possibly older. A million years is an order of magnitude older than modern humans, hundreds of thousands of years before some of our ancestors first began to migrate out of Africa. It couldn’t possibly be the ancestor of any living person. Yet Wolpoff says he was struck by the similarities he thought he could see between its facial structure and that of modern-day Australians. “I had reconstructed a fossil that looked so much like a native Australian to me I almost dropped it,” he says. “I propped it up on my lap with the face staring at me. . . . When I turned it over on its side to get a good look at it, I was really surprised.”

Teaming up with Alan Thorne, who had done related research and shared his interpretation of the past, they came up with the theory that Homo sapiens evolved not only in Africa, but that some of the earlier ancestors of our species spread out of Africa and then independently evolved into modern humans, before mixing and interbreeding with other human groups to create the one single species we recognize today. In their article for Scientific American, which helped catapult their multiregional hypothesis into the mainstream, they wrote, “Some of the features that distinguish major human groups, such as Asians, Australian Aborigines and Europeans, evolved over a long period, roughly where these people are found today.”

They described these populations as “types,” judiciously steering clear of the word “race.” “A race in biology is a subspecies,” Wolpoff clarifies when I ask him about it. “It’s a part of a species that lives in its own geographic area, that has its own anatomy, its own morphology, and can integrate with other subspecies at the boundaries. . . . There are no subspecies anymore. There may have been [human] subspecies in the past—that’s something we argue about. But we do know there are no subspecies now.”

Many academics found Wolpoff and Thorne’s idea unconvincing or offensive, or both. According to Billy Griffiths, the multiregional way of thinking about human origins, which undercuts the fundamental belief that we are all one species and nothing else, has echoes of an earlier intellectual tradition. “Wherever we are in the world we look at the deep past and these immense spans of time through the lens of our present moment and our biases and what we want,” he tells me. “Archaeology is a discipline that is saturated by colonialism, of course. It can’t entirely escape its colonial roots.” Multiregionalism was a response to the available evidence at the time, but it also suggested that there must be something that profoundly sets “races” apart, that the roots of human difference aren’t recent, but actually run deep in time and, consequently, also in our minds and bodies. Its gives rise to the possibility that our origins aren’t quite so shared. “That’s the ugly political legacy that dogs the multiregional hypothesis,” he says.

Race science Angela Saini Neanderthals aboriginals
Superior: The Return of Race Science” by Angela Saini is on sale now. Courtesy of Beacon Press

Wolpoff has always been sensitive to the controversy he helped to stoke. He faced down plenty of criticism when he and Thorne published their work. “We were the enemy,” he recalls. “If we were right, there couldn’t be a single recent origin for humans. . . . They said, you’re talking about the evolution of human races in separate places independently of each other.”

And their theory remains unproven. Academics in the West and in Africa today generally accept that humans became modern in Africa and then adapted to the environments where they happened to move to fairly recently in evolutionary time—these are only superficial adaptations, such as skin color. But not everyone everywhere agrees. In China, there’s a common belief among both the public and leading academics that Chinese ancestry goes back considerably further than the migration out of Africa. One of Wolpoff’s collaborators, Wu Xinzhi, a paleontologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has argued that fossil evidence supports the notion that Homo sapiens evolved separately in China from earlier human species who were living there more than a million years ago, despite data showing that modern Chinese populations carry about as much of a genetic contribution from modern humans who left Africa as other non-African populations do.

“There are many people who are not happy with the idea of African origin,” I’m told by Eleanor Scerri, an archaeologist based at the University of Oxford who researches human origins. “They have co-opted multiregionalism to make a claim that this is a simplistic idea, that races are real, and that people who have come from a particular area have always been there.” She tells me that this thinking appears to be prevalent not only in China but also in Russia. “There is no acceptance that they were ever African.”

For some, an unwillingness to accept African origins may be motivated by racism or nationalism, but this isn’t the case for all. There are those for whom it’s simply a way of squaring old origin stories with modern science. In Australia, for instance, Billy Griffiths tells me, many indigenous people favor the multiregional hypothesis because it sits closer to their own belief that they have been here from the very beginning. Indeed, this is an origin myth shared by cultures in many parts of the world. Until further evidence comes along (and maybe even after it does), the theory of a people’s origins can be to some extent a matter of choice, affected as much by personal motivations as by data. The past can never be completely known, so the classic multiregional hypothesis may hang on, despite its lack of support among scientists. It still has power.

While classic multiregionalism seems unlikely to be the story of our past, the fact that we now know our ancestors bred with other kinds of archaic humans does have implications. It gives nourishment to those who would like to resurrect the multiregional hypothesis in full. It’s a factual nugget that feeds fresh speculation about the roots of racial difference. Some dogged supporters of the multiregional hypothesis can rightly claim that at least one prediction made by Wolpoff and Thorne has turned out to be correct. The pair suggested that other now-extinct humans such as Neanderthals either evolved into modern humans or interbred with them. And on interbreeding, we now know from genetic evidence, the pair got it right. Some of our ancestors did mate with Neanderthals, although their contribution to our DNA today is so tiny that this couldn’t have been particularly widespread. But it did happen.

When I ask Wolpoff if he feels vindicated by this, he laughs. “You said ‘vindicated.’ We said ‘relief’!”

