Should Neandertals Be Recategorized As A Subspecies Of Humans?

Earlier this week, I saw a friend reading this article, and considering SciAm has proven to be a bastion of intellectual stimulation and unbiased discussion, I decided to share it with you. Since the publication of the Neandertal draft genome in May, the concept of reorganizing the human family tree to include Neandertals as a subspecies is not particularly new in the world of paleoanthropology. I wonder why, though, did SciAm decide to publish this discussion now?

Anyways, if you want a synopsis of the thesis of the article, read this excerpt:

“Thus it is—revealing the identity of my example—that we must reclassify Homo neanderthalensis as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, a subspecies of Homo sapiens. A comprehensive and technically sophisticated study published in the May 7 issue of Science, “A Draft Sequence of the Neandertal Genome,” by Max Planck Institute evolutionary anthropologists Richard E. Green, Svante Pääbo and 54 of their colleagues, demonstrates that “between 1 and 4% of the ge nomes of people in Eurasia are derived from Neandertals” and that “Neandertals are on average closer to individuals in Eurasia than to individuals in Africa.” In fact, the authors note, “a striking observation is that Neandertals are as closely related to a Chinese and Papuan individual as to a French individual…. Thus, the gene flow between Neandertals and modern humans that we detect most likely occurred before the divergence of Europeans, East Asians, and Papuans.” In other words, our anatomically hirsute cousins are actually our genetic brothers.”

I did a real life facepalm when I came upon Shermer’s argument for including them as a subspecies,

“I always suspected that Neandertals and anatomically modern humans interbred, based on a simple observation: humans are the most sexual of all the primates, willing and able to do it just about anywhere, anytime, with anyone (and even with other species…).”

You have to be a paid subscriber to read the rest of article, so I can’t really know if he’s totally serious about his argument or not. Considering he goes on supporting his argument citing the book of human sexual behavior, the Kinsey Reports, I’m afraid that he actually is pretty confident his argument is legit. Sigh.

If this is true, this is a sad state of affairs for scientific publications; when reporters decide to serve up asinine explanations to scientific phenomenon. I am of the opinion that Shermer, nor any reporter, has the position to give reasons to why evolution occurred a certain way. Shermer could have spent his article discussing the differences between anatomy and material culture between the Neandertals and humans, and how the genetic lines of evidence, both mtDNA and nuclear DNA intersect and diverge from those.

He could have synthesized many different schools of thought on Neandertal ancestry and modern human evolution, but he chose to focus on something taboo. Sex certainly sells, I guess even for SciAm… But the thought that modern-ish humans reproduced with Neandertals is certainly not something unthinkable. So why focus on it?

18 thoughts on “Should Neandertals Be Recategorized As A Subspecies Of Humans?

  1. The sex aspect of the argument is something that deserves mention but only in my opinion as a part of a wider argument, covering such issues as compatible cultures, intellects & the obvious geographic convergence. Personally though, I already consider Neanderthals a sub-species and did even before the draft sequenced genome was released.
    What I’m interested in is broader study using the data they collated. Are for example Celts or the predescessors to eskimo’s more closely related to Neaderthal then the French individual they used.
    And where does the Denisova Hominin fit into this. I know this means a hell of a lot more work and possibly won’t be known for years but I’m impatient.
    But what if the reason East Asians share more Neanderthal DNA, for example, is because they met a different sub-species along their travels? I personally think we’ve barely scratched the surface!

  2. Me gusta mucho la pagina.
    Estoy de acuerdo en que un periodista no esta capacitado en Evolución Humana, y creo que si la ciencia no se comparte no es ciencia.

  3. Well, the current standard for telling a species from another is that they do not interbreed normally in the wild.

    Nothing in the recent findings suggest that Neanderthals and Sapiens interbred normally, maybe it happened just once or was restricted to a very particular peripheral population. The overall Neanderthal input in non-Africans is small and homogeneous enough to suggest a very isolated incident, a curious but minor founder effect. We can’t even tell if the rarity of this incident is because rarity of contact, at least sexual contact, or because of rarity of success in mating. If the latter, we’d be before a clear case of very advanced speciation. And the fact that West Eurasians are not “more Neanderthal” than Chinese, strongly suggests that normal reproductive success is not a word that can be included in the phrase.

    Hence, not.

