Prehistory: not just Denis

06.12.2013 20:41

Why is it so pleasing to discover some
new aspect of the distant human past?
We know we will never understand
the whole story of our beginnings and
our early evolution, and we also
know that whatever we may
tentatively establish in answering one
question will only raise others. Yet
still there is a sense, with each
important new detail, that something
has slipped into place that alters our
perspective for the better.
Our grasp of recent history is
also by definition incomplete, and we
welcome fresh pieces to slot into that
more familiar jigsaw. But there is a
difference between finding Richard
III's bones and discovering those of
relatives who lived 400,000 years
ago. Indeed, until now, most of us
had thought of them as having hardly
anything to do with Homo sapiens at
The Denisovans are a mysterious
hominin sub group of which a few
remains were recently found in
Siberia, and nobody knew how they
fitted in. The big picture had us and
the neanderthals emerging from a
common ancestor, with the
Neanderthals in Europe while Homo
sapiens stayed in Africa. Homo
sapiens later also moved to Europe,
where the two branches interbred,
with the Neanderthals eventually
becoming extinct.
But, hang on, it's not that simple.
The DNA found after tests on fossils in
Spain includes Denisovan, or close to
Denisovan, material. That could
mean these people were our
ancestors, or our cousins. Whatever
the connection, the population
dynamics are potentially far more
complex than scientists thought. Or,
as the Australian expert Alan Cooper
puts it , "We're complete mongrels.
Everybody was bonking everybody
We would know nothing about
this misbehaviour, if such it was,
were it not for advances in DNA
retrieval and sequencing. We can
expect more enlightenment in the
future as that technology advances.
Still, one can ask, where does this
leave us, what does it tell us, and
what does it mean to us now?
From one point of view, we have
another coda to the battle against
fundamentalist views about human
origins. But is it entirely facile to say
that it makes us, or should make us,
think a little harder when we talk
about migration, race, and
intermarriage? If the coffin marked
racial purity needs a final nail, isn't
this it? Prehistory encourages
humility and objectivity. Later in the
record, Lucy reminded us of the time
when we first stood upright, and later
still, Ötzi reminded us that we have
always been killers. The bones in the
Spanish cave include those of a
disabled girl , which suggests, thank
goodness, that we have also always
been carers.