Neanderthals in Present Day Asia

Does the legendary Almas represent a population of relic Neanderthals?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Cryptozoology, General Science, Natural History

Skeptoid #40
April 21, 2007
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
Also available in Chinese
 

Today we're going to set aside our sliderules and put on our galoshes, as we prepare to dig through muddy burial sites high in the Himalayan foothills, looking for conclusive proof that Neanderthals survive today, hidden away in the rocky corners of darkest Asia.

I've always loved reading about monsters and ghosts and mysterious creatures. The thing that first caught my intrigue about the Abominable Snowman was that the reports are really about two distinct, and very different, species. The big hairy ape running around the mountains, pursued by Sir Edmund Hillary and leaving the famous footprint photograph, and plaguing thrill seekers in Disneyland's Matterhorn, is usually called the Yeti. There are many variations of this name, but let's stick with Yeti for simplicity. The other species is neither big nor especially hairy nor much of a snowman. The Almas is most often described as a small scrawny person, about five feet tall, hairy and stinky and mute and living in paleolithic squalor up in the foothills of the Himalayas and into eastern Europe. The description is generally consistent with what we call a Neanderthal. But since there are no remains or genetic evidence, it could also just as plausibly be said to match any of several earlier and more primitive species of the Homo genus.

Really quick history lesson on Neanderthals. They are not an ancestor of modern humans. Homo neanderthalensis is descended from a separate branch that split off from the evolutionary tree about 516,000 years ago, according to some research published in Nature. Mitochondrial DNA studies have shown conclusively that Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens evolved separately. As the Cro-Magnon Homo sapiens moved in across Europe about 45,000 years ago, Homo neanderthalensis was pushed out into little corners of the world. The last known population died out in the vicinity of Gibraltar about 24,000 years ago, thus ending their approximately 300,000 year existence.

This was not the only time the Earth was inhabited by significantly different hominid species. Paranthropus, a member of the muscular and apelike robust australopithecines, frequently encountered and competed with the more modern, smaller, and smarter Homo habilis.

And so we have the hypothetical existence of the Almas, replete with evolutionary precedent. We have a similar precedent for the Yeti from the fossil record. Gigantopithecus was a prehistoric great ape that stood nine feet tall and weighed three times as much as a modern gorilla. Its closest relative living today is the orangutan. Gigantopithecus did live in China and India, in fact it lived generally where the Yeti is said to exist now. They first appeared about five million years ago and became extinct only about 100,000 years ago. Like the Neanderthal, they reigned for a long time and only disappeared in the most recent of evolutionary moments. Recall that coelacanths were thought to have gone extinct almost 100 million years ago, and they gave us quite a surprise in 1938 when they reappeared and proved us wrong.

So we've got our hypothesis, now let's look at some of the best known stories that the hypothesis is attempting to explain.

In the mid-1800's, so the story goes, hunters in the present day country of Georgia captured a wild woman they named Zana. She is variously described as tall, muscular, strong, hairy, and extremely resistant to cold. She was kept in a village and gradually became more domesticated, though she never learned to speak. Zana had a number of children, presumably as a result of her fondness for drinking great quantities of wine and falling into a deep sleep. She died about 1890 and was buried in the village. A number of Russian researchers have followed up on the story of Zana. Though no evidence survives of her existence, there were plenty of interviewees who knew Zana's children. She had four children who survived, all of whom grew up as relatively normal humans, though they were said to have dark skin and great strength. Only one burial site could be located, that of a son named Khwit who died in 1954. Khwit's skull has been examined with mixed results, and there's a picture of it on the transcript for this episode at Skeptoid.com, so you can judge for yourself. The skull is believed to be at the Moscow State University Institute of Anthropology. I was not able to find any reports of any DNA testing on the skull.

Update: DNA testing has been done on both Khwit and some of Zana's other living descendants. She was 100% Sub-Saharan African, genetically completely normal, and had probably been brought to the region as a slave by the Ottomans.

