Neanderthals in Present Day Asia
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.
Update: In the years since this show was broadcast, the Neanderthal genome was completed and we now know that interbreeding between H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis was, in fact, significant. See this link for more info. —BD
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 relict 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.
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