Saturday, March 24, 2012

The 'monkey people' we once knew

Remains of archaic hominins from southwest China (Curnoe et al, 2012). They were around when villages and towns were arising in the Middle East.

Recent findings have confirmed the ‘Out of Africa’ model of human origins, but only in part. The model diverges from actual prehistory on two main points. One is that modern humans picked up archaic admixture as they spread out of Africa and into Eurasia. Thus, modern Eurasians have 1-4% Neanderthal admixture, and Melanesians an additional 4-6% from the mysterious Denisovans (Reich et al, 2011). As for modern sub-Saharan Africans, they seem to be the most admixed of all. About 2% of their gene pool comes from a population close to Homo erectus and a further 13% from a population probably related to the Skhul-Qafzeh hominins (Hammer et al., 2011; Watson et al., 1997).

And the second point? It appears that modern humans didn’t immediately replace archaic hominins, at least not everywhere. Some of the latter held out in different places of refuge until the Holocene, and perhaps even later. At a time when villages and towns were arising in the Middle East, archaic hominins continued to hold out in western and southern Africa (Harvati et al., 2011; Stringer, 2011).

Now, we have evidence of another refuge area. Southwest China has yielded archaic cranial remains that date to ~14.3-11.5 thousand years ago. The remains actually show a mixture of archaic and modern traits, reminiscent of the Skhul-Qafzeh hominins of the Levant (120,000 – 80,000 BP) and other ‘almost moderns’ from North Africa.

Who were they? The authors offer two explanations:

Our analysis suggests two plausible explanations for the morphology sampled at Longlin Cave and Maludong. First, it may represent a late-surviving archaic population, perhaps paralleling the situation seen in North Africa as indicated by remains from Dar-es-Soltane and Temara, and maybe also in southern China at Zhirendong. Alternatively, East Asia may have been colonised during multiple waves during the Pleistocene, with the Longlin-Maludong morphology possibly reflecting deep population substructure in Africa prior to modern humans dispersing into Eurasia (Curnoe et al., 2012).

The two explanations aren’t that far apart. Different authors have alternately described the Skhul-Qafzeh remains as either late archaic or early modern. In the case of the Chinese remains, an obvious candidate would be the Denisovans, an archaic population that inhabited East Asia around the time that Neanderthals inhabited Europe and central Asia. But the authors evoke this possibility only in passing:

DNA extracted from a >50 ka hominin fossil from Denisova Cave in Central Asia belonging within the Neandertal lineage shares features exclusively with Aboriginal Southeast Asians and Australasians. This has been interpreted as: 1) evidence for interbreeding between the ‘Denisovans’ and the earliest modern humans to colonise the region; and 2) implying occupation of Southeast Asia by this archaic population during the Upper Pleistocene.

In fact, we have good evidence that Denisovans were present in Southeast Asia. Reich et al. (2011) found Denisovan admixture in some but not all of the oldest indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia. Such admixture was present in Aboriginal Australians, New Guineans, and a Negrito people from the Philippines. It was absent, however, in Negrito groups farther west. The authors thus concluded:

Our finding that descendants of the earliest inhabitants of Southeast Asia do not all harbor Denisova admixture is inconsistent with a history in which the Denisova interbreeding occurred in mainland Asia and then spread over Southeast Asia, leading to all its earliest modern human inhabitants. Instead, the data can be most parsimoniously explained if the Denisova gene flow occurred in Southeast Asia itself. Thus, archaic Denisovans must have lived over an extraordinarily broad geographic and ecological range, from Siberia to tropical Asia.

If the Denisovans lingered on into historic times, the same might be true for other archaic groups, like the Neanderthals in Europe. Perhaps those stories about hairy wild men were not pure imagination.

Deusen (2001) mentions that the Tungus peoples of far eastern Siberia remember the existence of ‘monkey people’ in their region. One folk-tale describes how these monkey people abducted a man:

So the older sister took the shaman's drum. She started to sing and then said, "Brother, when you go hunting in the taiga tomorrow, you're going to meet two people. Check out their breasts, and then marry them."

The next day, he woke up and set out to go hunting. He walked and walked and came to a hill, a mountain. There were big rocks. He looked up, and then went on. Suddenly he saw two people sitting there. He approached and at that time the ties on his skis broke.

He came up to those people and felt their breasts and they were women. And they took him along with them.

At home time went by. A day passed and another, and still he was gone. Many days went by. And then the younger sister said, "Sister, you made this happen. Now you bring him back. Those two monkeys in the mountain came and took him away and now they are keeping him in the mountains, sucking his blood. He's become just skin and bones."

… So the younger sister sang and drummed, flying to her spirits, but she couldn't get there. She tried a second time and still didn't have the strength. The third time she gathered all her strength and flew to those rocks. She took her brother and dragged him out of there. He flew, looking thin as a shirt. They got him back and healed him. And that's how the younger sister brought her brother back from those monkeys.

