October 15, 2012

My Inner Neanderthal

I am an introvert, possibly an extreme one. While not necessarily a hermit, I don't generally tend to function well in the world of corporate cubicles or even offices, find it difficult to navigate the vagaries of office politics, and don't tend to define myself in terms of my title or position in the hierarchy. I an a pretty good consultant, perhaps because I'm good at coming into an organization from the outside and seeing the strengths and weaknesses of that organization, but whenever I find myself either willfully or inadvertantly pulled into the maelstrom, there is a primal part of me that screams to get out of there as fast as possible.

The last decade has seen a radical change in the way that we have come to understand the evolution of the human race, largely as a result of our ability to sequence the human genome and see how we have evolved over time by determining when a particularly gene or allelle first appeared.

So, what does this have to do with office politics? It turns out that a curious incident occurred in the human genetic structure about 35,000 years ago - we interbred with aliens. Half a million years before, there was the first great migration of humans out of Africa, probably during a global warming period - food became scarce in East Africa, and some (but not all) of the early hominids stayed put.

Our record of their travels is limited, because the older the fossil record becomes, the more likely that human bones and remains would get destroyed by flooding, burial, wildfires and so forth. This process occurred a number of different times, and each time it would strand a portion of humanity in a different environment - coastlines along the Indian Ocean, on lands such as the British Isles that was only periodically connected to the rest of Europe and so forth.

One of these stranded groups had gone north and west, forming a cultural group that extended from the area around Hungary, along the Volga north to Scandinavia and the Danube east to France and, across a land bridge that formed, to Prydhain, which would in time become the British Isles. When the glaciers came, many of these people died, but the ones that survived adapted, becoming shorter, brawnier of chest, their hair, going from brown-black to red, or to pale white in the Scandinavian regions. They became used to living in snall familial groups, and the survival skills they developed shifted from tribal hunting of large game animals to individual trapping of smaller animals - which meant that the skills that were emphasized tended to stress pre-planning, the development of more sophisticated traps, and long periods in relative isolation. Neanderthal women generally had to be more self sufficient, and both men and women were strong enough to handle many of the more physical activities that such a life demanded.

Over time, isolation started the process of speciation. These early humans adapted to their environment. During cold times, they would hibernate - their heart rate would drop dramatically, they would start metabolizing fat and they would sleep deeply for days on end. Their diet was high in protein (which could be converted to fat) though they did also eat nuts, grains and cold adapted fruits, which changed their dentition. They started communicating tonally - Neanderthal speech was probably more like song, whereas Cro-magnon speech was generally atonal and more consonant driven. They developed tonal musical instruments - nose flutes, for instance, early on as well (and possibly had other tonal instruments that have not survived).

They lived longer - a neanderthal could potentially live to be 140 years old, primarily based upon their hibernation. They could be brilliant improvisationalists, but tended to have poor cultural transmission (probably because the population was never very large). They also likely loved to fight, not out of hatred, but just simply because it was fun. They also partially domesticated animals early on - wolves in particular may have been domesticated first by Neanderthals. They periodically surfaced into conscious awareness, but for the most part probably lived in a timeless world of the subconscious - what people would refer to as a fugue state today.

Around 35,000 years ago, the ice retreated, and the CroMagnons that had been living in Northern Africa, the Middle East and Southern Europe followed. They met the Neanderthals, who had been apart long enough to be very nearly a separate species at that point, and the Neanderthals retreated to increasingly inhospitable areas - the Transcauscasus mountains in Hungary, Wales and the Highlands of Scotland, Finnland, the Basque region of Spain. They may have fought, but they also mated. It may have been that only Neanderthal men mating with Cro-magnon women were fertile while the other combination was not, or it may just be a sampling issue, but few people seem to carry Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA, although as much as six percent of the Neanderthal chromosome may have been infused in Cro-Magnon DNA.

A similar phenomenon happened (albeit farther back) in the Far East with Homo Denisovan. It's possible that the Denisovans and the Neanderthal were related, but also just as likely that Denisovans were just similarly cold adapted early hominids that ended up influencing the Melanesians and Australian aboriginals, to the extent that every so often a Melanesian is born with blonde hair, just as speciation had begun with East Asians developing epithelial folds as an adaptation to countering snow covered vistas.

The Neanderthals themselves were effectively absorbed by the Cro-Magnon, but their hybrid children gained both good and bad from both species. These hybrids likely tended to be intelligent, innovative, but not necessarily disciplined, were perhaps more pugnacious and less respectful of authority, preferred clan structures rather than disciplined hierarchies, as often as not had red hair, were argumentative and always loved a good fight, and were unusually gifted as singers. They were also more introverted, moody, and generally more restless around people, often seemed to be "fey-touched", were more easily depressed, and were more heavily influenced by seasonal change. If this sounds a lot like the Scots (and the Irish) this is perhaps not surprising. It is very likely that the Neanderthal population was high here 20,000 to 30,000 years before (and potentially that Neanderthals may actually have survived into more contemporary times, perhaps even 10,000 years before.

