In the beginning was the Word, as invented by members of a primitive nomadic tribe and later set down and polished up by their scribes. The Word was a neat and tidy accounting of things: God made the world and everything in it, all the grasses and trees and flowers, all the birds and beasts and fishes–and Man. Man was made from the dust, in his present slender-limbed, dome-crowned form, and he found himself set to work in the dusty profession of agriculture pretty fast. God created the whole thing in less than a week (demonstrating that He definitely was not working with modern tradesmen), and on the seventh day He rested. And so did most of Western humanity rest on this question, snug and a bit smug in the divinely ordered plan of things.
Then came the inquiring 19th century, child of the Age of Reason, and the old, comfy ways of regarding the world fell away. Charles Darwin took ship on HMS Beagle in 1831, noted some interesting phenomena, and came up with an interesting theory. And in 1856, in a cave in the Neander Valley of northern Germany, some fossilized bones were found.
They were heavy bones, definitely dissimilar to modern human bones, and they were explained away as those of a pathological freak with a unique combination of diseases. But as more of these robust bones, and thick, beetle-browed, chinless skulls with pointed protrusions in the back–the “occipital bun,” unique to the Neandertal–were uncovered, an explanation had to be found. The evidence, physical and cultural, led to the inescapable conclusion that the Neandertal, named for the site of its original discovery, was a part of humanity.
Since that time other, earlier links between our remote primate ancestors and present-day humanity have been found. These hominids begin with Australopithecus afarensis and move, ever more manlike, through Australopithecus africanus, Homo habilis, and Homo erectus, all of whom are still sufficiently apelike that you’d be unlikely to welcome them to a family reunion. Their Neandertal descendants, on the other hand, were definitely human–but scientific opinion has swung back and forth on the Neandertals’ place among our kin.
Plenty of distinguished scholars have wanted no part of this hulking lowbrow with the tremendous beaky nose and have tried to consign its skeleton to the closet of evolutionary dead-ends. In the early 1900s, the French paleoanthropologist Marcellin Boule labeled the Neandertal “a degenerate species,” based on his analysis of one elderly, arthritis-ridden specimen.
Four decades later, the anthropological team of A.J.E. Cave and William Straus went to the other extreme, averring that if a Neandertal “could be reincarnated and placed in a New York subway–provided he were bathed, shaved, and dressed in modern clothing–it is doubtful whether he would attract any more attention than some of its other denizens.” (This might well be true of the New York subway, but probably not of most other locales.)
The consensus view taught to high school students just a couple of decades ago was that modern man had evolved from Neandertals, just as the Neandertals had evolved from Homo erectus. But no one working in the field now accepts this; recent discoveries have provided proof that modern man evolved later, in Africa.
In the mid-1980s, a team led by University of California at Berkeley geneticist Allan Wilson published data based on studies of mitochondrial DNA–fast-mutating cells handed down through the female line–which purported to show that “the common ancestor of modern humans lived in Africa, about 200,000 years ago.” Furthermore, they believed, this new wave of modern humans completely replaced the more primitive humans they encountered around the world–including Neandertals.
A British paleoanthropologist, Christopher Stringer, whose reading of the fossil record already inclined him toward this “replacement theory,” seized Wilson’s idea and ran with it, thrusting his career into the limelight by resurrecting the old concept of Homo neanderthalensis–the Neandertal as a separate species, a victim of human evolution rather than a contributor to it.
Wilson and Stringer’s conjecture has enjoyed a great vogue lately, not least because its simplicity appeals to the popular press. But the Neandertal’s claim to human ancestry is not quite dead and buried. A small group of scientists has quietly opposed the “out of Africa” theory (also sometimes called the “African Eve” theory), and the pendulum of opinion has at least begun to swing back in their direction. Among these is Fred H. Smith of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. He agrees that the ancestor of modern man came out of Africa as the popular theory describes, but he does not believe that it replaced the Neandertal; rather he thinks the two types (not two separate species) interbred freely: modern humans, in other words, still owe at least some of their genetic background to Neandertal man.
A low-key fellow with graying brown hair, bushy eyebrows, and an engaging grin, Smith came to Northern Illinois as professor and chair of the anthropology department in 1990. His office on Northern’s car-choked campus is in a low-lying brick edifice that anthropology shares with the theater department, a juxtaposition that must make for some interesting on-site studies. His office door bears stickers proclaiming “CROATIA” and “Neanderthal and Proud”; inside, skull casts and the wired skeleton of a full-term fetus vie for space with artwork by his children, Burt and Maria Kathleen. (Smith’s wife, Maria Ostendorf Smith, is also a member of the anthropology department. When their eight-year-old daughter broke her arm recently, she was able to tell the emergency room physician the Latin names of her injured bones.)
Smith holds up a pair of skull casts (the originals remain in the countries where they were found), one of a Neandertal, the other an early modern European. “The Neandertal is longer and lower,” he points out, “with a low forehead; the face projects, and in the back,” turning it slightly, “you see the occipital bun.” He turns to the early modern European: “Here you still have some occipital bun.” He puts the Neandertal down, picks up an early modern African, and shows the back of it: no trace whatever of an occipital bun. “If this is the ancestor of this [that is, if the African is the ancestor of the European], you have to explain where the bun came from. And look at this late Neandertal–it’s starting to have a little bit of a chin.” To Smith, these facts in fossilized bone are clear evidence that Neandertals interbred with the early modern humans from Africa, producing a transitional phase between Neandertals and us.
