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[dc]“W[/dc]ho didn’t have Sex with Neanderthals?” was part of the title of a recent article on the scientific journal website LiveScienceIt turns out that the “only modern humans whose ancestors did not interbreed with Neanderthals are apparently sub-Saharan Africans.” New research indicates that those of European white, Asian, and North Africans ancestry “carry genetic traces from Neanderthals, modern humanity’s closest known extinct relatives.” Wow! That is something to think about.

neanderthal woman

My personal heritage derives from sub-Saharan Africa - at least in part. A few years ago I took one of those African Ancestry saliva DNA tests. It showed that my mitochondrial DNA (from my mother) closely matched that of the Ga tribe in Ghana and my male Y-chromosomal set (from my father) most closely matches the Bamileke people of Cameroon.

Most African Americans’ lineage derives from sub-Saharan West African ancestry but we have almost NO knowledge of specifics. Records are practically nonexistent and the first thing that slavers did was stamp out language and any other practices or indices of the enslaved Africans’ home cultures. Those things that human beings depend on for child rearing, social relationships, and passing on wisdom were stripped away immediately upon landing. The very few things that were hidden, kept, and passed along down generations are in our music, intertwined and camouflaged in Christian religious ceremony, encapsulated in seldom used children’s stories, and buried within our bodies in our DNA. Other than that, black people have cobbled together a defensive subculture out of the English language and elements of a Western culture that is structured to deny the equal humanity of non-Western, nonwhite peoples.

Young black folk are some of the most prolific, most creative, and most popular cultural artists on the planet. Their creativity is born of a need to recognize SELF at a deep level. Blacks have fashioned new “blues/Jazz” cultural forms in the midst of institutions designed to exploit and dispossess us. It takes hundreds of years to properly evolve a mature culture that will sustain and uplift a people in really powerful ways; sub-Saharan African culture, in its wholeness, was cut from African Americans (AA) and those years of positive cultural evolution have been forever lost.

However, any AA who has walked the streets of West Africa, as I have, knows that you see very, very familiar black faces on those streets. Genetic influences come out in very concrete ways in the movements and facial composition of those of us with African ancestry. My sister got an opportunity two years ago to go to the place where the Ga people live in Ghana. They immediately recognized her as a tribal member before she opened her mouth even though she wore Western clothing. Physical evidence of relationships persists.

Even though AA have sub-Saharan African ancestry, few AA can claim to be free of Neanderthal gene fragments. My grandfather, on my mother’s side, was the unacknowledged son of the white man, Wilbur Paup, who controlled land that blacks sharecropped in Texarkana, Arkansas. My mother’s grandmother was known to be a full blooded Cherokee. Like most AA I am thoroughly mixed and, therefore, Neanderthal is probably mixed in there somewhere.

Broad DNA studies show that Neanderthals emerged out of Mother Africa about 100,000 years ago. Evidence indicates that an “African group ancestral to both Neanderthals and certain modern human populations genetically split from other Africans beginning about 230,000 years ago. This group then stayed genetically distinct until it eventually left Africa.” Later out-migrating groups representing the “modern” human species, Homo sapiens, emerged out of Africa to interbreed with the Neanderthals to a tiny degree (1% to 4%) but mostly to replace them in that northern niche that constituted the habitat of hominids.

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Neanderthals were better adapted biologically to cold weather than modern humans and at times displaced them in parts of the Middle East when the climate got cold enough. However, forty to fifty thousand years ago the climate in the European continent warmed up to favor Homo sapiens. Some scientists suggest that the rare interbreeding was enough to endow some of us today with the robust immune systems that we possess. Such biological advantage from interbreeding is known as hybrid vigor (heterosis). The robust immune system, in conjunction with animal husbandry (bringing humans close to species-jumping diseases such as Cow pox), and agriculture that was suited for east-to-west-extending, accessible temperate zones answers many questions about the spread of European culture. This fits geography professor Jared Diamond’s explanation of European white domination through the spread of genocidal pathogens in his book Guns, Germs and Steel.

“While modern humans share some nuclear DNA with the extinct Neanderthals, the two species do not share any mitochondrial DNA, which in primates is always maternally transmitted. This observation has prompted the hypothesis that whereas female humans interbreeding with male Neanderthals were able to generate fertile offspring, the progeny of female Neanderthals who mated with male humans were either rare, absent or sterile...” I would guess that we are talking about the rape of Homo sapiens females by Neanderthal males. This gives me pause.

A view of evolution that separately looks at the changes in the physical genes unrelated to the evolution of the environment - including the cultural environment for humans - cannot help but come to wrong conclusions. Since Neanderthals as a species separated earlier from the hominoid evolutionary tree than modern humans did, we can reasonably conclude that those of us with Neanderthal fragments in our genes are less well evolved in some ways. We can also conclude that Neanderthal culture was less evolved and therefore less civilized. When one takes the next step and tracks the evolution of culture alongside those less evolved gene fragments, huge questions and interesting associations arise.

In a population sense - not in an individual sense - how have these cultural elements (memes) interacted with those fractural, mostly male Neanderthal genes to produce less evolved, less civilized population behaviors! The source of the most uncivilized aspects of Western culture is rooted in masculine cultural memes of authority, power, physical control, territoriality, and individualized ego

Have these Western cultural memes evolved to stimulate and compliment those Neanderthal fragments predominantly present in the DNA passed down from theNeanderthal contaminated human male line? Maleness in the sub-Saharan African cultural tradition has been often hedged in by matrilineal cultures and cultural structures that balance male power with substantial female-based community-caring structures; North African and European imposed cultural memes disrupted these more traditional arrangements in sub-Saharan Africa in recent times due to colonialism. There are many questions that are worth contemplating and investigating for a clear view of the human animal.

As we attempt to recognize Black History Month, I would invite us to look at history - all of history - not as separate bits but in totality. Black History is universal human history. To have any real meaning, black history is and must be human history seen through lenses that have been cleansed of the biases embedded in white Western culture. Black History is U.S. history and it is African history; it is not a separate history that can be marginalized into a single month. We already have too much of that.


Wilson Riles

Sunday, 9 February 2013