… So that's it about the monkeys. They lived in the rocks and when they rolled back and forth, they called, "Tsyoo, tsyoo, papandasyoo!!"
(Deusen 2001:126-128)


Abi-Rached L, Jobin MJ, Kulkarni S, McWhinnie A, Dalva K, et al. (2011). The shaping of modern human immune systems by multiregional admixture with archaic humans. Science, 334, 89–94.

Curnoe D, Xueping J, Herries AIR, Kanning B, Taçon PSC, et al. (2012). Human Remains from the Pleistocene-Holocene Transition of Southwest China Suggest a Complex Evolutionary History for East Asians. PLoS ONE 7(3): e31918. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0031918

Deusen, K.V. (2001). The Flying Tiger. Women Shamans and Storytellers of the Amur. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Hammer, M.F., A.E. Woerner, F.L. Mendez, J.C. Watkins, and J.D. Wall. (2011). Genetic evidence for archaic admixture in Africa, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (USA), 108, 15123-15128,

Harvati, K., C. Stringer, R. Grün, M. Aubert, P. Allsworth-Jones, C.A. Folorunso. (2011). The Later Stone Age Calvaria from Iwo Eleru, Nigeria: Morphology and Chronology. PLoS ONE 6(9): e24024. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0024024

Reich D, Green RE, Kircher M, Krause J, Patterson N, et al. (2010). Genetic history of an archaic hominin group from Denisova Cave in Siberia. Nature, 468, 1053–1060.

Reich D, Patterson N, Kircher M, Delfin F, Nandineni MR, et al. (2011). Denisova Admixture and the First Modern Human Dispersals into Southeast Asia and Oceania. Am J Hum Genet, 89, 516–528.

Stringer, C. (2011). The chronological and evolutionary position of the Broken Hill cranium. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 144(supp. 52), 287

Watson, E., P. Forster, M. Richards, and H-J. Bandelt. (1997). Mitochondrial footprints of human expansions in Africa, American Journal of Human Genetics, 61, 691-704. 0024024


Sean said...

Xinzhi Wu says "There is a morphological mosaic between H. s. erectus and H. s. sapiens in China. The existence of common features and the morphological mosaic suggest continuity of human evolution in China."

For the features to be similar would that not take more than a few % ? Unless there is some advantage to a certain shape of skull and teeth. It seems unlikely 4% archaic ancestry led to regional archaic features coming though in modern population. If 4% was enough for the archaic features to show through, then why did that happen only in East Eurasia?

Sean said...

GNXP: The evolution of the human face post says - "some of the individual loci have a strong enough effect that it’s visible by eye!" (It's interesting about pigmentation too.)

Rev. Right said...

"modern humans picked up archaic admixture as they spread out of Africa and into Eurasia."

What current population has the least amount of archaic admixture? Are there any realtively pure 'modern' human populations? Ethiopians?

Ben10 said...

I had some fun with 3d renderings:


How I see an european neanderthal:

Peter Frost said...


There is a longstanding belief among the Chinese that their origins in East Asia are very ancient. The multiregional model is popular in China because it supports that belief.

Rev Right,

Perhaps. I suspect that Eurasians have the least admixture, but I could be wrong.


Why no hair on the Neanderthal's face?

Ben10 said...

hmm, cannot look like a complete monkey either. I mean Neanderthals had tools, so i gave him a primitive spear, so people who witnessed him must have recognized that he was also somehow human. I don't think he was very hairy on the face?
Lots of hairy monkeys are not very hairy on the face, proportionaly...

Ben10 said...

Also you think there is any chances that oral transmission of neanderthal sightings could account for the constant references to 'giants' and inbreedings between giants and humans, in the nordic mythology?

Sean said...

The Chinese are very good at earth sciences and things requiring concrete observations. Carlton Coon noted that modern Asians have certain features, such as being flat faced and the plane of their forehead, in common with the archiacs of their region. Is Nanjing Man the ancestor of the modern Chinese? "One of the puzzles that the out-of-Africa theory needs to account for is the prevalence of shovel-shaped front teeth among the modern Chinese population. Dr. Xing Song says the distinctively-shaped teeth are prevalent in the Mongoloid race in East Asia. [...] According to Xing, these peculiarly shaped teeth were inherited in a continuous line from early Chinese hominids. About 80 percent of Chinese have such upper front teeth in contrast to only 5 percent of Europeans and 10 percent of Africans. Xing says this is strong evidence of the continuity of human evolution in China.

Moreover, hominid fossils in China share the same facial features: comparatively flat faces, a larger angle between the nose and the forehead, a flat nose bridge, rectangular eye sockets and forward-projecting cheekbones. All these features are absent in Africans"

100% independent evolution in China (which would make the Chinese a different species)is most unlikely. But I think when there are such notable archaic-modern similarities with only 4% Neanderthal admixture found, a rethink is called for. In relation to China at least.

"Denisovans must have lived over an extraordinarily broad geographic and ecological range, from Siberia to tropical Asia"
You sound a little doubtful. Could there have been still unknown archaics to the south of the Siberian Denisovans.

B322 said...