    But also there is a strong undercurrent debate on the timing of the divergence of both Homo species, while some researchers argue, with weak evidence, for a very recent divergence, others, like Aida Gómez, of the Atapuerca team, rather support divergence times of around a million years (see also here).

    Regardless of anthropometry, where Trinkaus and Gómez would clash, the matter lies in two kinds of indicators:

    1. Genetic “molecular clock”, which is most imprecise and controversial. We can safely disregard it, IMO.

    2. Archaeological evidence. In principle the archaeological evidence supports two migrations from Africa before Homo sapiens. First the H. erectus one c. 1.8 million years ago and then the c. 900 Ka ago of H. ergaster (with Acheulean tech). That’s it. However some point to Levallois tech as indicator of a third later migration. However this would destroy the reconstructions of Neanderthal evolution in Europe, which are very much solid nowadays, specially after the research in the rich site of Atapuerca in the last decades, because Levallois tech is also older in Africa than Eurasia AFAIK.

    Notice anyhow that Levallois is not an industry, with its cultural implications, but a mere process of stonecraft, which may have been discovered separately in several places. And notice that no unequivocal fossils of any sort indicate any migration related to this concept.

    Additionally, I find anatomical differences between Neanderthals and Sapiens, such as the rib cage or head proportions, too extreme to have evolved only in some 400 years, as some suggest, only some 200 years before Sapiens began diverging. They should look more like us if that would be true.

    1. it is my impression early anthropologists (that lived in an era when race theory and eugenetics were abundant) searched for and classified exactly the more extreme individuals as neanderthal. just a thought as to how the mixing may have become less obvious as a result of scientific bias, this. ‘strangely’ i am also under the impression that although i think intercourse was quite common,(with as arguments that indeed hominids are the most sexual of animals and that rape is a set factor in replacement patterns and (later) war), nevertheless reproductive succes between the two was not great. i think that notion is also pretty old and predates the atahuerca research. funny about that is i once wrote i expected that had we more evidence we would also find this sexual expression was rather immediate on the two meeting. the spanish research did much to confirm this. i think genetics is very much not understood to the point that we could predict if such offspring would eg. lead to a ‘down-like’ syndrome in the majority of cases. that besides i dont think we have the needed amount of genetic material to deduce such even if we could. it has the looks that , like still with racial characteristics, the underdog, in this case very probably the smaller groups(!) of neanderthalers, had the greater tolerance for this notion of racial equality.

  4. Subspecies concept is often confused for living taxa, let’s imagine using such tool for fossil and fragmented remains …

    Neandertals and modern humans differ in their morphology (skull, brain, teeth, post-cranium), ontogeny (allometric patterns, morphogenesis, life-cycle), and possibly ecology and physiology. Often such differences have been quantitatively demonstrated to be discrete, with no overlapping. Hence, Neandertals and modern humans are likely to be the expression of different biological models. This may suggest they are the result of different and independent evolutionary process. Interbreeding is just the “possibility” to mix, but evolution is not a possibility, evolution is something that really happened. In terms of phylogeny and evolution, does the “potentiality” of interbreeding always matter? For baboons we know it doesn’t. Should we organize our taxonomic tool (the species concept) on a “potentiality”? To influence evolution and phylogeny, interbreeding must be constant and genetically influent. Otherwise it is just … sex. If it does not occur “normally”, evolution and selection may not be aware of it. And if evolution doesn’t care, I guess taxonomy should do the same.

    This is a paper I published some years ago, I hope it may help to develop this debate …

    Click to access Bruner_HE2004.pdf

  5. Neandertals clearly successfully interbred with Homo sapiens, creating fertile offspring. They are clearly within our species, and a subspecific status would be appropriate. Homo sapiens neandertalensis. So be it.

    The idea that one or two, or even three migrations out of Africa are a bit ludicrous. Populations have been moving about constantly, and not just once every couple of hundred thousand or million years.

    Gene flow occurs when gene flow occurs. Neandertals encountered a significant isolation period with their own case of genetic drift, but were not cut off long enough to become a separate species.

    I think that the genetic data reported in May, 2010 takes precedence over the archaeological data (which is, admittedly, incomplete).

