Category Archives: Neanderthal

On the Feasibility of Cloning a Neandertal

Scientific American has just posted a very cool interactive feature online today that’s  entitled “Twelve Events that Will Change Everything.” One of these game-changing events,  suggests the magazine,  will be human cloning.

The section on human cloning is relatively short,  but it includes several points of interest.  As regular readers here know,  I take a strong interest in scientific research on Neandertals,  particularly on  developments that could lead to the cloning of this extinct hominin.   Read more…

Another Step Closer to Waking the Dead

This has been quite a week for ancient DNA stories.  First, the feature article in Archaeology magazine about the possibility of Neanderthal cloning.  And yesterday,  a research paper in Nature reporting the success of an international team in reconstructing the ancient genome of a 4000-year-old man from northwestern Greenland.

The latter project clearly takes us one step closer towards the ability to clone a Neanderthal,  the subject of my last two posts.   But today,  I’d to focus on the new research from Greenland and what I think is important about it.

The team, led by Eske Willerslev,  a very, very  media-savvy researcher at the University of Copenhagen (whose work I have posted on before), obtained its ancient DNA from a tuft of human hair  excavated by an archaeological team in 1986 from a site in northwestern Greenland.  Willerslev and his colleagues make a strong claim that they have ruled out modern contamination.

The archaeologist who excavated the hair has gone on record stating in the 87 pages of supplementary material posted by  Nature that none of the ethnic Greenlanders on his team touched the sample.   He also affirms that no one who was likely of Asian descent handled the hair later during its storage in the museum.

So the team does indeed seem to be working with an uncontaminated ancient sample.  And Willerslev–an expert on ancient DNA–and his Ph.D. student Morten Rasmussen report that the team has reconstructed 80 percent of the nuclear genome.  Based on this,  the team has learned a number of things.

Number one,  the hair belonged to a man who descended from northern-eastern Siberians who migrated to the New World as early as 6400 years ago.  Number two,  the individual in question had blood type A+, brown eyes,  dark skin,  a predisposition to baldness, a genetic adaptation to polar cold,  and other identifiable traits.

Archaeologists already knew, however,  from decades of painstaking study of artifacts that the early Greenlanders descended from northern Asian migrants.   No surprises there.  What is new,  and I think very exciting,  are all the  details of appearance and physiology that have come to light about this particular  individual– gleaned from just a few hairs.

Archaeology has never been very good at getting down to the level of the individual, particularly in that vast expanse of time we call prehistory.   Excavations of  house floors,  middens,  and shell mounds supply a lot of information on families,  communities and populations.   But they rarely say much if anything about individuals.  And in places like North America,  archaeologists try very hard now to avoid digging human remains–a major source of information about individuals–out of respect for Native American beliefs.

So this new ability to glean a lot of information about an individual from a human hair is bound to come in extremely handy,  and I applaud the Danish team for their success.   But its clear to me that such techniques are yet another worrying step along the road to cloning an ancient human or an ancient hominin.

The Danish led team is trying to calm our fears.  “The genome we’ve reconstructed is no Frankstein’s monster,”  team member Rasmussen told EurekAlert!.  “It’s more like we’ve got the blueprints for a house, but we don’t know how to build it.”

For how long,  I wonder.  How long.

Reconstruction/drawing of Inuk by Nuka Godfredtsen.

Politics, Science and the Cloning of Neanderthals

As some of you will know,  I posted yesterday on the ethics of cloning a Neanderthal,  a subject I have been thinking about after reading an article Zach Zorich wrote for Archaeology magazine. Today Zach left a thoughtful response in the comments section of that post,  raising a number of key points.  I’d like to reply.

But first let me briefly summarize  Zach’s remarks. He notes that all the researchers he interviewed for the piece are well aware of the ethical dilemmas of such cloning and that each had given serious thought to these matters–even though such clones are clearly somewhere off in the future.

Then Zach took exception to the comparison I made between the science of creating a Neanderthal clone and Stalin’s desire to fabricate an army of “humanzees”,  human-chimpanzee hybrids.   As Zach points out, “this isn’t some mad scientist’s scenario for world domination.”  Cloning research, he points out, is part and parcel of a larger picture of legitimate medical research,  and any heavy-handed legislation to prevent Neanderthal cloning could wreak havoc with projects designed to extend and protect human life.

I see Zach’s points here, and I share his concerns about heavy-handed legislation.  I’d hate to see a law block an entire line of desperately needed medical research.  But having said that,  I still can’t shake off my anxiety about what could happen further down the road if and when science is indeed capable of cloning a Neanderthal.

Even well-meaning scientists, after all,  are unable to foresee all the consequences of their research,  as some have discovered to their rue.   In the 1960s,  for example, Norwegian researchers developed a new and very lucrative technology for ocean net-pen farming of Atlantic salmon.  So great were the profit margins that a bedazzled Canadian government agreed to permit the same technology–with the same fish–on the British Columbia coast.  Large corporations began farming Atlantic salmon in pens off the British Columbia coast in 1984, leading to the escape of tens of thousands of these alien fish into the  Pacific Ocean.  Today Atlantic salmon gobble up wild food and threaten native salmon species.