Genetics has done the unthinkable, says the rock-art expert Benjamin Smith. “The thing that has worried me is the way that genetics research has moved. . . . We thought that we were basically all the same, whether you’re a bushman in southern Africa, an Aboriginal Australian living in rural Western Australia, or someone like myself who is of European extraction. Everyone was telling us that we were all identical, all the modern science.” The latest discoveries appear to move the story a little closer back to the nineteenth-century account. “This idea that some of us are more interbred with Neanderthals, some of us are more interbred with Denisovans . . . and Aboriginal Australians had quite a high proportion of Denisovan genetics, for example. That could lead us back to the nasty conclusion that we are all different,” he warns. “I can see how it might be racialized.”

Indeed, when the Neanderthal connection was revealed by geneticists, personal ancestry-testing companies were quick to sell services offering paying members of the public the opportunity to find out how much Neanderthal ancestry they have, presumably in the expectation that this might mean something to them. The finding also had a peculiar effect on scientific research. Fairly soon after it was found that it was modern-day Europeans who have the closer association to Neanderthals—not, as it turned out, Aboriginal Australians—the image of the Neanderthal underwent a dramatic makeover. When their remains were first discovered in 1856, the German naturalist Ernst Haeckel had suggested naming them Homo stupidus. But now these same Neanderthals, once the dictionary definition of simple-minded, loutish, uncivilized thugs, became oddly rehabilitated.

Svante Pääbo, the director of the genetics department at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, Germany, who spearheaded some of the research that led to the discoveries of ancient interbreeding in the first place, was among those to marshal efforts to compare the genomes of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, in the search for what differs as well as what is present in both. And this was accompanied by plenty of speculation from others. In 2018 a set of researchers in Switzerland and Germany suggested that Neanderthals actually had quite “sophisticated cultural behavior,” prompting one British archaeologist to wonder whether “they were a lot more refined than previously thought.” An archaeologist in Spain claimed that modern humans and Neanderthals must have been “cognitively indistinguishable.” A few even raised the possibility that Neanderthals could have been capable of symbolic thought, pointing to freshly discovered cave markings in Spain that appear to predate the arrival of modern humans (the finding failed to convince Benjamin Smith).

“Neanderthals are romanticized,” John Shea tells me. They’re no longer around, and we don’t have a great deal of evidence about what they were like or how they lived, which means they can be whatever we want them to be. “We’re free to project good qualities, things we admire, and the ideal on them.” In reality, whatever they were like, he says, “The interbreeding thing is more like a symbolic thing for us than it is of evolutionary consequence.”

Yet researchers haven’t been able to help themselves from looking for evolutionary consequences. One team of scientists claimed that the tiny peppering of Neanderthal DNA may have given Europeans different immune systems from Africans. Another published paper linked Neanderthal DNA to a whole host of human differences, including “skin tone and hair color, height, sleeping patterns, mood, and smoking status.” An American research group went so far as to try to link the amount of Neanderthal DNA people have with the shape of their brain, implying that non-Africans may have some mental differences from Africans as a result of their interbreeding ancestors.

For more than a century the word “Neanderthal” had been synonymous with low intelligence. In the space of a decade, once the genetic link to modern Europeans was suspected, that all changed. In the popular press, there was a flurry of excitement about our hitherto undervalued relatives. Headlines proclaimed that “we haven’t been giving Neanderthals enough credit” (Popular Science), that they “were too smart for their own good” (The Telegraph), that “humans didn’t outsmart the Neanderthals” (Washington Post). Meanwhile a piece in the New Yorker whimsically reflected on their apparent everyday similarity to humans, including the finding that they may have suffered from psoriasis. Poor things, they even itched like us. “With each new discovery, the distance between them and us seems to narrow,” wrote the author. In the popular imagination, the family tree had gained a new member.

In January 2017 the New York Times ran a story headlined “Neanderthals Were People, Too” and asked, “Why did science get them so wrong?” This was indeed the big question. If the definition of “people” had always included archaic humans, then why should Neanderthals so suddenly and so generously be accepted as “people” now? And not just accepted, but elevated to the celebrity status of sadly deceased genius cousin? It wasn’t all that long ago that scientists had been reluctant to accept the full humanity even of Aboriginal Australians. Gail Beck’s family had been denied their culture; treated in their own nation as unworthy of survival; their children ripped from their parents to be abused by strangers. In the nineteenth century Aboriginal Australians had been lumped together with Neanderthals as evolutionary dead ends, both destined for extinction. But now that common ground had been found between Europeans and Neanderthals, now we were all people! Now we had found our common ground!

If it had turned out that Aboriginal Australians were the ones to possess that tiny bit of Neanderthal ancestry instead of white people of European descent, would our Neanderthal cousins have found themselves quite so remarkably reformed? Would they have been welcomed with such warm hugs? It’s hard not to see the public and scientific acceptance of Neanderthals as “people like us” as another manifestation of the Enlightenment habit of casting humanity in the European image. In this case Neanderthals have been drawn into the circle of humankind by virtue of being just a little related to Europeans—forgetting that a century ago, it was their supposed resemblance to indigenous Australians that helped cast the latter, actual living human beings, out of the circle.

Excerpted from Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini, (Beacon Press, 2019). Reprinted with permission by Beacon Press.