    Further analysis of Neandertal DNA, cross comparisons with our DNA, and done on a quantitative basis, coupled with future and further archaeological discoveries, should prove once and for all that Neandertals were within our species in terms of variation, both phenotypically but especially genotypically.

    I love to use the morphological example of the Chihuahua and the Great Dane: if a ‘paleocanidologist’ came across the bones of these two, they would say they are related, yes, but would never have a clue that they were the same species, Canis familiaris, based on observation of the morphology itself.

  6. “Populations have been moving about constantly, and not just once every couple of hundred thousand or million years”.

    I’m certain you are correct there.

    “would never have a clue that they were the same species, Canis familiaris, based on observation of the morphology itself”.

    But they’re unlikely to mate successfully. It seems from arguments many people present that they would, for that reason, regard them as being separate species.

  7. Milford H. Wolpoff writes in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 2009, p.91, as quoted in the publication, The Origin of Life, http://www.jw-media.org – “Neandertals may have been a true human race.”

    Additionally, one must consider that egos, money, and the need for media attention drives a lot of the new fossil discoveries and the hype that goes with it.

  8. …to appreciate neander/neandra, their contribution to our
    species, one has to look with more than just the tip of the
    shovel. one has to look at the mythic record, gather up
    the various names chronicles have given the species, use
    what is called linguistic archeology,
    i.e.,word-breaking from the oldest language available,
    which happens to be the Nauatl/4waters, the 5k bc
    language of the quetzalcoatl expedition to amerindia,
    3309 bc.
    as most languages begin with, abc, nauatl begins with,
    ace, if we arrange it in western fashion as remí simeón
    has in his dictionary. yes, we have a 5k bc language,
    which is none other than PIE between covers.
    not only that, it twines with the oldest calendar in the world.
    both were very likely started by our prometheus, one of
    neander’s names in myth.
    the greeks called neander, titan, which means giant, but
    titan=titlani(N)=messenger, another reference to prometheus=
    for mettle=pal metl(N).
    giant=jaiant(OFr)=ya i(l)antli(N)=already old lady i(s)land
    i(r)land/tli. the breaking of giant moves us into the myth of
    zeus’s patricidal war with father time/chronus, the youngest
    neander titan prometheus, giant of mettle if not size.
    robert graves in his mythology tells us chronus was driven
    to a far british isle. let’s look at, b(r)iton=b(r)/pi-ton(letra)=
    pi(tli)-ton(atiuh)=older sister of the sun/tonatiuh=
    tionantati(alkonquin)=father sun=toniti(inuit)=people
    before the inuit bering amerindian. wow, words do spray
    all over.
    the names for neander, bibilical and the book of enoch
    found with the dead sea scrolls but not included in the james,
    are, fallen angel, why, because he brought, ya-weh=ya ue(N)=
    already big to us, as well as his word, his ochre burials are
    proof of that.
    lagar velho child has 8 rabbit bones in ochre on the leg,
    well, 8=ocho=(t)och(tli)=tochtli(N/8)=rabbit, the 8th day
    of the tonalamatl cempoalli(N)=sample=20. he’s placed
    between the divided left-side of the pelvis of a red deer=
    mazatl(N/7 tona)=ma(n)ik(mayan tzolkin)=ce uentli(N)=
    c/se-ven/uen-tli(letra)=seven, yes, the number 7 rises
    from the nauatl for, one offering, as do the words,
    cerf/ciervo/hirvi(Finn)/se(r)ve/even/evenki(deer tribe),
    whence, from uentl(N) we get, when/venue/wind.
    the shanidar burial 4, the flower burial, c 80k bc,
    has 8 clusters of medicinal herbs, again, ocho=tochtli(N/8)=
    rabbit=toca(N)=seed/sow=to-/our being/-ca.
    then the 71 pieces of ochre found in the mt. carmel region.
    71 being one short, killed as it were for burial, of the number
    of revolutions the tonalamatl/260days/birthing calendar makes
    in a 52yr period of 36odays per annum, the entire tona-count
    would be 73, with leap year.
    fine, what does ochre mean to neander, well, finding the word
    for ochre in nauatl=tlauitl(N)=torch=to(r)c/ch(letra)=toca(N)=
    our being(seed/sow)=tocar(sp)=touch(E). tlauiz=tl/t/daw(iz/n)
    =dawn, then, relight must be the meaning. ochre=ocre(sp)=
    oc(r)e-liz/celia(N)=to blossom, revive, resussitate=retoñar(sp),
    the spanish word related to, tonatiuh(N)=anthony, the sun,
    as, intone/atone. day, itself, dag/tag/tac(OHG)=t/tlacatli(N)=
    day=tlacati(N)=to be born(again)=tlacatl(N)=body=tlatla-ca=
    tlatla-/flame being/-catl. rebirth.
    so there, proof of neander religion, belief in afterlife.
    sex was the least of the nephillim/anakim(enoch)=
    no children/phillim/pilli(N)=child/no flesh=nacatl(N)=
    two words that describe neander/neandra’s difficulty
    in having children, and their own fragile health.
    more on next posting, when we deal with the
    wordstring ma(N)=hunt land/sea with net=mati(N)=know.