When should HBD Day occur?

Read the proposal and vote in the poll my blog.

Peter Frost said...


Perhaps, but it's too easy to see Neanderthals in ancient myths. It would be useful if we could relate certain Neanderthal traits (e.g., reddish head and body hair) to stories about wild men in European myths and folklore.


Shovel-shaped incisors are also present in many Africans, specifically Khoisans and Bantu. This seems to be an archaic trait that has been lost in some modern human groups but not in others.

The archaic admixture in Melanesians matches the archaic DNA from the Denisova cave in Siberia.

Olave d'Estienne,

It's a nice idea, but I would not choose May 2. That choice seems like a putdown of people who celebrate May 1. In most countries, May 1 (and not Labor Day) is the workers' holiday.

Sean said...

Rather foolish comments I made there, thanks for setting me right.

"Instead, the data can be most parsimoniously explained if the Denisova gene flow occurred in Southeast Asia itself. Thus, archaic Denisovans must have lived over an extraordinarily broad geographic and ecological range, from Siberia to tropical Asia."

That entails accepting Denisovians were able to adapt to the challenges of survival over a huge north-south range. Siberia's climate was different back I believe, but it's still pretty far north. It suggests a highly troubling use of brainpower for technological innovation.

A 'parsimonious' explanation should not accept Denisovians could independently evolve advanced capacities not too different from contemporaneous modern human capacities. That is is half way accepting a key tenet of the multiregional hypothesis I think.

THE_TRUTH said...

Yes an interesting subject. I've lived in China for 45 years and studied ancient Chinese skeletons, from the holocene to present time. I would say that the only difference between the Chinese (and most phenotypes from East Asia), relates to the emergence of the mongoloid body plan, and especially the unique features of the mongoloid skull. Of course, the dramatic effect of a dominant grain diet (rice) and 1,828 famines over the past 2,000 years, have turbocharged the effect of neoteny on the mongoloids and especially southern mongoloids, with expreme child like facial features, reduced stature, and in most cases a postcranial skeleton with a body plan of a 12 year old child. Surely such extreme selection pressure presents issues about the idea that modern Chinese evolved, as a different species, to that of Europeans and Africans. In this sense the initial "Multi-regional Theory" of modern human has a problem.

For anyone wanting to study the Chinese phenotype, I recommend Han Kangxin a retired physical anthropologist from Beijing, who has studied hundreds of Central Asian and East Asian modern human skeletons, and, with his wife (a paleoanthropologist) has a passion for Peking Man. In Prof Han's own words - The Chinese could not have evolved from Peking Man because of so many morphology differences, such as the chin, flat brow and small brain. Of course, the Peking Man fossils (in fact all Homo Erectus skeletons from China), are, real fossils, with no bone, and as such no DNA. Thus, unlike the Neanderthal and Denisovan, which although considered fossils, due to their age, are actually bone, there is no way of proving whether H. Erectus, through DNA, is related to modern humans.

Personally, I believe H. Erectus in China had a full body of hair and was not as erect, nor had the hand dexterity of modern humans, even our most archaic relatives. Basically, they were really archaic and as such maybe a little too different for mixed breeding to have occurred, with modern Homo sapiens. Of course, this does not mean that interbreeding did not occur with say H. Erectus and the Denisovans, or other homind species which arrived and made Central and East Asia home, 1 million to maybe 200,000 years ago.

By the way, the Denisovan finger used to extract DNA from, has not and will never prove, whether this species had a chin, thick eyebrow ridges or a flat face with a large frontal cortex.

Anonymous said...

Moreover, hominid fossils in China share the same facial features: comparatively flat faces, a larger angle between the nose and the forehead, a flat nose bridge, rectangular eye sockets and forward-projecting cheekbones. All these features are absent in Africans

"Cranial features and race

Shape of the eye orbits, viewed from the front. Africans tend to a more rectangular shape, East Asians more circular, Europeans tend to have an ``aviator glasses'' shape."

In terms of nose bridge flatness, African nasal bones are pretty flat compared to European nasal bones. Difference with Asians is that the flatness comes from very reduced depth and slightly reduced width, while flatness for Africans comes from increased width and slightly reduced depth. So Asian nasal bones look flatter in profile, despite having similar kind of angle (not sure who has a flatter nasal angle).

Be interesting to check whether the nose flatness of these hominids comes from having a shallow nose or a broad nose.

Not sure how to assess angle between nose and forehead - there is a trend in hominids across time to have a more vertical and less retreating forehead. Also "comparatively flat faces"? If you ignore the correlation with projecting cheekbones, then it seems like that's a reduction in prognathism, and that happens everywhere over time (someplaces more, some less) as well.

Anonymous said...

The Soko

Bones and Behaviours said...


Is the Siberian image that van Deusen and yourself refer to as 'monkey' the same as, overlapping with or distinct from the 'chuchunaa' and 'mulen' images?

The Siberian 'wildman' image I am familiar with seems to represent anatomically and culturally modern human hunter foragers, not a monkey.