So even when guided by the best of all possible intentions,  scientists can create futures they never envisioned.  And it seems to me that when the stakes include the creation of another of our close human relatives that we need to exercise extra special care.  I think that means taking  into account worse -case scenarios, even one as dire as the intentional creation of Neanderthal clones by a malevolent political regime for the purpose of slave labor.

As Zach notes in his comments (and  I should mention in the interests of full disclosure that I know Zach and that he is my editor at Archaeology), my worst-case scenarios do indeed draw on the research I did for my book on Hitler’s archaeologists.  In fact, one of the things that struck me most forcibly during my four years of research and writing on the book was how terribly susceptible science is to political influence.

Most scientists need laboratories,  expensive research equipment,  and academic appointments  in order to pursue their research.  Corrupt regimes know this and they reward pliable scientists with prestigious jobs and ample research funds.  Conversely, they weed out their opponents from universities and cut off their research funding.  In Nazi Germany,  these simple strategies convinced many scientists to pursue lines of state-approved racial research that they would probably have never considered otherwise.   It could certainly happen again.

All this is to say I’m very uneasy with where this cloning research might lead us in the years to come.  I’d like to see legislators at the UN draw a line in the sand.  Cloning research for medical purposes is an important pursuit.  I’m all in favor of it.   But we should never allow cloning experiments to create Neanderthals.


Why We Should Worry about Neanderthal Clones

Should we clone Neanderthals?  That’s the provocative question that science writer and editor Zach Zorich poses in the forthcoming issue of Archaeology,  hitting the news stand on February 15th.  I received an advance copy late last week and read Zorich’s article this weekend. I’ve been thinking about this question ever since, and already I have arrived at my own  answer.  No.  No.  NO.

First of all,  I should point out that this is not a pie-in-the-sky question.  Zorich interviewed an impressive A-list of researchers–including geneticists who are sequencing the Neanderthal genome and leading paleoanthropologists who study ancient hominins–and some clearly believe that a cloned Neanderthal awaits us somewhere down the line.

So it’s not too early to begin thinking and debating about the ethics of cloning one of our hominin kin.  While some researchers champion the idea out of pure scientific curiosity and the desire to learn more about an extinct hominin,  I think it’s a terrible idea.  I simply don’t trust my fellow Homo sapiens sapiens to treat another hominin with kindness and respect.  Our track record with other primates, for example,  is appalling–using chimpanzees for circus shows and laboratory experimentation, hunting gorillas for meat,  and killing orangutan mothers  in order to sell their babies as pets.

And here’s something else that worries me about a Neanderthal clone.  In the 1920s, the Soviet leader  Josef  Stalin ordered the researcher who perfected the technique of artificial insemination,  Ilya Ivanov,  to create a “living war machine. ”  Ivanov’s brief, as American writer Charles Siebert reports  in his remarkable book, The Wachula Woods Accord,  was to artificially inseminate chimpanzees with human sperm to create a new hybrid.

Stalin dreamed of a large,  invincible Red Army and a vast slave workforce to carry out his Five Year Plans.  He thought a chimp-human hybrid would serve admirably. According to Russian newspapers,  Stalin told Ivanov “I want a new invincible human being insensitive to pain,  resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat.”

Ivanov failed miserably to produce such chimp-human hybrid, though he certainly tried.   In 1930s,  the biologist fell from political grace and was exiled to Kazakhstan in one of the many purges of the time.

All this strikes me as an important cautionary tale.   What if one of the world’s dictators  got it into his head to clone Neanderthals as slave laborers or a new kind of soldier, one physically stronger than modern humans?   It sounds far fetched,  I know.  But I don’t think we can blithely ignore the lessons of history.

Did Ancient Humans Witness An Asteroid Explosion 200,000 Years Ago?

A few weeks ago,  I  received a very surprising press release from a Quebec archaeologist announcing evidence from the south of France pointing to a 200,000-year-old asteroid explosion. Serge Lebel,  a former associate professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal and now an independent researcher, is the principal investigator of a major Neanderthal site,  Bau de l’Aubesier,  in Provence.   He  now contends that he has found clear proof at the French rockshelter of a previously unknown extraterrestrial event.

I met Lebel in the early 1990s,  when I spent a week at Bau de l’Aubesier in order to interview  him and his team for a feature article.   Lebel struck me at the time as a cautious researcher:  he was very reluctant to speculate in any way,  or to go beyond the evidence he had in hand.  And since then,  he has made some important contributions to science.  In 2001,  for example, he was the lead author of  a major paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) on Middle Paleolithic human remains excavated at Bau de l’Aubesier.   The research seemed to be unfolding in a conventional way.