More recent studies of mitochondrial DNA seem to support Smith, suggesting that Allan Wilson’s model of human evolution moves too fast: the DNA data Wilson used may demonstrate not early modern man’s spread out of Africa 200,000 years ago, but Homo erectus’s spread as long as 900,000 years ago–a move that no one disputes. If so, this puts the simple, appealing, comprehensible-by-anybody “replacement theory” of evolution in doubt–which is right where Fred Smith has always maintained it belongs.
“You couldn’t be doing this story on a better person than Fred,” says Richard G. Klein, a professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago (moving this summer to Stanford). “He’s really first-rate, and he’s done a lot of really fine work.” Klein calls Smith’s work “paramount,” and adds that the contemporary picture of the Neandertal would be very different without it.
What makes his encomium stand out is that Klein is on the other side of the academic fence when it comes to the Neandertal’s role in human evolution. “I’m a pretty firm believer in ‘out of Africa,'” he asserts. “I think it was a pretty complete replacement. My view is that humans came out of Africa in three waves–Homo erectus, the Neandertals, and modern man. I think the gulf is so great that they wouldn’t have wanted to interbreed; I just can’t see the continuity.”
Klein notes that the world of paleoanthropologists is a tiny one, and that personality can be important in debates. “There are perhaps eight or ten people who are actively engaged in this issue in the world, and another ten on the periphery. The field can’t support a lot of people. Some people make fun of others [in debates], but Fred’s not like that. He’s a very reasonable person, and there’s no acrimony.”
“Fred’s a brilliant scholar and a fine person,” says colleague Milford Wolpoff, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan (or, as he sometimes puts it, “the Michigan Home for the Bewildered”). “He’s been very innovative; he’s spent years of his career opening up and making people think of central Europe. What’s important about that is that people have focused on western Europe and ignored central Europe, largely because English isn’t spoken there. But there were important finds there.”
To Wolpoff, “Fred works out understandings of why things happen. He’s tried to make sense out of the human fossil record, especially the recent fossil record.” That’s one of the reasons Smith has been, as Wolpoff says, a leader in opposing the “out of Africa” theory of modern human origins, on paleontological and other grounds. But Smith has done it in a gentle way.
“Everyone who opposes the ‘African Eve’ theory takes heat,” says Wolpoff, “but people are loath to attack Fred because they know he won’t be nasty back. He’s a gentleman. Fred doesn’t enjoy acrimony at all.
“Fred’s whole life’s ambition has been to study Neandertals–and he’s doing it. Isn’t that wonderful?”
Bryan Miller: Let’s talk a bit about your background.
Fred H. Smith: I grew up in the mountains of east Tennessee in a little town called Lenoir City, and I was always fascinated by biological structure. While I was in high school I did a science project on what we knew about human evolution and I read everything I could get my hands on in Lenoir City, Tennessee, which wasn’t a whole lot. I was really captivated by it, but there just wasn’t any conception in my mind that this would be something that you could pursue.
I went to the University of Tennessee with the idea of studying medicine, and when I got there they began to offer a major in anthropology. My premed curriculum was pretty strict, but I had some elective hours, so I took some classes in anthropology. I really liked it, and I struggled with this all the way up until the time that I was a senior and I finally decided, even after I was accepted into medical school at Tennessee, that I really wanted to go into biological anthropology. When I announced that to my parents they thought I was just absolutely crazy. You have to know the environment, but they had really no conception of being a professor, or this kind of thing. But they completely and totally supported me; never any question about that.
When I got to Tennessee they told me, “You have a language deficiency.” And I said, “Say what?” And they said “You have to take a foreign language.” So I took the only thing that I could fit into my schedule and that was German. I had no particular interest in German, no background in German, my family’s not German or anything. And I hated it–and then all of a sudden it clicked one day that, you know, I can function in this language. And the reason that I brought this up is that German opened the doors for me in terms of getting access to a lot of materials in eastern Europe, central Europe, where I was interested in working. I think that I would have had a much more difficult time if I wasn’t facile in German. And so there were always luck factors that came together.
I got a grant during my first year of graduate study to work on the Krapina Neandertals, and my career and my focus on Neandertals and my particular focus on central Europe really took off from that point. It wasn’t all unrocky, because when I wrote and asked permission to work on the stuff in what’s now the Croatian National History Museum, I never got a reply. But I had the grant, so I just went.
So I showed up in Zagreb one day and the administrative assistant in the museum, when I came in and announced myself to her, looked at me like I was Adolf Hitler. And she said, “We wrote you and said you shouldn’t come. The bones have all been studied by the great Croatian paleontologist, Dragutin Gorjanovic. What are you doing here?” And my jaw just dropped. So she said, “Well, wait. I’ll call the director.” The director came down, a little short Croatian fellow named Ivan Crnolatac, and he told me the same thing. And I said, “My God, the letter didn’t get there. What am I going to do?” And I didn’t know it, but I had already won the battle, because they were so softhearted. They were trying to be tough, you know. And I talked to the director, and I finally convinced him that maybe I could contribute something; that the great Croatian expert had looked at this stuff more than 50 years ago, and that we had learned a lot since then. Within a week or so I had a key to the museum, I could come and go as I wanted to, and that little group of people became almost a second family to me. I could almost never, let’s say, go out and eat in a restaurant because one of them was taking me home every night for supper. And I got to know all of their families, and I’m still in contact with all of their families.
If I’d left two days later and that letter had gotten to me, I would have never gone. And who knows what would have happened from that point on?
BM: What especially grabbed you about Neandertals?
