Bram Boroson, Master of Subtle Ways and Straight (bram) wrote,
Bram Boroson, Master of Subtle Ways and Straight

I have many things I should be doing, and want to be doing--job applications, astrophysics research analyzing particular star systems, my own idiosyncratic discrete models of quantum mechanics, finding a good sushi place to take a date--but for a while I've been musing about certain topics in history and anthropology, and I feel inspired this evening to finally write a public LiveJournal entry. So this is an indulgence; once out of the way I'll put schnoz to the grindstone.

As I've been getting older, I've been thinking more about history. My thesis advisor, I remember, told me about how interested he was in history. I think as one ages one looks more for a larger perspective of where we humans came from... So there are a few strands of these speculations I'll cover in this entry.

One item in the news from a couple of months ago: the genome of several Neanderthals have been mostly decoded and compared with those of modern human populations. The main investigator was this Swedish guy working at the Max Planck Institute for Anthropology in Germany, Svente Paabo. The intriguing result is that non-African populations have 1-4% of their DNA from Neanderthals.

One can get a little queasy that investigations into human origins like this could be fuel for racists, and racism truly is rank bullshit. At least in this case the results kind of hack away at the received racist stereotypes; Neanderthals in popular culture are often depicted as subhuman, and white people have enslaved and oppressed Africans and white supremacists have often derided "mud peoples" as impure mixtures (when it turns out non-Africans are the mixtures). In the big picture it's so obvious that racism has been a driving force in human history and that the ways people measure "races" (African-Americans for example, can carry DNA anywhere from mostly African to mostly European) and measure differences are so biased as to be meaningless--even genes are expressed in different ways in different environments, the expression linked to fetal environment, diet, etc. etc.

But that aside, I think it's kind of neat to accept this new information into one's worldview. It brings the distant past in greater variety down into the present. There have also been recent discoveries of other closely related hominid fossils--one in Siberia, and the celebrated Homo Florensis that only disappeared 13,000 years ago, the island "hobbits". So our myths peopled by elves, trolls, giants, dwarfs--that could represent a kind of lonliness for our missing also-human cousins.

The Neanderthals one can now assume were in our own species--at least according to the definition that they produced fertile offspring with us--unless, as was pointed out in one blog I read, one decides to call all non-African people members of a non-species, sort of like freak fertile mules! But before one goes too far, from what I understand the Neanderthals still were pretty different from modern people. They were, I gather, about 5 times further away from us, genetically, as the most far-flung people nowadays are from each other. Their mitochondrial DNA line, passed from mother to offspring, no longer survives. Given that I myself am stocky, muscular, with a big nose, prominent eyebrows, and small jaw, one might speculate about where in that 1-4% range I'm in--but for perspective on how different they were, it's worth realizing that unlike modern humans, Neanderthals couldn't even throw a spear because their arms and joints just weren't built for it. They apparently were very muscular, and hunted by getting up close to Mammoths and spearing them (pretty badass!)--instead of throwing the spears or shooting arrows like modern folk.

By the way, it's amusing and sad how the internet kind of levels scholarly achievement... Any science crank with good web skills can make a case to the public in a way most people can't see through... For example this site on Neanderthals (which bizarrely claims the recent study supports it), which superimposes a Neanderthal skull inside a chimpanzee head without regard to orientation, 3D shape, or scale, in an attempt to mythologize Neanderthals, in a contrarian fashion to current research, as nonhuman.

In actuality, Neanderthal and human lines are supposed to have diverged 500,000 years ago. As the received timeline gives modern human emergence as occurring 100,000-200,000 years ago, my uneducated guess is that either some of what made both lines human happened in parallel or there was some intermixture still in that time period. DNA analysis has shown that Neanderthals had the modern human version of the FOXP2 gene, which in the popular press is called the "speech gene". One (British I think) family which, by inherited mutation in this gene, had developmental problems which included being unable to pronounce words such as "hippopotamus", led to the association of this gene with speech. (I think birds also have a different version of this gene from other animals, perhaps related to their singing syntax.) But the role of FOXP2 is actually very complicated. It turns on and off a whole bunch of other genes in the course of development and life:

This is a network of the interconnection between FOXP2 and other genes. This reminded me a little of computer hackery--that sometimes randomly messing around with computer software you find something interesting--I remember in high school we had these PET computers that had only characters and no graphics. They had a memory add-on called "toolkit" that let you do "advanced" stuff like "trace" the BASIC program as it ran. You started up the "toolkit" by typing, "SYS 45056". One day I tried instead "SYS 55056", and found that it would give interesting behavior, always different--once it affected the computer's display so that the characters shrank into dots which followed each other around in a rotating ellipse--it seemed like magic to the other kids. Anyway, the power of random tweaking at the hardware level where things are interconnected--that seems to be underlying evolution.

