The great modern vs. Neanderthal see-saw

Bow-and-arrow, technology of the first modern humans in Europe 54,000 years ago at Mandrin, France:

Consensus in archaeology has posited that mechanically propelled weapons, such as bow-and-arrow or spear-thrower-and-dart combinations, appeared abruptly in the Eurasian record with the arrival of anatomically and behaviorally modern humans and the Upper Paleolithic (UP) after 45,000 to 42,000 years (ka) ago, while evidence for weapon use during the preceding Middle Paleolithic (MP) in Eurasia remains sparse. The ballistic features of MP points suggest that they were used on hand-cast spears, whereas UP lithic weapons are focused on microlithic technologies commonly interpreted as mechanically propelled projectiles, a crucial innovation distinguishing UP societies from preceding ones. Here, we present the earliest evidence for mechanically propelled projectile technology in Eurasia from Layer E of Grotte Mandrin 54 ka ago in Mediterranean France, demonstrated via use-wear and impact damage analyses. These technologies, associated with the oldest modern human remains currently known from Europe, represent the technical background of these populations during their first incursion into the continent.

One of the questions is whether this could be Neanderthals. I think at this point there is a fair amount of genetic evidence for Neanderthal-modern contact well before the Upper Paleolithic expansion associated with non-African ancestry today. The Altai Neanderthal seems to have “modern-like” ancestry and Neanderthals have modern/African-like Y and mtDNA.

Could Neanderthals do bows and arrows? No idea. But this could clearly be modern humans, who seem to have pushed into Neanderthal territory several times. Did Neanderthals ever move into Africa? Who knows?

I do wonder though about William Calvin’s ideas that human brain development was triggered by throwing things. Perhaps Neanderthals didn’t have the locomatory abilities in this domain? Who knows.

What the Neanderthal could do

These Extinct Elephants Were Neanderthals’ ‘Biggest Calorie Bombs’ – A study of butchered bones from 125,000 years ago offers what researchers call “the first clear-cut evidence of elephant-hunting in human evolution.”:

By calculating the intensity and nutritional yields of the Neanderthals’ well-documented butchering activities, the research team offers further proof that our hominid cousins were cooperative hunters who knew how to preserve meat and might have lived a settled existence in large groups. The findings challenge the assumption that Neanderthals were basically nomads who lived in bands of no more than 25, in isolation from one another.

Central African Pygmies butcher forest elephants, so it’s not like we don’t know how this would work. So I guess all the old Neanderthal limitations are falling apart. Not entirely surprised. But we shouldn’t assume they were exactly like us…we need to find a balance.

The replacement of the Neandersovan Y and mtDNA?

Harvard Magazine has a nice piece up on David Reich’s biography and research. The section where Reich addresses the strange issues regarding Neanderthals jumped out at me, as I’ve had the same confused thoughts:

Reich is not resting on his laurels. As the data accumulate, and the tools become more sophisticated and powerful, he has begun revisiting some of his own prior interpretations of human prehistory, and coming to terms with what he describes as “weird signals in the current data.” Mitochondrial DNA shows that modern humans and Neanderthals are much more closely related to each other in the maternal line than either is to Denisovans. The Y chromosomes of modern humans and Neanderthals, passed only in the paternal line, are also much more closely related to each other than to Denisovans. “But then if you look at the whole genome, on average, Neanderthals and Denisovans are more closely related to each other than either one is to modern humans. Having an entirely male line and an entirely female line saying one thing, and then the rest of the genome saying something else, is weird.” The explanation some people give is that there may have been modern human mixture with Neanderthals further back in time than currently understood, somewhere between 250,000 and 400,000 years ago, and that contributed a few percent to the Neanderthal genome. “But it’s very surprising that only a few percent contribution would be the source of both the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA for Neanderthals.” Maybe contemporary non-Africans are actually Neanderthals, and later waves of modern human DNA from Africa swamped the rest of non-Africans’ genomes so “non-Africans are best described as Neanderthals, with 98 percent modern human mixture, or something profoundly philosophically unsettling like that,” he says, half seriously.

“There’s going to be a challenging of our understanding of these relationships” in the years ahead, Reich continues, “based on analyzing the data in more sensitive ways and looking at it from new perspectives. We’re taking a couple of steps back and realizing that key events and relationships are different, in a deep way, from the first-pass model we have collectively developed. The model that I’ve had a role in building is teetering. I find that exciting, as well as destabilizing. And I’d like to be part of trying to figure out the truth.”