FS: I’m not sure that I can answer that easily. I was really fascinated by the fact that here were humans that were basically identical to us. If you looked at a Neandertal skeleton and a gorilla skeleton and a human skeleton, it’s obvious that this Neandertal was a human. But there were differences in very interesting areas and I was very, very interested in why those differences were there. Why should Neandertals have very heavy brow ridges and more prognathic faces [with projecting jaws] and bigger anterior teeth? Why should they have a more barrel-shaped chest and thicker long bones? How could you explain that different anatomical pattern? A lot of what I did in early years and even now has been focused onto understanding the functional or other meaning behind Neandertal morphology.
I looked at this as a very interesting problem in terms of trying to explain things that were in many ways very similar, but viewed at from another plane very different. If you look at it from the anthropocentric perspective of “we modern humans,” then you start seeing all these real differences with this Neandertal. But if you look at it in the big picture, there’s not very many.
BM: I’d like to ask a fairly stupid question about something that’s been bothering me as I read through the current literature on this subject: when did they change the spelling of “Neanderthal”? I’ve always pronounced it “nay-AHN-der-tahl,” since it’s a German name. But when did they take the h out?
FS: Originally, the word “Neandertal” meant “Neander Valley.” And originally the German word for valley was spelled “thal.” But in the late 1890s, German orthography changed to remove a lot of these silent letters, and so they drop the h in a situation like that. So now, when you’re writing just the word “Neandertal” you can write it without the h, but if you use the taxonomic designation of Homo neanderthalensis–some people still recognize Neandertals as a separate species–then you have to put the h in there, because when that name was coined in 1864, that’s the way it was spelled, and you can’t change spellings in formal taxonomic terminology.
BM: Thank you.
Would you agree with the statement that if a Neandertal came and sat down next to you on the bus, you might look at him oddly, but you’d stay put–but if Homo habilis came and sat down next to you, you would get up and find another seat?
FS: I think that you would certainly look at this Neandertal, and you would say, “I hope this guy doesn’t get mad at me.” Because they were very robust, stockily built individuals. I think you would take notice of him. I don’t agree with the statement that if you dressed him up in a hat and suit and walked him down the street that you wouldn’t pay any attention to him. I think you would. I think you would notice that there was something different about him anatomically. But I think you’re right that you probably would say, “Well, there’s something wrong with this guy, but he’s OK.” But if a Homo habilis or an Australopithecus africanus did that I think you would look at him and say, “What is this ape doing dressed up like a human?” I agree with your statement.
BM: Aren’t the Neandertals primarily a Eurasian phenomenon?
FS: They are.
BM: Where did they come from?
FS: Well, when you go back to the earliest human fossil material that comes into Europe–and right now we’re not exactly sure when humans first got into Europe–there’s some evidence that they may be there slightly in excess of 1,000,000 years ago. The best and most solid evidence seems to be somewhere in the neighborhood of about 600,000-700,000 years ago. The first human fossils that we get are in that same framework, too.
BM: That’s Homo erectus?
FS: Traditionally, we have called him Homo erectus in Europe. The first fossil stuff that we have in Europe is pretty fragmentary, so it’s hard to say a lot of details about it. But when we get down to 300,000 to 400,000 years ago, when we start getting some crania and so forth, the specimens have some Homo erectus-like features. But they also have some features that are pretty similar to Neandertals, particularly in the face and so forth. And so those gradually become more Neandertal-like until you get down to a time period of somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago. Then you have [specimens] that you would clearly say, “Well, there’s no question about the fact that this is a Neandertal.” When you get back to 400,000 years you look at it and say “Well, there are some things that are Neandertal about this, but there are other things that don’t fit into the Neandertal pattern.” And what you have here is really sort of a gradual development of the morphological complex of Neandertals out of the earliest European migrants, the earliest members of Homo erectus or whatever you want to call it.
BM: So that’s evolutionary?
FS: Oh, sure. It’s a gradual pattern and process, and you can show this by looking at the fossil material that we have in chronological order. You can see the Neandertal characteristics that more of them develop as you get later on in time, and that certain characteristics become more definitive; they start out sort of Neandertal-like and they get more that way over time.
So that’s where they come from. They basically lived in Europe and the Near East. It’s hard to put a distinct date on it, because I now tend to call things that go back as far as 300,000 to 400,000 years ago Neandertals, in a sense. But certainly by 150,000 to 200,000 years ago, [definite Neandertals were in those areas].
And then the Neandertal morphology begins to disappear, at different times depending upon where you are. In the Near East, the most recent Neandertals that we have are in the neighborhood of about 50,000 to 60,000 years old. In central Europe, the most recent Neandertals that we have are in the neighborhood of about 44,000 to 45,000 years old. And then in western Europe, Neandertals seemed to hang on until about 35,000 years ago. I mean, it’s not a situation where they completely disappear throughout their entire range. It seems to work its way north and west, mainly west, from the Near East. But, again, there’s a lot of discussion about what exactly is going on with the disappearance of Neandertals. Is this the replacement of one species of human by a new species of modern humans?
BM: This is the big debate right now.
FS: This is the big debate.
BM: It made the New York Times.
FS: It has, on more than one occasion. It’s made the New York Times, it’s made London newspapers, it’s made most of the major newspapers throughout the world. As I told you, I speak German, and so I’ve had reporters from Die Welt and Die Frankfurter Algemeiner call me and talk to me. So there really has been a worldwide interest in the last seven or eight years.
BM: So there’s essentially no debate on where Neandertals came from? They did evolve from the Homo erectus group?
