Neanderthals & race

Ian (
27 Mar 1995 22:43:03 +0100

I am a layman with an interest in paleontology. Can someone tell me if
the following sounds reasonable? (I realise that some of the dates
and details of glaciation/interglacials are hazy here):

1. Homo Erectus originated in Africa (or possibly Asia) and spread
throughout the Old World around 1.5 million years ago. Populations of
Erectus continued to evolve in various regions, especially in response
to repeated ice-age conditions, to produce (in particular) Homo Sapiens
Neanderthalensis in Europe: well-adapted to life in the cold. Such
adaptations we know from Neanderthal fossils to include a stocky,
powerful build, and a large nasal cavity (to moderate heat/vapour loss?).
I speculate that Neanderthals would also have had more body-hair
than their African ancestors (the popular image of a hairy ape-man-like
Erectus I'm sure is false), and they may have had bushy beards (as
some sexual-selection effect akin to manes in Lions) and also light-
coloured skin, hair and eyes (again perhaps by sexual selection, or
through some advantage in generating Vitamin-D).

2. Modern Homo Sapiens Sapiens originated in Africa and spread from
there to the rest of the Old World around 100,000 years ago. Presumably
these first modern humans were well-adapted to life in the tropics as
are today's Africans - ie they would have been tall and lightly-built,
with dark skin, hair and eyes, and relatively little body hair.

3. As the modern heat-adapted Africans moved into a cold Europe and
encountered the cold-adapted Neanderthals, what happened? Obviously,
we know that the modern humans prevailed and the Neanderthals became
extinct. But could such a wealth of cold-adapted genes accumulated by
the Neanderthals over hundreds of thousands of years leave no mark
at all when they would confer a definite advantage on the warmth-loving
Africans? Even if each subspecies was mostly utterly repugnant to the
other, we know it is only human nature that 'incidents' would occur -
from rape by one 'side' or the other to happy cohabitation, however
rare. (I am aware of some fossil evidence for interbreeding).
Whatever invading African tribe took on board a good selection
of Neanderthal genes (the phrase 'hybrid vigour' springs to mind here
also) would then have a distinct advantage over the others, and be
able to spread more deeply into Neanderthal territory. (Or was it
a Neanderthal tribe or two which captured the precious 'modern'
genes and wiped out their own kin? :) )

Whatever. I submit that the distinct features of Europeans - white skin,
blond or red hair, blue or green eyes, bushy beards and body hair - are
all actually Neanderthal features. It surely no coincidence that such
features are prevalent throughout the old Neanderthal homelands?

Please note that I have no racial axe to grind. I am happy to admit to
being part-Neanderthal myself. I am just interested in the truth.

If the above scenario has been seriously suggested before, (or refuted)
could someone please quote me a reference or two?