Neanderthals clearly have a bit of “modern” human-like DNA from paleo-Africans. On the order of a few percent. But strangely, their Y and mtDNA seem to fit into a lade with modern humans, as opposed to the Neanderthal’s Denisovan cousins. This isn’t impossible; over time rare lineages will replace common ones. But what’s the chance that both Y and mtDNA from humans would replace that of Neanderthals? (probability of fixation of a new mutation is 1 over the number of gene copies)

Southeast Asia during the Eemian was a hominin paradise

Unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock, a new paper in Nature establishes that Homo erectus was present in Southeast Asia quite late in the Paleolithic. Last appearance of Homo erectus at Ngandong, Java, 117,000–108,000 years ago:

This dated sedimentary and taphonomic framework for the Ngan-dong bone bed does not support an overlap between modern humans and H. erectus in this region…Instead, the Ngandong fauna in facies A (140 ±24ka) pre-dates the rainforest-associated site of Punung (between 128 ±15ka and 118 ±3ka)…which agrees with the proposed biostratigraphical sequence of Java based on the palaeoenvironmental and associated faunal changes

Paleoanthropologists that I follow on Twitter seem to find the dating creditable. I can’t evaluate it personally, so I’ll take that as a given.

From what I can see the authors seem to be presenting a hypothesis where environmental shocks and decline led to the local extinction of the “erectus” lineages before the arrival of modern humans, perhaps 60 to 80 thousand years ago (depending on which archaeological dates you accept). It does seem likely though that Denisovans were still present when modern humans arrived, going by the latest genetic evidence, while best dating of the “hobbits” of Flores suggests they went extinct only 60,000 years ago.

First, I would bet that various hominin groups were around after their last presence in the archaeological record. I now think there’s enough circumstantial evidence to suggest “modern” African-related/derived humans were present in and around southern and eastern Asia around ~100,000 years ago. There is evidence of modern humans in Sumatra ~70,000 years ago. Also, there are signs of gene flow from modern humans into Neanderthals hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Flores, various Denisovans, early modern humans, and also now the hominins in the Philippines, point to a high degree of speciosity in Southeast Asia. This is not terribly surprising. Southeast Asia is a relatively “protected” area of Eurasia, and so can serve as a refuge during inclement periods. And, during the Pleistocene, its surface was much more extensive. Sundaland covered the western third of modern Indonesia. Many of the prime habits are almost certainly underwater today.

To step back, we also have to note that it seems the overwhelming proportion of ancestry in modern humans outside of Africa dates to an expansion from a very small group that began 50-60,000 years ago. We have some evidence, obviously, of uptake of Neanderthal and Denisovan ancestry. But no strong evidence of “first wave” modern human ancestry. I think part of this is simply the reality that if there was mixture at low levels with earlier groups of modern humans in places like Southeast Asia one may not have the power to detect it well because the two lineages are not particularly distinct, as is the case with Neanderthals/Denisovans vs. modern humans.

I put “erectus” in quotations because what do we even mean by this? Was “erectus” really a coherent species for a million years in Southeast Asia? I doubt it. It’s more of a catchall and placeholder from what I can tell. Before the expansion of 50-60,000 years ago, the Eurasian landscape was much more diverse in terms of humans. Neanderthals seem to be relatively homogeneous, but Denisovans not so much, and I think the same would apply to various “erectus” groups. I bet that once some ancient DNA comes back from China we’ll see more than just Denisovans ~100,000 years ago.

Denisovan dental morphology in East Asians and in the New World?

An interesting paper in PNAS, Rare dental trait provides morphological evidence of archaic introgression in Asian fossil record:

The recently described Denisovan hemimandible from Xiahe, China [F. Chen et al., (2019) Nature 569, 409–412], possesses an unusual dental feature: a 3-rooted lower second molar. A survey of the clinical and bioarchaeological literature demonstrates that the 3-rooted lower molar is rare (less than 3.5% occurrence) in non-Asian Homo sapiens. In contrast, its presence in Asian-derived populations can exceed 40% in China and the New World. It has long been thought that the prevalence of 3-rooted lower molars in Asia is a relatively late acquisition occurring well after the origin and dispersal of H. sapiens. However, the presence of a 3-rooted lower second molar in this 160,000-y-old fossil hominin suggests greater antiquity for the trait. Importantly, it also provides morphological evidence of a strong link between archaic and recent Asian H. sapiens populations. This link provides compelling evidence that modern Asian lineages acquired the 3-rooted lower molar via introgression from Denisovans.