  9. …mati/imati/mimati(N), three nauatl words at
    the crux of british anthro, steven mithen’s
    assertion that neander, identical hyoid bone
    or not, could just as well and did mime his knowledge to us. knowledge of medicine, e.g.,
    shanidar flower burial 4 where 8 clusters of
    specific medicinal herbs were found(last post),
    and the calendrically significant venus number of
    71 was found in pieces of ochre(last post).
    when i read mithen’s piece on the subject,
    found on christopher seddon’s excellent blog
    of pre-history, i took a shot in the dark using
    mime as bullet into rémi simeon’s nauatl
    diccionario and found myself face to face with
    the wordstring that describes neander, who,
    for symbolic reasons i’ll call matty=mati(N)=
    know=matimatica(sp=mathematics. the verb
    that converges with mithen’s mime/mimar/
    imitate theory=imati(N), which has 2 meanings:
    1)prudent, sharp-eyed, sagacious, well, that’s
    matty=mati(N)=(s)ma(r)ty, 2)to be better,
    to be convalescing, which explains the herbs
    found at shanidar, the medicine=metl(N)=
    mettle=mead=metis(first goddess of wisdom,
    a medicine goddess)=metl(N)=the maguey medicine plant=miel(sp)=mead=mëd(rus)=
    methe(gk)=drink to cure matty’s hereditary
    ills. this explains why matty was centric,
    did not route trade and was outsourced
    by the out-of-africa/oafs, i.e., s/he had to be
    near pamaca(N)=p/pha(r)macy, and supports
    Onix’s post on infrequent breeding.
    additionally, one can arrive at the same point
    by examining the nauatl name for fire and the
    first god, tletl(N)=t/l/red/l/t/l, who was also
    known by the amplified version, xiuhtletl(N)=
    god, Lord Turquoise, xiuh(N)=herb, =herbfire,
    lord of herbs, time, comets, the year.
    right there we have the connexion of promethean
    fire beginning everything to do with time, stars,
    years, and medicine. all come to a boil
    with the gift of fire, which matty used 300k yrs
    before us, time enough to become mati(N)=know.
    oh, and if one doubts nauatl is pie, take the
    sanskrit, mati(skt/noun)=consilium of elders:
    nouns are from verbs, the only part of speech
    preceding verbs are the action adverbs,
    e.g., uic(N/adv)=wick=uica(N)=vicar(E/verb&noun).
    mati’s entire wordstring begins with, ma(N)=
    hunt land/sea with net=matlatl(N)=mano(sp)=
    so mati(N) begins with net(verb)=ma(N),
    then goes to hand=maitl(N)/mano(spLat),
    and at mati(N) is expressed in english by
    the noun/verb, grasp(E), which is, gra(s)b,
    even, g(r)a(s)p/gasp, gap?=to bridge it,
    connect, gapping spark plugs so other parts
    of the motor understand each other, but
    the latent symbol is of a hand=maitl=mati(N).
    the ma(N/verb) wordstring also threads to
    the deer/mazatl(7/soultones) nomad age,
    the bottleneck which began the service of
    blood religion as we know it today.
    that’s another post which begins with,
    noma/nomatka/nomatzinco(N), at 40k bc.