Also it's interesting to speculate about what the importation of Neanderthal genes did for people... Could it have been that it wasn't so much a matter of benefit to individuals but to the population, to have these genes? Humans tend to live in tribes, and as baseball players play infield or outfield, we specialize in different skills and work best when there is variety and balance. The first hybrids with Neanderthals must have knocked out some genes in which the non-Neanderthals (I'll call them Cro-Magnons) had evolved differences from chimpanzees, but Neanderthals had retained the ancestral version, and vice-versa. But for example, if gene 1 had evolved in Cro-Magnons and then gene 2 evolved thousands of years later, was the interaction with gene 1 necessary to the success of gene 2 or not? Probably this depended on the case. And vice-versa--the hybrids would have some new Neanderthal genes which had never been paired with the ancestral genes--and some hybrids must have had the novel genes from both ancestors.

Apparently the tools of the Neanderthals were a little more primitive than the tools of the Cro-Magnons, but not out of the range of what one might consider cultural variation. There's evidence that Neanderthals created musical instruments, like this 40,000 year old flute carved from a bone from a bear cub:

And a diagram reconstructing how the full instrument may have looked:

There was speculation that the holes could have been bite marks of a carnivore, but there were no marks on the other side (from the lower jaw). The spaces on the flute mark do, re, mi, fa notes!

We don't know why the Neanderthals died out. There's some evidence modern humans killed them off. Also, they were adapted for Ice Age conditions, and may not have competed well with modern humans who could hunt with bows and arrows from far off, and who needed fewer calories to fuel their less-muscular bodies.

* * *

In other news that has fueled my imagination and speculation, I've had snippets of my own DNA decoded, now that there are some affordable services that do this. I'll try not to blab too much about this, as it's pretty private information! Yet it's also very interesting, and it's motivated me to learn more about genetics and human populations and history, branching out from self-absorption to curiosity about the wider world.

There's been lots of speculation about where Jewish people come from, how closely related we are really to the ancient Hebrews of the Bible. Some of this speculation may have come from anti-Semites, religious nuts who admired the Hebrews who brought into the world the religion that would give Christianity as an offshoot--and yet thought that actual Jewish people were kind of schmucky, and couldn't have been related. There's also been legitimate speculation about a mysterious ancient Turkish group called the Kazars (the subject of a very interesting, playful, and experimental novel by the late Milorad Pavic) that may have converted to Judaism. And throughout the Jewish diaspora, there's been no way to know how much intermingling there's been with the European populations in whose midst the Ashkenazi or Sephardic populations lived.

Well, it turns out I'm pretty closely related to the populations that currently inhabit the Middle East, including Palestianians, the Druze, and Bedouins.

One interesting side-note is that my "paternal haplotype" (Y chromosome passed from fathers) as far as I can tell may be more common among coastal populations in the Levant than inland populations. One subset of Jews (not me), often with last name "Cohen", are reputed to have descended from the temple priests, and ultimately to be descend from Moses' brother Aaron. Actually there is no archeological evidence for Moses, or the Patriarchs of the Bible! Perhaps some day such will be forthcoming. There was a kingdom of David centered on Jerusalem, but it's a matter of some dispute how extensive this kingdom really was, and Jerusalem existed as a city before the Jewish people got there.

In any case, I might speculate that this Middle-Eastern coastal population I partly descend from may be a remnant of the ancient Pheonecians, seafaring people, centered mostly on Lebanon and northern Israel, who have mostly disappeared from history in spite of introducing the first real alphabet.

From the Bible as a text one imagines the Israelites influenced by ancient Sumeria: the epic of Gilgamesh also carries the story of a flood, and Hammurabi like Moses had a code. Though there's no evidence outside of the Bible for the Israelites being slaves in Egypt, there was an Egyptian pharoah, Akhenaten, who briefly introduced monotheism to Egypt.

But it is interesting also to look at history from the vantage not just of the inland peoples, but those on the Mediteranean coast. The Odyssey for example gives a picture of what life might have felt like at the time. And it's also interesting to think of forerunners of the Israelite population. We often think that we can trace origins back through history, that my ancestors were Jewish, full stop. We retell the stories of those who were coerced into renouncing the defining monotheism of our heritage, we recount all the times we had our asses handed to us, by Babylon, by Rome, and yet persisted... And yet somewhere in that ancestry, there were probably Canaanites, Phoenicians, whoever--who were coerced into this newfangled Jewish religion that sprung up perhaps from some Bedouin goatherders inspired by rumors from Egypt, while other Bedouin goatherders still in the 21st century toil on in that ancient goatherding life as if all of this history passed them by!

So it's a change of perspective to look at the map of Europe and see instead of the land-masses and river-beds that gave rise to the inland nations, the "cradle of civilization" also centered on the Mediteranian Sea, birthing the Greeks, Carthage, the Phoenecians with their fancy triple-decked rowing ships trading prized purple dyes... I imagine it in some ways idyllic, the sun and sea, trading olives and wine and spreading an early version of a cosmopolitan life...

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