A Shanghai newspaper reported in 1988 that hair samples collected from wildmen in the mountains of central China are definitely not human. China has a long association with wildmen; in fact, in 1976 the Chinese Academy of Sciences sent a team of 110 people to try and capture one that was said to have accosted six government officials. China also has its own story of a woman who was attacked by wildmen in 1940 and bore them a child, who was said to have dark skin and great strength. During World War II, Mongolian servicemen patrolling the Chinese border opened fire on what they supposed was a group of saboteurs, but found to their surprise that they had killed apelike creatures. Unfortunately, if this actually happened, nobody thought to photograph it or save any samples. Like Zana, the Chinese wildmen are generally said to be large, muscular and hairy, pretty much the opposite of what we know of Neanderthals. In fact it sounds more like a Gigantopithecus. If Zana was a Gigantopithecus, she could not have borne children from a human father; the genomes are simply too different. But what if she was a Neanderthal? It's not impossible. The Max Planck Institute is actually in the process of assembling a Neanderthal genome, from a fragment of femur found in Croatia in 1980. Until the genome is complete we won't know for certain whether it was possible for Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis to interbreed. Most DNA testing done so far indicates that if humans and Neanderthals ever did interbreed, it was not at a significant level.

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So now we've got a fair handle on the landscape of evidence in front of us, and now we can take a skeptical look at what we've got. Basically, nothing. We have some vaguely plausible hypotheses — yeah, I suppose it's possible that relic Neanderthals and Gigantopithecus or even some descendant of Paranthropus could survive in remote parts of Asia — but that's all we really have, a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a provisional explanation for these stories of wildmen in captivity and bearing children. There are stories of Almas from all over Asia from all time periods, just like we have reports of Bigfoot in the American Northwest. What's lacking is evidence that can be tested. The existence of Khwit's skull, and yet the lack of trumpeted headlines in the scientific journals, suggests that nothing remarkable has been learned from the skull, which tends to cast suspicion on the Zana story.

Skepticism is not out to prove a negative, so I'm not going to say that the Almas does not exist. Science looks at the evidence, and makes a conclusion. With the Almas, we have an absence of evidence, which is not evidence of absence. By not expressing a belief in the Almas, critical thinkers are not being closed-minded. Indeed, we remain extremely open to any evidence that can be presented. DNA testing and genomes make this all much easier and more precise, so bring it.

Brian Dunning

© 2007 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Cohen, Daniel. A Modern Look at Monsters. Gainsville: Tower Publications, 1970. 150-167.

Douglas, B. "Europeans and Neanderthals: Are there Biological Relationships?" AfricaResource. Africa Resource Center Inc., 17 Feb. 2009. Web. 5 Dec. 2009. <http://www.africaresource.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&catid=105:genetics&id=531:europeans-and-neanderthals-are-there-biological-relationships&Itemid=360>

Max Planck Society. "Neanderthal Genome Completed." Max Planck Society Press Release. 12 Feb. 2009, G / 2009 (18): ISSN 0170-4656.

Meldrum, Jeff. Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science. New York: Forge Books, 2006. 44-45.

Stringera, C.B., Finlaysonb, J.C., Bartond, R.N.E., Fernández-Jalvoe, Y., Cáceresg, I., Sabinh, R.C., Rhodesi, E.J., Curranta, A.P., Rodríguez-Vidalj, J., Giles-Pachecok, F., and Riquelme-Cantall, J.A. "Neanderthal exploitation of marine mammals in Gibraltar." PNAS Online. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 22 Sep. 2008. Web. 5 Dec. 2009. <http://www.pnas.org/content/105/38/14319>

Wade, Nicholas. "Scientists in Germany Draft Neanderthal Genome." New York Times. 12 Feb. 2009, A: A12.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Neanderthals in Present Day Asia." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 21 Apr 2007. Web. 25 Nov 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4040>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 25 comments

Apparently Neanderthals genes are widely distributed around the world, with 2 to 3% of most peoples genes comprised of Neanderthals genes. Perhaps we're all hybrids.

Paul, Vancouver
October 23, 2011 11:03am

Thats another hold the press thing Paul.

Whilst the data and its inference on us and homo neanderthalensis appears pretty good, subsequent claims in journal literature show that we may be arguing a long time about genetic forebears and splits therefrom.