You need to look at the supplemental Excel table. This morphology is not unknown among Africans and Europeans, so there is a base rate, though the authors seem to indicate this can be attributed to novel mutation. I don’t understand why introgression is more likely (from Denisovans) than selection on standing variation?

None dare call it multiregionalism

Dienekes Pontikos resurfaces with a post, Out of Africa: a theory in crisis. The title is a bit hyperbolic. But in Dienekes’ defense, he’s been on this wagon for over ten years, and the evidence is moving in his direction, not against him. I think a little crowing is understandable on this part.

With that being said, I think the biggest rethinking that we’re doing is less about where modern humans arose (Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, the Middle East), but how they arose. Some geneticists are quite open to the idea of Eurasian (Neanderthal?) back-migration to Africa several times (and out of Africa several times). Others are positing that a “multiregional” model might actually be about the situation within Africa.

A simple stylized model of a rapid punctuated expansion of humanity which replaces other lineages in toto is no longer likely. There has been widespread admixture, even though the last major demographic wave seems to be overwhelmingly predominant, at least outside of Africa. But the whole process might result in a much more complex history than we had thought.

The multiregional model is probably wrong on the details. The history of our species is not really phyletic gradualism and anagenesis. But there are also many processes and dynamics which a multiregional model takes into account and anticipates that probably are important in a general sense toward understanding the origin of our species.

Humans and the settlement of Asia

Current Anthropology has a bunch of articles related to the human settlement of Asia in its latest issue ahead of print. Aside from Martin Sikora’s most of them have a more traditional paleontological focus, so it’s pretty tough for me to understand them in context. But it’s all important to take in as we get a better and better understanding of the process.

All the articles are open access, so there’s no excuse not to read them!

The search for Eden opens up new vistas

The end of Eden

A particular conception of the “Out of Africa” model of human origins died in this decade. This model hooked into preexistence narratives about “Adam” and “Eve”, utilizing Y and mitochondrial DNA lineages passed down through direct male and female lines respectively. Its most extreme manifestation could be exemplified by Richard Klein’s ideas in the early 2000s outlined in his book The Dawn of Human Culture.

For Klein the chasm between Homo sapiens sapiens, humans, and other hominins was vast. A physical anthropologist who surveyed with skill the rapid expansion and proliferation of modern human cultures over the past ~50,000 years, Klein relied on a particular evolutionary model to explain how this occurred. He posited that humankind emerged in East Africa as a punctuated speciation event, triggered by a mutation which allowed for the development of fully elaborated recursive language.

The difference between our own lineage and our relatives in this framework was huge. To not put too fine a point on it, Neanderthals and other archaic humans were animals. We, Homo sapiens sapiens, were humans qua humans.

Though Klein was a paleoanthropologist, he gained great support from a school of molecular evolution which arose in the 1970s and 1980s under Allan Wilson. Wilson’s initial fame arose because he utilized a “molecular clock” analysis of primates to contend that the divergence of our human lineage from great apes was much more recent than paleontologists had believed. Eventually new fossil finds confirmed the molecular phylogeny. After this event Richard Leakey has stated paleoanthropologists were reluctant to challenge molecular results.

Wilson later focused on recent on human origins, utilizing mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down directly through the maternal lineage. In this way they found that African mtDNA lineages were very diverse, and that non-African lineages were nested within the broader tree of African lineages.

The conclusion from this finding was that modern humans arose in Africa and spread to other parts of the world. This conclusion in general has been confirmed.

But over the years more and more evidence has accumulated that the story is more complicated than the original narrative that all modern humans descend from a small bad of East Africans who populated the whole world ~50,000 years ago.

Dissenters from Eden

There were always geneticists who were skeptical of the neat Out of Africa with total replacement model. In Origins Reconsidered Richard Leakey recounts a conference in 1992 where he was pigeon-holed by geneticists who thought there was no reason to accept without dispute the mitochondrial Eve narrative. Over the years talking to some older geneticists I can say that Leakey was reporting a real undercurrent of irritation with the confidence that Allan Wilson’s group and their fellow travelers projected in relation to their model. Nordborg 1998 On the probability of Neanderthal ancestry reflects some of the technical objections to inferring too much from one locus when it came to the possibility of other components of ancestry.

