After the event last night about the worldwide Genographic Project, I caught up with Prof Dr Carles Lalueza‑Fox, the first speaker on the night, for a quick interview. He’s an expert on Neanderthals, or Neandertals I think we call them now. Named after the Neander Valley where the first specimen was discovered.
What first sparked your interest in studying Neandertals?
When the first Neandertal sequence was retrieved in 1997 I had been working on ancient DNA for a while, but then Neandertals seemed to be something in a different league.
In the first ten years it was only possible to get mitochondrial DNA from Neandertals.
For me, I really liked Neandertals and human evolution as a child. Ancient DNA was something particularly difficult at the time, and the thing that brought me to the subject.
How human do you think Neandertals were?
Yes, tricky question.
Haha, yes. It’s a very long question, a very difficult question. One must always take into mind our tendencies are always fluctuating. We saw them as a very primitive human lineage in the early 20th Century, but I’d say that now we’re turning to the point where we see them as very similar to us.
Maybe the best thing to think about Neandertals is they are more different from us than any modern human to any other modern human. That’s the way we should think about them.
If we want to think of them as a different species that’s fine for me, but there is a range of difference between us and the Neandertals.
The cuts found along Neandertal bones you suggest are evidence for cannibalism. Could they just be an example of de-fleshing prior to burial?
Well, yeah, it might be right in some circumstances. But this is not only cutting, you know de-fleshing the bones. It’s also fragmenting the bones with small stone tools, very small fragments, and even the skull, and the faces. For me it’s very difficult to think that this kind of post mortem activity is something more because this is a complete destruction of the bones.
It’s very similar to what we see in other sites with fauna, the bones are broken to extract the marrow in the same way.
And it’s a pretty common thing, well, not common these days, but certainly we humans have our own history of cannibalism.
Yes, well there are several sites with the signs in Neandertals. But you almost think that life was very tough and they were structured in very small groups, so the fact that you find another one… I mean you’d say “hey, we are Neandertals all of us,” but I’d say that’s a modern conception.
Whereas for them it might be “hey, you’re not one of my family I may as well eat you.”
Yeah, the idea of humankind, in fact, is very recent. After the second World War, and the UNESCO thing. So even the idea of humankind is more recent than we might think now.
And what do you think of the possibility of Neandertals and humans mating?
I think it’s plausible with the data we have. It was probably something that was a minority, restricted in time and space, it was nothing important in my view. The thing is we can detect it now in non-African modern humans is because this was an expanding population, so even a small event of just a few, say it was, this was amplified later on.