FS: There really is no debate about that among scholars.
BM: The debate is on where modern humans came from.
FS: People that we would recognize as modern humans.
BM: Whether it’s Homo neanderthalensis–
FS: Homo neanderthalensis as a separate biological species.
BM: Or if we’re talking about Homo sapiens–
FS: Whether the polytypism at 70,000 years ago reflects different species or whether it reflects part of a geographically diverse evolving single species just as modern humans are today. Does that make sense?
FS: Different types, I mean different types of the same thing. A biologist uses that, for example, to describe humans. We are a very polytypic species. Because at some level you are different from one of your black coworkers. I mean, the differences are obvious. Lots of similarities–but there are some differences, too. And you’re different from someone from Japan, and this is an aspect of having a species that has a lot of pattern variation in it. And we call that polytypism: multiple types.
BM: OK. Back to where modern humans come from. How many schools of thought are there on this?
FS: Really, there are two basic schools of thought and then some tinkering with that. The first of the two basic schools of thought is what you might call the replacement hypothesis.
BM: The “out of Africa” model?
FS: The “out of Africa” model, because everything has focused in on Africa as the point of origin. Let me say what this model suggests first and then I’ll talk a little about how that model evolved itself. The idea here is that modern humans appear in Africa earlier than anyplace else. And they appear as a result of a biological speciation event–in other words, all of the things that come together that produce a new and different biological species. This would have been somewhere in the neighborhood of between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago. This new species then spreads out of Africa initially into western Asia and then ultimately into eastern Asia and into Europe [replacing the Neandertals] and then, of course, subsequently on into Australia and the New World. The argument of this particular hypothesis is really based on a combination of three, or actually four, sources of information.
The first piece of information is paleontological. Beginning in the late 70s, there were a number of claims that modern human morphology was present in Africa at 100,000 years ago or earlier. These claims came from sites like the Omo Kibbish site, which is in southern Ethiopia, or the Border Cave site, which is down in South Africa. There were a couple of researchers who sort of zeroed in on this and built arguments that modern humans, in fact, evolved in southern Africa. They also pointed to the fact that you could see transitional specimens between something in Africa at 200,000 years ago or 200,000 plus and modern humans. So you could see a nice morphological sequence, if you will, of the emergence of modern humans, and that this emergence appeared to have occurred by 100,000 years ago.
Now, hand in hand with this was the second factor, and that was what I could call a revolution in chronology. A couple of new dating techniques came on the scene–thermoluminescence and electron spin resonance–that began to produce earlier dates for certain things. This was used primarily in the Near East and established that things that were basically modern, a little archaic, but basically modern, were present there by about 90,000 to 100,000 years ago. And some of those techniques were also used in Africa with less clear success. But the chronological part contributed tremendously to the interpretation of the fossils, because now people were saying, “OK, we definitely have a situation for modern human morphology in Africa and then in the Near East it’s very old.” In the Near East one could make the argument that these modern humans overlapped with Neandertals; there were still things that were clearly Neandertal.
And so just looked at from that point of view it made a pretty convincing sort of an argument, because we know that modern humans don’t appear in Europe that early. They’re in central Europe by about 35,000 years ago, and in western Europe probably 5,000 or 8,000 years more recently than that. So when you look at this at one level it makes a nice argument.
I’m not saying much about eastern Asia right now because the dating over there is not very precise. We still have a lot of problems fitting things in, so I’m not bringing that stuff in on this argument yet.
The other thing, paleontologically, that was brought to bear on this argument was the fact that many people believed that the Neandertals didn’t show any evidence of evolving towards modern humans and that, in most places, where you had Neandertals there was a distinct break between Neandertals and modern humans.
BM: And this would suggest that the Neandertals were an evolutionary dead end?
FS: Some people have thought so, yes.
Now the thing in the mid-1980s that really propelled this theory was some publications that had to do with human genetics. I don’t know how much you’ve read about the “Eve” idea.
BM: The “mother of us all,” around 200,000 years ago–an African source for all modern humanity.
FS: Exactly. But, you see, the work on mitochondrial DNA really propelled this theory because the work that came out of the late Allan Wilson’s lab in Berkeley seemed to also argue that all modern human mitochondrial variation could be focused to an African root that existed between roughly 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. So here it was: a fossil argument and a genetic argument that came together. When that mitochondrial argument was published, the focus and the interest on modern human origins really crystalized because there is a tendency among the educated lay audience–and even among some scientists–to think that if it’s something you can do in a test tube, it’s much more precise and much more scientific than dealing with historical data like fossils and things like that.
So the studies by Wilson and his group really were picked up on by the press, really seemed to nail this thing down clear. There was no question about it, the “out of Africa” model, the “Eve” model, was the way to go. The fossils supported it, and–I think in a lot of people’s minds even more importantly–something more scientific, like these genetic studies, supported it. And so there was a lot of interest in it and those of us who [disagreed with it].
BM: Were you criticized within the scientific community for opposing this theory?
FS: Uh-huh. From the mid-1980s until about 1990, a lot of people were saying, “You know, these guys, they don’t understand biology, they’re not in the modern world, biologically,” and I think there was quite a bit of that kind of ridicule. It was mostly good-natured. I don’t feel like I was personally assailed or anything like that, but I do think that there were a lot of people who were saying, “These people, they’re just not with it. They’re trying to hold onto old ideas and modern serious science shows us that this is the way things happened.” They were patronizing us a little bit.