When genome-wide analyses in the middle 2000s became feasible, a visible counter-culture within genetics argued that total replacement was not supported by the data. In 2006 Wall & Hammer published Archaic admixture in the human genome. They concluded that “Recent work suggests that Neanderthals and an as yet unidentified archaic African population contributed to at least 5% of the modern European and West African gene pools, respectively.” They were not that far off with European populations. As far as Africa goes, that is a question that will be explored in detail in the next few years.

That analysis though has only 44 citations. I have had debates on Twitter with how exotic and marginal these ideas were. In general it is safe to say that they were not exotic and marginal in the community of human evolutionary population geneticists. But that’s not a large set. Both John Hawks and Milford Wolpoff have indicated a lot of marginalization for models outside of the narrow window of Out of Africa with total replacement. From everything I’ve heard about the run up to the 2010 publication of the Neanderthal genome many of the principal researchers, including Svante Paabo, were totally surprised by the evidence of admixture into modern lineages. Wolopff even emailed me after I reviewed the paper to suggest that it felt so good to come out of the wilderness and have some of his views accepted.

Anagenesis and punctuation?

But were Wolpoff’s views accepted? The revised model actually kept much of the Out of Africa framework in place, except it added the wrinkle of assimilation of some archaic lineages. The dominant signal in the non-African genomes seems to have come from an African lineage which left around ~50,000 years ago.

The classical multi-regional model that Wolpoff was associated with, whereby modern humans evolved across the whole world from local archaic lineages, but maintained species cohesion through gene flow, was not supported. Rather, the archaic admixture of Neanderthals and Denisovans into Oceanians pointed to local continuities, which was a broader position of multi-regionalism. But this is not speciation without branching, anagenesis.

Nevertheless, there was another aspect of Out of Africa with replacement that needed revision. Though not explicitly outlined in many framings, one aspect implicit is that the dynamics that Africa and Eurasia were subject to during the emergence of modern humans were the same.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case. The ancestors of all non-Africans went through a major population bottleneck. On the order of ~1,000 individuals (this is a very large bottleneck actually, and I’ve seen numbers as low as 100, though that seems on the small side; calculating effective population size ~50,000 years ago can be tricky). The same is not true of African populations. Though many of them show signals of population declines during the Pleistocene, the extreme uniform bottleneck which characterizes all non-Africans, from Iberia to Australia to Patagonia is just not evident in Sub-Saharan African populations.

In other words, the Out of Africa event did not apply within Africa. Here’s an excerpt of an email I sent to Carl Zimmer in December of 2010 (he was updating the second edition of The Tangled Bank):

…it may be that there was no rapid antique population expansion in Africa which was analogous to [the] out of Africa migration. IOW, non-Africans are just a branch of Northeast Africans, and the Bushmen and other groups were already differentiated by that point. So you could theoretically remove the arrows within Africa! I think this is a subtle and tendentious point, so probably best to leave that as it is. But remember how deep the basal branching of the Bushmen was in the Denisova paper? It WAY predates any possible out of Africa migration by multiples.

Which brings me to the current year and the present time. The recent paper which utilized an ancient genome from South Africa to push back the date of the diversification of African lineages to about ~250,000 years before the present was not entirely surprising to me. Every time I talked to people who had access to African whole genomes their dates kept getting pushed back further and further into the past.

And of course we now have fossil confirmation that human populations which seemed to be anatomically modern (or close) were already present ~300,000 years ago in Morocco. The New York Times has a good overview of the work, Oldest Fossils of Homo Sapiens Found in Morocco, Altering History of Our Species. I read the papers and the commentaries and don’t have much to add, nor do they add much for non-specialists in my opinion (since we can’t really judge the morphology too well, nor do we have a detailed understanding of the fossil record). In one of the Nature letters the authors conclude in the abstract that “The emergence of our species and of the Middle Stone Age appear to be close in time, and these data suggest a larger scale, potentially pan-African, origin for both.”

This suggest to me anagenesis. Has multi-regionalism come back, but no within Africa?

Parameters, not paradigms

John Hawks has put in his two cents, and it’s always worth paying attention. My major take home is that we don’t know a lot even though we know more, and we need to be careful here. The genome blogger from the 2000s who has been relatively quiet over the last five years, Dienekes, resurfaced, dismissing the idea of pan-African anagenesis and asserting an Out of North Africa viewpoint. He’s been talking about this model since 2011, so there’s nothing new here. In January of 2011 he asserted that “Africa was home to a structured population.” That is what we are seeing today.

