It sounds like an episode of a soap opera-Neanderthal Days of Our Lives or As the Neanderthal World Turns. Researchers have discovered that our early ancestors had many steamy “taboo” romantic affairs with each other and they weren’t even deterred by being related to their chosen sex partner. Neanderthals had sexual relationships with their relatives, including their own half siblings. They hooked up, had flings and even participated in long term romantic liaisons, but we can’t judge them by today’s standards which dictate that inbreeding is strictly taboo, say scientists. The dating pool was very limited in the Late Pleistocene era and the selection of mates among this group of Neanderthals was so tiny, dating between relatives was necessary.
Scientists were not prepared, though, for the extent of the inbreeding they discovered. The results of the study, recently published in the journal Nature, surprised them. Montgomery Slatkin , one of the lead researchers on the study, says, “What we were struck by most was just how complicated it is and how much interbreeding there was among all these human relatives. Every new fossil shows more evidence of more kinds of interbreeding.”
Researchers were able to determine the patterns of breeding between closely related Neanderthal family members by studying the DNA extracted from bones found during an archaeological dig in Siberia. The first DNA studied came from the remains of a toe that once belonged to a female Neanderthal. Scientists were able to determine that the woman’s parents had been very closely related, and that her lineage would have also included many additional relatives who also had parents who were related. The relationships could have been as close as half siblings or “double first cousins.” Other possibilities of the woman’s parentage could be a grandparent and grandchild, uncle and niece or aunt and nephew.
Scientist Sarah Tishkoff, who did not participate in the study, says that the amount of inbreeding between close relatives came as somewhat of a surprise to scientists. “(There were) complex migrations and interrelationships amongst these archaic people, much more so than we ever imagined. There may be more out there that we’re not even aware of,” she says.
Researchers also found a significant amount of breeding between different types of our early human ancestors, such as between Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens; and between a group of early humans called Denisovans and early members of our own species.
In the Neanderthal soap opera, we know that inbreeding and affairs were common, but what about their emotional life? Did our early ancestors feel anger, jealousy or a need for revenge over romantic dalliances? The jury is out on that question, for while we know they almost certainly had some kind of language, we also know they had enough pragmatism to leave behind a member of their group who became unable to walk. So while they may have felt some kind of empathy, that focus on the pragmatic may have rendered them not very apt to feel the emotion of jealousy or have a sense of someone “cheating” on them, although that’s just a guess. Much more research would need to be done to find out whether the Neanderthal Days of Our Lives and the many steamy “taboo” affairs between early ancestors would have also lead to dramatic close-ups, tears and a sense of betrayal; or whether they would have shrugged it off and gone out to look for the next relative with whom to have a fling.
By: Rebecca Savastio
Wausau Daily Herald