The other thing, in addition to the genetic argument, is that if you look at modern humans, if you look at the anatomy of a modern human, though there is some variation in certain aspects of skeletal structure and so forth, we’re very homogeneous. If you look at a skull of somebody from central China or you look at a skull from somebody from Birmingham in England, if you know what to look for there are differences, but the overall gestalt of the thing is very similar. So another argument is, not only are we very similar genetically and not only can we trace genetic origins back to Africa, and we can make a case in the paleontological record, but we’re so similar to each other that it’s hard to believe that there wasn’t a fairly recent ancestry of this morphological type.
So when you put all of that together you had a very convincing argument about the “out of Africa” replacement model. And it was very convincing and very attractive to a lot of people because it seemed to, it was fairly simple . . .
BM: Neat and tidy . . .
FS: Neat and tidy, not many ifs, ands, or buts–and it seemed, when presented just the way that I just presented it, to explain the situation very, very well. However, there were a number of us, who, for various reasons, believed that this was just too simple, that it was just too neat and tidy, and that there were a lot of areas that were much more equivocal than the proponents of “out of Africa” tended to present. And here I don’t even know where to begin. Let me begin with the paleontological aspect.
Several of us felt that there was evidence in various parts of the world–I’ll focus on Europe because that is where I did my work–there were lots of features in the earliest modern Europeans that were hard to explain unless there was some Neandertal input here. And the “out of Africa” model was arguing essentially that this was total replacement of one species by another.
And for some of us that was hard to accept because if you looked at many aspects of early modern Europeans there were features that were hard to derive from, let’s say, an African ancestor, as opposed to Neandertals. I never questioned the probability that there was a strong external influence on the origin of modern human beings, but the question is, is this the replacement of one species by another as the “out of Africa” model originally suggested, or is it something more complex?
I certainly believe that there was not a total replacement of one species by another. As long as we can establish, as does seem to be the case, that modern humans appeared earlier in western Asia than they do in Europe, it’s hard for me to believe that the development of such a similar morphology in Europe wouldn’t have some strong connection to the preexistence of that morphology in the Near East.
But there’s a strong difference between that and saying that what happened was that you had a new species that came in and totally replaced the other species. My way of thinking is that doesn’t jibe with what we see as far as the anatomy of the earliest modern Europeans, because in overall form those earliest modern Europeans may look more like the Near Eastern forms. But look at certain details like the occipital bun–the Near Easterners don’t have that. European Neandertals had it, early modern Europeans had it. Where did it come from if early modern Europeans represent a population totally derived from these Near Easterners and have nothing to do with the Neandertals that went before?
There’s another bit of information. Many of us felt that, at least in some late Neandertal populations, we could see some evidence of trends evolving in the direction of modern humans. The argument here was that this suggested, at least to me, gene flow in from more modern populations. And if there’s that kind of gene flow then we’re not talking about two different species, you see.
My argument has never been that [the African Homo sapiens] didn’t have an important role to play in the origin of modern Europeans. But the argument is what the nature of that role is, and I think that what the evidence definitely shows is that it’s not replacement of one species by another. Other people made similar arguments based on Asian material. My colleague Milford Wolpoff, at the University of Michigan, and some others have argued the same kind of thing: that there are characteristics in early modern north Chinese and southeast Asians and austral Asians that are more related to the archaic peoples in that area than to something that would come out of Africa. So Europe is not the only place where this kind of argument can be made.
That led many of us to begin to delve into the mitochondrial stuff–and, to make a long story short, it turns out that there are lots of problems with the analysis of the mitochondrial DNA. Without going through all of the detail, it has recently been shown that you can, in fact, argue that this tree is not rooted in Africa. That it could be equally rooted in Asia, maybe in Europe. There is this very dogmatic argument about the fact that the tree is clearly rooted in Africa. That is there if you go back and read the literature in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It’s presented like gospel, and it turns out not to be true. It could be rooted in Africa. It doesn’t exclude the possibility, but there just isn’t unequivocal support for that.
So the point that I’m trying to make is that now the sort of pieces that have been used to present the “out of Africa” hypothesis in a very dogmatic way have begun to fall apart and so now–although many of the geneticists still argue that later it will ultimately show that Africa is the point of origin–you can’t really make that argument. A lot of us reacted to the “out of Africa” model mainly by saying that it’s far too dogmatic. That the data is not so clear that you can make these statements and be so dogmatic about it.
This got dangerously close to a very dogmatic thing. It got very attractive in the press, very attractive in the popular scientific press like Natural History and Discover magazine and all these kinds of things. I hope that the lesson that this has taught us is that you have to be a little bit more cautious about some things, and it’s probably best to not go off quite so far quite so quickly.
So, what’s the other hypothesis? The other hypothesis is something call multiregional evolution. That argues that what you have is a series of localized evolutionary lines or trunks that would represent various parts of Africa, Europe, Asia, and so forth, and that these populations evolve and are constantly interconnected with other populations through gene flow. Yes, they do develop distinctive features, but they are always interconnected. We’re not talking about two separate biological species here or five separate biological species here. And so, consequently, what you see if you look at the world 70,000 years ago when Neandertals lived is a kind of polytypism like you see today, but not multiple species, and that modern humans are the result of the evolution of a polytypic species.
That doesn’t mean that maybe one population didn’t have more influence than another population did.
BM: What are some of the problems with the African Eve theory?
FS: Well, the problems are that the African stuff might not be [really] old. That’s probably too complicated to go into here, but, again, the dogmatic arguments really are not supportable for various reasons.
The African evidence is still very interesting, and you still have this nice transitional sequence there, which I think is really neat–but the question of when something we recognize as modern first appears in Africa is still very much an open debate, in my opinion.