The publication of the Nature letters triggered a lot of discussion on Twitter. When I was involved it mostly consisted of Aylwyn Scally and Pontus Skoglund, with John Hawks, Chris Stringer, and others jumping into the stream. Here are some points which are of note:

1) Most people now suspect that large scale population structure within Africa over the past few hundred thousand years is a major story.

2) But there is an assumption that collapsing of that structure through gene flow was not reciprocal. That is, some populations likely expanded at the expense of others. The arguments are whether the assimilation of the secondary groups is on the order of a few percent, as seems to be the case in Eurasia, or a much higher fraction.

3) Because the phylogenetic distance between within African lineages is likely smaller than between Neanderthals and modern humans, as well as the likely similar census sizes and technological toolkits, I contended that it is not unreasonable to guess that as much as 20% of the ancestry of a daughter population of an expanding group could be from the local substrate. There was no great objection to this guess.

4) Remember, even simple mtDNA phylogenies as far back as the 1980s, as well as paleontological analyses of fossils, indicated that an Out of Africa movement into Eurasia. This was such a strong signal in the data that it was clear with even relatively little to go on. The situation for within Africa is not analogous, suggesting to me that an extreme model of replacement or gene flow across persistent demes in local regions is not tenable.

5) Ultimately, the issue will resolve on parameters of admixture and the nature of demographic expansion in the details. Instead of a tree, we will conceive of this as a graph, a trellis with lengths of different thicknesses.

6) Hawks brought up the fact that one reason classic multi-regionalism did not work is that the Fisher wave of expansion of favored genes is slower than the migration of humans. When I suggested it does not seem that the genetics of gene flow in plants, which do resemble classical multi-regionalism, were a good analogy for humans, Skoglund contrasted the sessile nature of the taxon in contrast to mobile humans. I did point out though that after favored alleles moved through migration into a population, there was often in situ selection. He agreed.

7) A key issue that both Hawks and Dienekes emphasize is that we don’t know the role that extremely diverged lineages from our own ancestors play in our story. That is, were there many modern human populations across Africa, interspersed with other human species? Or was there one modern human population that mixed with other species? We don’t really know the details of all of this.

8) I expressed skepticism of the idea of “behavioral modernity.” My reason for being skeptical is that the origin of modern humans is not as neat as we like to think, and the origin of “behavioral modernity” is also not as neat as we like to think. When the consensus was that humans emerged as a punctuated de novo event, ensouled by the Lord God on High 50,000 years ago (or, coming down from the skies as in Battlestar Galactica or in Larry Niven’s Ringworld), the idea of behavioral modernity kind of made sense. But it’s all more confused now (in any case, in Clive Finlayson’s The Humans Who Went Extinct he seems to be arguing that much of modern culture was invented by Gravettians, well after the Out of Africa event).

The consensus seems to be that rather than focusing on a set of human universals as behaviorally modern, we should look at the demographic patterns of the past to infer when our own lineage came into its distinctive being. Those of you who have read me for a while know this is already congenial to me, Luke Jostins’ plot of the encephalization of all hominin lineages over the past million years was suggestive to me long ago that our own lineage is not so special. Rather, something like us was probably inevitable so long as an asteroid didn’t wipe out large mammals once Homo erectus spread across the globe. Humanity is a destiny, not a lineage.

Pegging the human expansion of out of Africa

Genetic science is good at many things, but precise dates have not always been its strong suit. There are many reasons for this, and the possibility of variable mutation rates puts a major a barrier in our ability to get absolute precision. From what I can archaeology is a little better here, despite all the problems that this discipline has.

Early human occupation of a maritime desert, Barrow Island, North-West Australia:

. In this first major synthesis we focus on the dating and sedimentology of Boodie Cave to establish the framework for ongoing analysis of cultural materials. We present new data on these cultural assemblages – including charcoal, faunal remains and lithics – integrated with micromorphology, sedimentary history and dating by four independent laboratories. First occupation occurs between 51.1 and 46.2 ka, overlapping with the earliest dates for occupation of Australia. Marine resources are incorporated into dietary assemblages by 42.5 ka and continue to be transported to the cave through all periods of occupation, despite fluctuating sea levels and dramatic extensions of the coastal plain.

The best current work sees to suggest that unlike most world populations Australians have not experienced much turnover. That is, the first settlers are the ancestors by and large of the current native populations. If this is correct we’re getting some really clear lower bound values for the date of Neanderthal and Denisovan admixture into our lineage.