  10. …it’s a new discipline with old, old roots,
    a parallel tool to use beside shovel and
    bone archeology based on linguistics and
    the assumption, correct, that nauatl is
    not only pie, every language on the globe,
    but, developed for us by neander,
    who was the only species that talked
    or mimed or had a form of speech
    before us, was our prometheus,
    gave the soul start to our species,
    bred with us about 80-120k bc in
    the mideast and was absorbed into
    homo sap sap.
    the real message is not found in DNA,
    but in words, myth, sky mapping,
    early medicine, ochre revivla burials,
    the transfer of promethean knowledge,
    which we have ever so lightly acknowledged,
    while ridiculing them in our arrogant certitude.

    the language nauatl is in dictionary form,
    found here in mexico, compiled by the
    frenchman, rémi simeon, 1875, arrived
    mexico in 3309 bc, the oldest mayan date,
    before pyramids and before the tower of
    babel divided language.
    have a look at it. i’ve rendered the letter code
    that leads into other languages, e.g., japanese,
    the southern chinese language yue, arabic,
    german, everywhere i break words, it’s there,
    in ethiopian omotic, guangxou.
    the only factor that explains ubiquity is
    it came out of neander promethean cave
    complexes stretching from the dordogne,
    where it began, to the furthest range of neander,
    the altai. with it comes a calendar, the oldest in
    the world, the red deer calendar, whose
    nomad age began 40k bc, but neander began
    naming things at 300k bc. language is older
    than the bone available to diggers, or at least
    it’s complement, and it talks, which bone doesn’t.
    the spirit, which language is the soul=
    tonalli(N)=tone/tune of flesh
    and physical remains.
    i am exhuming it’s eternal micro-biology
    and wringing accounts of unwritten history
    out of it, e.g., the rope age of 4k bc
    which historians totally missed.
    however, if you are one of those people
    who are prideful of what you know and are,
    habituated to old, cemented matter knowledge,
    inflexible, and lacking in the humility necessary
    to let material flow into you, speak to you,
    and dialogue with its past to present ghosts,
    then pass my posts by, as i didn’t get where
    i am in this sound study anchored in letter
    by wasting my time arguing and being combative in the traditional acceptance market common and current scholars truck into.