But to get back to the argument–I have no problem with the idea and the probability that much of the modern human pattern has a single area of origin, and that it spread from that point. But I do think that looking at this as a speciational event is very, very problematic.
BM: A couple of years ago you were considered an old fogy. Where do you stand now? Has your status changed?
FS: One thing I want to interject here that I think is important is that, when you talk about this kind of a debate–that I’m going to argue with my friend Chris Stringer at the British Museum of Natural History that his idea of this being basically replacement is wrong–people say, “These anthropologists, these paleontologists can’t agree on anything! Every person who works on this has a different idea, and they can’t agree on squat. So what good is this stuff? What’s it really telling us?” I think it’s important to recognize that we agree on many more things than we disagree on.
It’s certainly clear that modern humans evolved out of some kind of archaic human; they didn’t just appear, and we have a very, very good fossil record. In fact, we have a fossil record that allows us to ask the kinds of questions that we’re asking about modern human origins. If we didn’t have a good fossil record, there’s no way that we could argue about whether or not this was a replacement from a single expanding origin or a multiregional. So we wouldn’t be able to be that precise. That’s where the [experts on very early hominids] are.
When you look at it at that level, the debates that go on between Chris Stringer and me and Milford Wolpoff and other people–the debates are at a higher echelon of question, dealing with more precise questions about how the evolutionary past occurred than is possible with almost anything else. I mean, dinosaur specialists can’t argue on this level. They argue on a much more general level.
BM: They’ve got too few specimens to deal with.
FS: Right, and they’re spread over vast expanses of geographic and temporal distribution.
So sometimes I think the public has the mistaken impression that just because there is debate, that it means we haven’t progressed in terms of our knowledge, that some people say, “They were arguing about Neandertals in 1900.” Well, that’s true–but the level of how we’re arguing about them is much different now than it was in 1900. Now it’s an argument as a part of a much more complex and sophisticated view of human evolution than anything that was available prior to the 1980s. And I think that’s an important point.
BM: Getting back to the researchers in the very early human fields–again, you’re working with vast quantities of bones in comparison, particularly in terms of the time span and the geographic area. Do you think that the people who are working on Australopithecus and so forth assume too much on too little evidence?
FS: Oh, I wouldn’t say that that’s true just of them! I think that’s a real temptation to any paleontologist. One of the struggles that you have to fight against the hardest is overinterpreting your data. There are many cases, when you look at the history of paleoanthropology–I’ll pick on my own discipline–in which people have obviously tried to say too much on too little material, and it has been, in the long run, detrimental in some cases. But it’s a very difficult thing to keep from doing. You invest so much of your time and energy, and you find something, you discover something–and you can fool yourself into seeing more importance in that specimen than is really there.
I think it’s less common today, because we have so much more of a fossil record. If I go off and find another Neandertal someplace, that’s important, but I can’t say that it’s going to rewrite what we think about human evolution. Fifty years ago, it might have.
BM: Talking a little more about Neandertals, and how they differ from other early modern humans: one of the things I’ve always wondered about is, since they’re generally more robust and stronger than modern humans–
FS: In some ways; maybe not in everything.
BM: And they had larger brains–
FS: Actually, if you look at it statistically, they don’t have larger brains. Some individuals have very, very large brains, but if you look at the whole population of Neandertals, their cranial capacity does not differ in a statistically significant way from recent humans.
BM: Another popular concept shot to hell. But the question remains: what advantage does modern man have over the Neandertal? Why should Neandertals have been supplanted by people who were not, generally, as strong as they were?
FS: There are several ways that we can approach this question. Actually, you’ve hit on something that is really important. When you’re dealing with a historical science, it is much easier to document what occurred in the past than to explain why it happened. Sometimes these two things get confused, and so someone will say, “Well, we don’t understand why this should happen, so therefore it couldn’t have happened.” It does get jumbled together that way. It’s important to realize that it’s one thing to document patterns. It’s a much more difficult thing, when you’re dealing with historical phenomena, to understand exactly why.
The same is true if you go back and try to understand why there was an American Revolution. You can suggest some things that some people knew that happened, but there’s a lot of things that probably entered into it that nobody ever reported that are very subjective, and there’s no way to know that. We know it happened; we don’t know all of the reasons why.
Well, this is the kind of situation that we’re getting in here. I cannot tell you exactly why modern human morphology prevailed over a Neandertal-type morphology. There are a lot of reasonable hypotheses, and I will give you a couple.
One is that if you look at, say, how Neandertals are built–with, as you say, very massive long bones, very big, projecting faces, and so forth–that in terms of the development of the individual, the ontology of the individual, building a structure like that is very expensive. It takes a lot of energy–and one could make the argument that that level of robusticity was necessary for those people to survive.
BM: They were having hard times in interglacial Europe.
FS: A time in which, perhaps, technology is not as sophisticated, and therefore they have a rougher time adapting.
Then, when you reach a time in which technology is a little more sophisticated, one could argue that perhaps this would change the selective pressures on the development of that level of robusticity, and therefore someone who didn’t have to channel that much energy into the development of that kind of skeletal system would have some degree of advantage.
Another idea is that it might have something to do with cold adaptation, and it might have something to do with different patterns of growth and development.
BM: If it’s cold adaptation, shouldn’t the Eskimos be built like Neandertals?