So I was a little taken aback by Lebel’s announcement.  We have now exchanged several emails on the subject,  and this, in brief,  is what I have learned.  The evidence for an asteroid explosion comes from H1,  a black, continuous 40-cm-thick layer at the site.  Lebel has long mulled over the origins of this layer:  it seemed far too thick and extensive for hominin hearths or fireplaces.  Now he has discovered 10  meteorites (all less than 2 centimeters in diameter), micrometeorites, and metal droplets in situ in the layer.  In addition,  H1 has produced flint tools coated with a silvery-colored deposit consisting of  chromium, iron, aluminum and titanium.  The chemistry of this silvery deposit,  says Lebel, “is the same as the extraterrestrial material.” And both the limestone deposits in the shelter and artifacts in the black layer show,  he says,   “the effects of an intense heat (over 4000 degrees Celsius.)”

Lebel contends that this evidence points to the explosion and fragmentation of an asteroid as it entered the earth’s atmosphere, sending a hail of meteorites to the ground.  And he proposes,  furthermore, that “human populations of this era were witnesses to this event.”  When I asked him if any researchers working on other sites dating to around 200,000 years ago had found similar evidence,  he noted that Bau de l’Aubesier is currently unique.  “The 180,000 to 200,000 years ago period is not well-documented around the world,”  he added.  “And at the geological time scale,  the event is a  ‘precise moment’ not always recorded in cave infilling.”

If I had never met Lebel or spent time at the excavations at  Bau de l’Aubesier,  I would have just deleted his first announcement.   Other archaeologists have turned up evidence of another purported extraterrestrial event–the possible explosion of a comet 12,900 years ago that may have triggered global cooling,  the extinction of certain species of megafauna and the demise of the Clovis culture.   But other research teams now strongly contest these claims. Today, for example, an international research team led by Francois Paquay,  a geologist at the University of Hawaii,  casts new doubt on the comet strike theory in an online paper in PNAS.  Paquay and his colleagues could not find any evidence of extraterrestrial debris in the 12,900-year-old layers they tested in North America.

All this, of course,  is good science,  as researchers test the comet-strike idea by searching for extraterrestrial evidence in their own data.   I’d personally like to see Lebel publish his findings soon in a good journal,  so that geochemists and others  can take a good look at it there.

-Heather Pringle

Pretty, Sparkly Things

Why did human beings first begin working metal?   A very cool new paper in December’s Antiquity reveals that the desire to beautify the human body had much to do with it.

An international team led by Benjamin Roberts,  a curator at the British Museum, scoured the scientific literature for the earliest known evidence of metal-working.  The paper trail led them to northeastern Iraq.   There,  at two sites,  Shanidar Cave and Zawi Chemi, pastoralists and farmers in the 11th century BCE left behind copper beads and pendants.  Human vanity,  it appears,  spurred early metalworkers to experiment with sparkly, blue-green copper ores.

I was a little perplexed at first by this mention of Shanidar Cave.  As some readers will know, Shanidar is most famous as a Neanderthal burial site.   Perched above the Zab River,  the cave was excavated in the 1950s by Ralph and Rose Solecki,  who recovered  remains of several Neanderthals,  including some who appear to have been deliberately buried.  When pollen experts analyzed soil samples from the cave,  they detected high levels of flower pollen– evidence,  in the view of Ralph Solecki  and his colleague Andre Leroi-Gourhan,  that Neanderthal mourners had ritually blanketed the body in flowers,   a very modern-human kind of behavior.   This research captured the public imagination,  and Ralph  Solecki’s later book,  Shanidar, The First Flower People,  is said to have  inspired writer Jean Auel,  whose novel Clan of the Cave Bear became a bestseller.

Critics,  however,  have long disputed this interpretation.  The excavators,  they note, detected no sign of a grave pit:  indeed it is very possible that the Neanderthal in question perished in an unfortunate accident,  when a large rock  slab fell from the cave ceiling.  That just leaves the famous pollen evidence.  But the skeptics have a very different take.  They suggest that it could have blown in during the excavation.

All this  controversy pretty much overshadowed the analysis of the later occupation  at Shanidar.  So I decided to take a look at the book the Soleckis and colleague Anagnostis Agelarakis published in 2004  on the 13,000 -year-old human remains that they excavated. Sure enough,  there was the reference to a copper mineral bead or pendant that likely came from the burial of an adult female.  “The specimen,” wrote the authors,  “was bright green in color,  with a kind of scaly coating on its surface.”

Metallurgical studies show that the bead was made from the mineral malachite and that it contained a high amount of copper.   Moreover,  the authors searched for the source of the copper.  The closest known source was in Anatolia,  some 400 kilometers away from Shanidar– a very long trek away.   But here is the detail that I liked best from the archaeologists’ description.   The bead,  they said, “seemed to have been much worn.”

One can only imagine how much a long-ago woman prized this pretty,  sparkly bead that was so unlike the  plain-jane shell and stone ornaments that others wore.   And it is truly fascinating to think that the world of metal that we live in today may well have begun with a gleam at someone’s throat.