Mud, Sin City NSW, Oz
October 24, 2011 4:47am

I think you make an usual mistake when talking about the fossil record. And this would be: fossilization is an extremely uncommon process, and we have a fossil record for a really small amount of the living creatures at any given moment. For example, just in the last decade we have discovered two new homos who shared the world with us, H. Denisova (a cousin of Neanderthals living in Asia) and H. Florisienses (The indonesian "hobbits"). So it is possible that Almas represent a relic population of an unknow hominid. I think, however, they represent the folk memory of an unknow hominid, maybe one who managed to survive until the last milleniums before our era, or why not, maybe even later. Asia is a nearly unfathomable big area, after all...

Leirus, Madrid
March 13, 2012 4:57am

I would suggest the term preservation when discussing "recently" (ie carbon datable) individuals.

I think Leirus has just made a profound statement on natural selection..if preservation is common, there were hardly any other species at all.

Still, that even puts one hell of a nail in the coffin of creationists argument

Mud, Sin City, NSW, Oz
March 23, 2012 8:00pm

I've always been fascinated by the thought of non-sapien homo species still around and what we would treat them like!! Left alone like some of the Amazonian natives are or would we be sticking them in a lab - or a zoo :(

We have only been looking for fossil humans for a hundred or so years and are finding out stuff all the time, like at some stage in Africa there were maybe three or four human ancestors living at once in various geographic areas. Some research indicating that after the OOA event 'African' humans mated with an yet unidentified 'species' of 'human'.

Any extant non-sapiens must be pretty small populations - for we have not any 'evidence' for them - and small populations are not good for a specie's survival.

How much of the lore is misidentified sightings of common animals and how much is just bull for a good story?

Who knows, we found a new species that we never suspected and who died out during our branch's time, so maybe out there, is a cousin, but I do wonder if we will need debate over what to do about 'contact'.

David Healey, Maidenhead, UK
September 13, 2012 9:01am

That would be fine once we get past the point of actually finding extant others in the genus.

A point to be made here is should such an unlikely event occur, would we be able to maintain their environment or actually have to move such non sapients to "protective custody"?

Its a reminder of what we are and our diverse view on preservation and preservation methodologies.

We have only taken a little notice of our own known cousins very recently and sadly, many of the rest of us consider them in the range of fair game to slightly edible.

How would we react to a new species of homo?

No where near as aptly as we react to myth about other species (or near enough) of homo.

Please pass the blurry lens filter. Thats vaselined grade 10.

Magnanamous Dinoflagellate, sin city, Oz
June 21, 2013 7:18am

They say the Neanderthals were not so smart. So if anyone is looking for modern day Neanderthals, one has to look no further than the halls of congress!

Kevin, Naples, FL
July 9, 2013 4:02pm

They successfully got elected, which means they duped a lot of people, which in turn means they're a lot smarter than a lot of people want to think they are.

Another Nick, Alexandria VA
July 9, 2013 6:13pm

A bit unfair as its entirely likely that anyone who isnt pure african is supposed to have re-established neanderthal genes.

That may sound a tad eccentric (wrt non africans) but specific Neanderthal and other genetics are claimed and supported by current supported hypotheses.

These arent racist hypotheses, they are best fit to best technologies. The same technologies that make great inferences to medicine that just appears to be science fiction at present.

There is nothing like quality and verifiability to underpin technologies of the future.

Where that leaves gargle like alt med and psuedo science is painfully obvious/

A lot of people make inference on the lack of focus..

Madime Dantefer, Greenacres by the sea Oz
August 14, 2013 5:49am

"They say the Neanderthals were not so smart. So if anyone is looking for modern day Neanderthals, one has to look no further than the halls of congress!"
- Kevin, Naples, FL
July 09, 2013 4:02pm

....or Canada's parliament; or a provincial legislature; or any one of our city councils.....

"They successfully got elected, which means they duped a lot of people, which in turn means they're a lot smarter than a lot of people want to think they are."
- Another Nick, Alexandria VA
July 09, 2013 6:13pm

....but then again I could be wrong. Maybe the lefty morons that elected them are the stoopid neaderthals....

Ron, Calgary Alberta Canada
April 29, 2014 10:39am

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