FS: The Eskimos are built like Neandertals in some ways! But you have to understand that Eskimo adaptation to the cold is a relatively recent phenomenon. So what you do is take a group of people who are already modern humans, and you put them in that environment–and what they did was to redevelop some things that Neandertals had. Now, there’s no connection between them–no occipital buns, or anything like that–but if you look at their long bones, for example, they do the same thing that Neandertals do. They shorten the distal elements of their long bones; they shorten their limb length relative to trunk length; they become more bulkily built. It’s not the same thing, because Neandertals are biologically different.
So to explain exactly why it worked out this way is much more difficult than documenting what happened. There are some very complex areas–for example, some people have argued that modern humans possess more complex language.
BM: The Jean Auel Clan of the Cave Bear thesis.
FS: Right. Although if Jean were sitting here, she would tell you, “I write fiction.” She does a lot of research, and she’s a wonderful lady, but she would tell anybody that what she’s writing is fiction, and she’s not suggesting that she has the explanation for how this really happened.
But a lot of people do see it that way; they think that modern humans, as they evolved, had much more complex brains, more complex symbolic behavior, language, all this kind of thing–and all this has gone hand in hand with the replacement hypothesis. When you start looking at it, that argument is possible–but there are so many ifs, ands, and buts that you begin to wonder whether it’s true or not.
I don’t know whether you want me to get into the cultural stuff or not.
FS: Let me say right off the bat that there really is no skeletal evidence that the Neandertals had any less of a language capability than you or I. The truth of the matter is that it’s very hard to determine that sort of thing from skeletal structure. But although people argue that there is [such evidence], all of the recent studies show that there is no reason to assume that they were anatomically any different than we are.
In terms of the brain: If you look at brain size and organization–what little we can determine of Neandertal brain organization!–there’s no evidence of any difference. Now, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any difference, but there is no basis to assume there is a difference.
So the argument really comes down to the cultural differences. And if you look at Europe, you look at the Upper Paleolithic, the [modern human] complex called Aurignacian, it’s very different from what the Neandertals were doing. The Aurignacian people were making certain kinds of art objects–the cave painting comes late, but they were making beads and pendants and different types of tools. They were making art. And this is interpreted as being part of symbolic behavior and heralding modern humans as opposed to nonmodern humans. Ergo, these new guys, much smarter, came in and replaced these old guys that were dumb and weren’t doing these kinds of things.
BM: Weren’t the Neandertal tools just as effective as–
FS: The tools were very effective and very sophisticated, but the Upper Paleolithic stuff–
BM: Gets pretty.
FS: It gets pretty, and it gets even more sophisticated.
But you see, the argument begins to fall apart when you start asking yourself, “OK, so art is associated with modern humans; that means that it must have come in with these people.” Well, is there evidence for this sort of thing associated with the earliest modern stuff from the Near East or Africa? Absolutely not! There is no indication of art, no indication of symbolic behavior. It only seems to occur when you get into Europe.
So to argue that this is necessarily associated with one type of human versus another type of human begins to lose a lot of its effectiveness when you consider that this seems to be a European phenomenon, something unique to Europe at this time. And it’s not a worldwide pattern that has anything to do with the appearance of early modern people. Something happened in Europe–no question about it!–and exactly what that is, I don’t know. But there’s no reason to assume that it has anything to do with intellectual differences between people, because there are living people today who don’t have the kind of artistic expression that you see in Upper Paleolithic Europe. Does that make them nonmodern humans? Obviously it doesn’t!
That argument looks pretty on paper, it looks convincing on paper, as long as it’s applied simply to Europe, and you don’t put it in a greater perspective. Then you start putting it in a bigger perspective, and it becomes, in my opinion at least, a much, much weaker argument.
BM: So we don’t know how smart Neandertals were–
FS: We don’t! But there’s no reason to assume they weren’t just as smart as we are. That’s the whole point. Somebody else could say, “Well, there’s no reason to assume that they were as smart.” But everything that we can look at biologically would suggest their smarts are not different from ours.
BM: If it’s biologically more expensive to build a Neandertal than a modern human, does that mean that there were fewer of them generally than there were of the early moderns?
FS: No, no, it doesn’t necessarily work that way. There’s no evidence that modern humans had greater population densities right away, or anything like that. This has been an argument that has been used–that population density got too great around the Mediterranean area and that propelled modern humans into Europe. It’s a nice idea, but there’s absolutely no evidence for that. Trying to determine the density of populations that far back in the past is a very iffy proposition.
BM: Are there any other significant cultural differences that we can put a finger on, beyond the use of art? They were both living in–or, rather, using–caves early on, right?
FS: They used caves. They probably weren’t living in caves all the time. There have been all kinds of suggestions of some kind of differences. And it is true that as the Upper Paleolithic develops, the cultural expression gets much more complex. But that’s generally what seems to be happening as far as human evolution overall is concerned, and I don’t think that in and of itself tells us much.
There have been arguments about the fact that maybe modern humans are more eclectic in terms of their hunting behavior, and less specialized, and therefore maybe have a more dependable economic basis–but really, there’s not very good evidence for this.
There have even been arguments that Neandertals only scavenged, that they couldn’t hunt as effectively as Upper Paleolithic people.
BM: Did they have the same range of weapons?
FS: They had spears; there’s no evidence that they had bows and arrows or atlatls [spear throwers] or anything like that. And when you do begin to get those things, toward the end of the Upper Paleolithic, there is a real difference. But if you compare the early Upper Paleolithic with the Neandertals–there’s not really any evidence of difference in hunting ability. There are people who will argue that there is, but the most recent evidence that has come about as a counter to that argument is pretty convincing: that Neandertals were just as effective in terms of resource utilization as the Upper Paleolithic people–at least in terms of animals; we don’t know anything about what they did with plants.