Red hair, in this case, may be the key. Red hair is rare in humanity - only 2%-3% of people globally have red hair, and even in Europe, that percentage is only about 6%. The places which have the highest concentration of red hair? Scotland, Ireland, the Basque region of Spain and Northeast Italy. While there's a tendency to think of the Norse as having red hair, this was generally true only after the Norse had begun raiding the West coast of Scotland (and intermarrying with the fiery red-heads there). Significantly, these are not far from areas where remains of Neanderthals were found. Red hair is due to the TRPM1 gene, which tends to occur frequently with the DRD4 7R gene. Most people in the world have DRD4 4R instead, but 7R shows up in Neanderthal DNA.

What make several of these areas intriguing is that the linguistic patterns of languages in this region predate the Indo-European waves coming from the Russian Steppes. While little remains of Pictish except for a few place names, those place names are distinctly unusual and don't follow the ancient Prydhain (very early Brythonic or Britannic) forms. While it's pure supposition (I would love to see genetic evidence here), it is possible that the neolithic Picts intermixed with the very early Celtic immigrants, and that these same Picts had Neanderthal ancestors (it's unlikely they were Neanderthals themselves, but there is evidence that this area had been inhabited from well before the last ice ages). Recently, a submerged land bridge has also come to light in the region to the north of the Hebrides that would have stretched, either directly or as a series of islands, all the way to Denmark during both the Ice Ages 12,000 and 14,000 years ago as well as the more intriguing ice age 32,000 years ago (England was also connected directly to the continent at those time), so it is possible in either of those scenarios for Neanderthal hybrids to make their way north, and then from there to travel along the Danube and other rivers directly to the Mediterranean. (The Norse followed the same route 1500-2500 years ago, and it seems to have been a natural trade route through Europe)

There are a few very ancient cultures in Europe that have puzzled historians and ethnographers for years. Three of the more intriguing including the Etruscans, the Scythians, and the Minoans. The Etruscans occupied an empire (Etruria) that at one time spanned from Latium, the future home of Rome, through much of Northern Italy and into parts of Greece and Switzerland. Their language bears some resemblance to the Minoans, and no resemblance to the Indo-European languages that originated in the Indus Valley. Intriguingly, red hair was fairly common among the Etruscans, and that trait manifested itself most famously in the red-haired Julius Caesar, an anomaly in the mostly dark-haired Romans. This hints that Neanderthals-Cro-Magnon hybrids may have settle Etruria from the north before the wave after wave of Mongol-derived inhabitants flooded the region.

Like the Etruscans, the Scythians are also shrouded in some mystery. Their name derives from the use of the Scythe as both a harvest tool and a weapon. It's likely that Scythia was a melting pot - a successive wave of proto-Persians streamed into the region from the south, meeting and intermarrying with the northern hybrids, creating a number of competing "countries" in the region. Among these were the Sarmatians, who lived on the Eastern border of Scythia. The Sarmatians were a semi-nomadic culture, but were unusual in that Sarmatian women were allowed to become warriors (something very rare in the Indo-european cultures), and these women may have ended up becoming the historical basis for the Amazons. Recent unearthed Ukranian burial grounds has proven unequivocably that Sarmatian women were honored as warriors.

Again, the record of the mythical Amazons (and some evidence of the historical Sarmatians) indicated that blonde hair was the norm in this culture, and that both men and women were large of frame and stature and heavily bearded. While no direct evidence for red hair exists here, the physical appearance and beardedness (Mongol beards tend to be slow growing and black) is suggestive. Moreover, some aspects of Sarmatian decoration are similar to those found both in Etruria and the Minoan culture, and again contrary to the pattern of the Indo-European invaders. Even more intriguing is the fact that Neanderthal remains have been found in caves in Croatia (within the same general area as Sarmatia) dating to 32,000 years ago, and Neanderthal suggestive fire sites have been found to 24,000 years ago.

Going on a very speculative limb here, it's possible that there was an arc of Neanderthal "settlements" that stretched up the Danube from the Middle East to Brittany, across the landbridge that crossed the English Channel, and that extended as far west as Ireland. The repeated ice ages and thaws forced the Neanderthals to alternately expand outward or become isolated at various times. As the diapora begun from East Africa up through the Middle East to the Indus Valley, the Neanderthal intermarried in the highlands (where their cold tolerance gave them a distinct advantage) but were defeated in the lowlands. Neanderthal hybrids would have the best of both worlds, physical strength and the deep thought processes that came from the semi-conscious Neanderthals (in the sense that they had comparatively little time sense), and ended up forming pockets in Sarmatia, Etruria, Northern Israel, possibly Mycenae in Greece, Spanish Basque, Brittany and Prydhain.

However, as the Earth warmed (due in part to increasing agricultural outgassing and slash and burn farming), even these descendants of the Neanderthals faced increased pressures. There's some evidence that both the TRPM1 and DRD4 7R genes are declining in the population overall, and may in fact become extinct within the next 200-300 years. On the other hand, the rise of "Silicon" outposts may be reversing this trend somewhat. The rise in Aspergers and high functioning autism (which may in fact be a manifestation of Neanderthal like mental characteristics) in areas like San Francisco, Seattle and Boston coincide handily with the growth in "Geek" populations there - software developers, engineers, artists and so forth. It would be worth doing a genetic study to compare the prevalence of DRD4 7R in those populations as compared to elsewhere in the US.

So, it may very well be that my dislike of offices stems from my Neanderthal heritage. Or it may not, but it's an interesting line of speculation nonetheless.

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