Bigfoot Encounters

"The Unbearable Loneliness of Being Homo Sapiens"

By James Gorman, New York Times Science Editor

Nothing is ever quite settled when it comes to ancient hominids, and I doubt there is a single claim in paleoanthropology that can't be used to start an argument. So I hope there will be people who will argue with Dr. Richard Klein of Stanford, who has made me nostalgic for ancestors he says I never had. If he is right, contact between modern humans and Neanderthals was fleeting at best, with no interbreeding. There has never been any conclusive evidence that the two species did interbreed, but it has always been a possibility. And just a few years ago, in 1999, scientists in Portugal found the 25,000-year-old skeleton of a boy who seemed to have been a hybrid, the offspring of Homo sapiens (modern humans) and Homo neanderthalensis.

But although there is still interest in this find, Dr. Klein, at least, is unimpressed. In a paper in the current issue of Science, he reviews the recent research and calls the find "ambiguous at best." DNA evidence is equally discouraging, he writes. Several studies of both living humans and Neanderthal bones have found that every living person is descended from African ancestors who lived about 100,000 years ago. But the evolutionary branches that led to Neanderthals and to us split half a million years ago, suggesting that Neanderthals contributed nothing to the recently sequenced human genome.

My sense of loss is not personal. I never had a specific Neanderthal in mind as an ancestor. But Homo sapiens is a lonely species. We have no living relatives in our genus, and the thought that we might have spent some time with another human species, even if it did go extinct, is comforting. A bit of gene swapping between species would seem to cement the link. It may be that I've read too many speculative tales of humans past. But I'm not alone. The stories that fiction writers invent about Neanderthals have always been popular. There is nothing I would rather have witnessed in the history of the earth than the emergence and spread of modern humans. This would require quite a bit of time travel. I'd have to hop around in time and place from about 300,000 years ago when Neanderthals started to appear to about 30,000 years ago, by which time they were clearly gone. And I'd have to visit Africa, Asia and Europe. I would need a machine that moved instantaneously in space and time.

The only such machine now in existence is fiction, and in it Neanderthals can indeed be visited. In 1921, for instance, H. G. Wells wrote "The Grisly Folk," a speculative essay and story about the meeting of modern humans and Neandertalers, as he called them. Wells saw inevitable violence between the species. He imagined the Neanderthals as hulking, child-stealing, child-eating "grisly" men. He gloried in describing a human victory, not in competition for resources or through some ecological displacement, but through killing - us against them. He thought the Neanderthals had lived on, not in our genes, but in our tales and terrors. "The legends of ogres and man-eating giants that haunt the childhood of the world," he wrote, "may descend to us from those ancient days of fear." Thoughts of how we might have dealt with hominid rivals evolved after Wells.

William Golding, in "The Inheritors," published in 1955, also envisioned a bloody human triumph. But his story took no pleasure in our extermination of another species. Physicists had only just discovered sin with the invention of nuclear weapons, but Golding imagined humanity stained with blood at the very birth of the species. In his novel a small band of Neanderthals are all that is left of a once numerous people. They have simple minds and think in pictures, not analytically. They have little language, little idea of what is happening to them. They eat plants and grubs and scavenge meat, and have a great distaste for violence, even to obtain food. The new people, however, are nasty, mean-spirited drunks with weapons and a taste for flesh. They are instantly recognizable.

By 1980, Bjorn Kurten, a paleontologist with real science at his fingertips, as well as the experience of the 1960's and 1970's, took an entirely different viewpoint. For him, love, not war was the downfall of the Neanderthals, who were neither as simple nor as pacific as Golding's hominids. In "Dance of the Tiger," Neanderthals, who evolved in the north, were white, and the new humans, from the south, black. The modern humans were taller, more articulate and, to the Neanderthals, achingly beautiful. Even though unions between Neanderthals and modern humans produced no offspring the Neanderthals just couldn't resist. The modern humans, having no overpowering desire for their beetle-browed cousins, managed enough mating within the species to be fruitful and multiply. The Neanderthals were doomed once again.

Dr. Kurten's ideas were all scientifically plausible, not always the case in speculative fiction, particularly when it reaches the movies. It is highly unlikely that the people who migrated out of Africa looked like Daryl Hannah, the unforgettable human amid the Neanderthals in "The Clan of the Cave Bear." It makes complete sense that they were dark skinned and the Neanderthals light skinned. As for the sterile interbreeding, Dr. Kurten makes clear his story is fiction. Nothing in it flies in the face of scientific fact, but it is an adventure in speculation.

The biggest speculative leap is that Neanderthals were somehow not doomed long ago but managed to hang on to meet with more contemporary nastiness, as in the more recent "Neanderthal" by John Darnton, an associate editor at The New York Times. In "Hominids," the first volume of a trilogy still in progress by Robert J. Sawyer, readers discover that in a parallel universe our species disappeared and it was the Neanderthals who evolved into physicists. This strange occurrence is revealed when a Neanderthal theoretician, through a kind of cosmic twitch, ends up in a tank of heavy water at a neutrino observatory in Canada. Not the sort of destination to recommend travel between universes.

Such imaginings lack the unarguable foundation in reality of imaginative writing about our evolutionary past. It is that past for which I have a kind of theoretical nostalgia. It is a lost sibling species that I wonder about and wish to imagine. I have no desire whatsoever for them to appear suddenly in Sudbury, Ontario, with sophisticated computers implanted in their brains. The connection I desire is not a tunnel to another reality, but a bit of genetic baggage, a molecular memento.

Of course, I already have a genetic heritage that stretches back to single cells. And there is that boy in Portugal. But what if Dr. Klein is correct, and Neanderthals are a "side branch" of humanity, poor lost cousins, distant relations, a particular concatenation of G's, A's, C's and T's that has forever disappeared. Fortunately, Dr. Klein leaves the door open one small crack for some small Neanderthal contribution to the human genome, since it is very difficult to prove the absence of genes, and impossible to prove an absence of interspecies sex tens of thousands of years ago. I'll take this loophole. There was certainly some overlap between the two species in time and space. Modern humans and Neanderthals must have known of each other at some point. Given the well-documented promiscuity of living primates, sexual contact would be expected. So there's still hope, if not for identifiable genes, at least for more novels.

© Essay by James Gorman, New York Times Science Dept.

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