  11. …having said that, let me share one of my searches with you:
    knowing that solstice cave bear worship
    is a neander worship, an animal now extinct
    as it was sacrificed each year to keep the
    sun, tonatiuh/anthony rolling on its shortest
    day, which is the very basis of religion, fear,
    that the soul=tonalli(N)=tune/tone of our
    universe will stop, i went looking for the
    word, bear, in my pie nauatl diccionario
    after having glossed finnish bear worship
    and found hopeful signs i was on the
    naua trail, e.g., rakka(Finn)=sin bear commits to leave heaven and descend
    through the pine tree, the first cross, as
    the bear=first christ. rakka=r/l/tlaca(N)=
    body, yes, sin comes from body, also,
    tlaca is old teuton/OHG for bear.
    the word, bear=b/p/fear(E)=f/pe(a)t/l/r=
    petla(N/verb)=to throw, later, the noun,
    petra(Lat)=piedra(sp)=instruction for bear
    (throw a rock), and, warning, he will throw
    himself at you, im-pet-uously.
    to redden, be ashamed=
    burn(E). well, that makes the minimal sense
    i require to go forward through the fog,
    as sin shames/reddens one.
    the preterit=opinauh(N)=opinion(E).
    then once the bear is sacrificed, eaten(communion, the first),
    his bones are scattered around the pine cross
    and his head hung in the tree,
    he takes his place in the heavens again,
    perhaps the pleyades near orion.
    i’ll spare you the full study which appears
    somewhere on the net under my name,
    except to say the finnish comes out of
    nauatl, e.g., hirvi(Finn)=deer=ciervo(sp)=
    cerf/serf=ce(r)uentli(N)=one offering=
    seven=mazatl(N/7 tonalamatl)=deer.
    one day, leafing through nauatl i come
    upon, iueli(N)=powerful, and start turning
    it in my mind with letra, =ue(N)=big(way)=
    uel(N/reverential), everytime i hit on a
    reverential the light goes on. uel=well(E)=
    ver=v/ber/l(letra)=be(a)r. there it is,
    the ritual root for, bear, now, we milk
    other words out of it using letra to see
    where they go in time and space=hier(Fr)=
    yesterday, hmmm, close, ah, hiver(Fr)=
    winter, that’s it, solstice bear iueli(N)=
    iberia(peninsula of bear worship)=
    hibernia(island of bear worshippers=
    irland/island/ilantli/N, cf., zeus/chronus
    war)=hibernate(E), of course!
    Inverness(scotland and ireland switched
    populations several times in pre-history)=
    we’re still not done, iueli(N)=iver/li(letra)=
    ivory(E)? hmm, what do we know about
    ivory, well, it belongs to the elephant=
    olliphant(name)=ollin pantli(N)=
    the holy/rolling flag=pamitl(N)=
    p/famille(Fr)=family. the liber linteus,
    the etruscan linen holy book is written
    in burnt ivory. hmmm, some other names
    for ivory, iberian, aha, marfil(sp)=ivory=
    ma(r)pilli(N)=child of the hand. wow!
    neander had 5 fingers, but no thumb=
    mapilli(N)=mapiloa(N)=to point=map(E).
    so, bringing in data from the galaxy=
    g/calaqui(N)=come home(enter house/calli),
    the small ivory venus figurines, one 35k bc,
    were used by neander and weak-thumbed crosses to strengthen the mapilli(N)/thumb
    with marfil(sp)/ivory/iueli(N) by carving
    and handling, thumb toys=toyaua(N)=spill.
    the venus of course has a name in naua/
    neander=tlatla-tzol-teotl, regent of the
    tonalamatl(N),=flame-hole-thea, whose
    animal=ocelotl(N), many words there.
    we see her hunting cattle with her cats at
    çatal huyük, and a cheetah dance, oh,
    not just earth=chthonic=spark=
    chi-/on top sunfire/tone/tona-tiuh(N).
    here we see neander/neandra’s metaphor
    connecting fire with solar fire.
    i hope some of this makes sense to you,
    the disparate gathering of data from near
    and far, you see language was created by
    a brain different than ours, one that at first
    doesn’t make sense to our common strength, focus, the fallen angel learned the hard way everything is connected, we are still novices.
    the earth and what happens on it is a
    tight weave action/reaction and consequence, something we are just beginning to learn, we’re not even close
    to his wisdom and sagacity because it’s
    the naua for time=the flowing of being=
    c/g(r)avity, we have not even approached
    his status as thinker, manager, not
    entirely our fault for, civilization=
    ciuia(N)=stimulate, prosecute, activate.
    these are words that weigh against language,
    our very modus vivendi separates us from
    the fallen angel and structure of his idiom. it’s hard to say what we are,
    if we keep warring, i guess, butchers,
    altho, our goal is to be, talkers=tlatoani(N),
    and it may be possible, now that pie nauatl
    has come around the corner of the past
    like an aging comet to go by us once again,
    to restore ourselves to the eternity=
    that is, revive ourselves by the lips of
    eternal longevity speech has always
    reserved for us, patiently waiting for us
    to refurbish the meanings and tunes
    within it so we can correct by words
    and then actions the subtle erosion of
    our character by civilization(a contradiction)
    and politics(a destructive prefix in naua,
    which at its most positive=
    i did not relate bear=
    to the tonalamatl, =oz-totl(N)=cave=
    host(E/christian communion).
    the present ozomatli(N/11)=monkey,
    the common thread being both look
    like man.
    11=the death lord, mictlantecuhtli,
    and ozo-=çoa(N)=bleeder=zoon,
    ozo-, a preterit form implying
    ancestry(neander knew he came
    from a monkey, from everything
    that bled, and all else that didn’t),
    the tonalamatl joins monkey to
    the flower prince, a christ feature,
    even mozart=7 ozomatli(the flower
    prince twice!).
    my cup runneth over,
    bring in the mop=mopiloni(N)=
    what is subjected, tied, hangs=

  12. Homo has probably always been just one species. And there has probably always been some gene flow amongst the regional populations of Homo. Neanderthals were just another semi-isolated regional population of our species.

  13. “And there has probably always been some gene flow amongst the regional populations of Homo. Neanderthals were just another semi-isolated regional population of our species”.

    I think that is correct. Especially considering the latest post about the Chinese discovery.

  14. Late to the game, and I’m shocked no one else has pointed out the really glaring error here — humans are *not* the most sexual of all primates. Bonobos top that by an enormous margin. Really, we don’t greet each other casually on the street via a few seconds of — whoa, HI THERE!

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