BM: Are there any new theories for the reasons behind the physiognomy of the Neandertals–the big nose and the nonexistent chin?
FS: Again, when you start to get into trying to understand what these things mean, it gets a bit more difficult. I think the consensus is that there’s something going on here with respect to cold and physiological adaptation. For example, the Neandertal facial complex can be seen as a by-product of a type of prenatal growth acceleration that will produce fairly large infants. And fairly large infants are very adaptive in cold environments. So it may be that this morphology is a secondary result of a growth process that is an adaptation for cold. Again, that’s not proven–it’s internally cohesive, but that doesn’t mean it’s true.
One other argument–and the two are not mutually exclusive–is that in cold environments where there is a lot of physical exertion, the kind of nasal aperture that a Neandertal has would be useful because it creates a lot of turbulence, so that a maximum use would be made of oxygen. And that might explain why you have this big, big face.
There are other arguments that it may have to do with the maintenance of large anterior teeth, and habitual anterior loading of these teeth–in other words, using the teeth as tools–which is an idea that I was really very fond of in the late 70s and early 80s. I still think that it’s inherently cohesive, but you begin to wonder whether or not selection would really work on something that specific. I drift back to this idea that maybe what we’re looking at is selection of the whole organism to produce large individuals, and these other things are secondary aspects to that.
When you talk about documenting what happened in the past, there’s where you’re on your firmest scientific basis. When you start talking about why it happened, and this sort of thing, that’s where you get into the scenario-building that a lot of people look at and say, “This guy is weaving tales here!”
BM: Let’s talk a little about where the publicity and interest have been in recent years. For so long there was so much concentrated on the very earliest origins: Leakey versus Johanson, and all of the “I want to find Lucy’s great-grandmother” business–and that seemed to grab all the attention. I had the impression that searching for the very earliest human ancestors constituted the glamour area of paleoanthropology. What’s it like to labor on the other side, with the last ancestors?
FS: For most of the years that I’ve been involved with this field, what you have said is definitely true–that the mystique and the glamour was focused on the search for early humans. This started with the Leakeys’ work at Olduvai Gorge, and then Richard Leakey’s work, and later Don Johanson’s work–and work from people who were less known to the general public but were just as important. And definitely, throughout the late 60s, 70s, into the 80s, this was the glamour area, and those of us who labored with the later stuff were perfectly well respected scientifically, but there wasn’t really any [outside] interest.
However, from about the mid-1980s until now, while there is still some interest continuing on the early stuff, the focus has really turned towards the studies of later human evolution. There have been articles in Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, U.S. News and World Report, and so forth–all this focusing on later human evolution. I think that’s beginning to die down a little bit. We’ve gone through about a seven-, eight-year phase where this has been attractive, because of the apparent coming together of the genetics and the paleoanthropology, and it began to look like we had an ultimate truth emerging here. And that attracted a lot of people.
I think now that that’s beginning to fall apart, the interest is waning to some extent, because you no longer have this nice, neat package.
BM: They want it to fit in sound bites.
FS: Exactly. And I think that those of us who have argued against this idea for years are at a disadvantage, because our idea was much more complex biologically than what they were saying. You and I’ve talked for a long time, but normally, when you talk to a reporter from Time or someplace like that, they may call you and talk to you for a half-hour at a time, maybe call you back at another time, and it’s hard to make this kind of complex argument, particularly when in the mid-80s, late 80s, the evidence on the other side seemed–to them, at least–to be so conclusive.
So I think we’ve gone through our boom period, and it’s beginning to settle down. Quite frankly, I’ve been happy to have the coverage and the interest, because I think it’s important that the public understand the sorts of things that we’re doing. I think it’s fun, and it’s also our duty to provide this information to the public when there’s this kind of interest. But it does create some problems scientifically–a lot of people sort of posturing for the press time and prominence. You know, scientists are humans, and we’re not people who live in vacuums and don’t have egos and don’t want to see our picture in Time. And so while there’s been a lot of good that has come from this focus, there have also been some negative things. I think it’s time now for the focus on human evolution, for the microscope, to be somewhere else for a while and let things settle down.
BM: Is there an area of current interest for the press?
FS: I think things are drifting back to the older stuff. It hasn’t really gotten there yet.
BM: They need some new discoveries.
FS: We need something really earth-shattering.
BM: If I may ask a rather crass question, how much do the attention of the news media and that kind of thing influence who gets what grants?
FS: Oh, I think it has some pretty significant effects at times–not so much who’s going to get the federal grants, but there are other sources of money out there, private funding sources that are pretty significant, and if you’ve been on the cover of Time, and your stuff is getting discussed on Good Morning America, it has a very prominent cause and effect. We live in the real world, and just like advertising and positive publicity is important to business, it’s important to science as well. And not just good publicity–any publicity can help.
BM: Getting your name out is the important thing?
FS: You know, I was at the University of Tennessee for 17 years before I came up here, and I was an undergraduate there before that. But I don’t think any administrators there had any idea what I did until I got quoted in a Time magazine article in 1985 or ’86. And all of a sudden, the president of the university is calling me and congratulating me on my excellent work.
BM: Did getting quoted in Time magazine help you to get this position?
FS: I don’t think so. I think it’s been good for my career, but I don’t think anyone counted to see if it was four times or five times or six times. But it provides a kind of reward to you, and if anybody says they don’t care about that stuff, they’re lying.
BM: Have you had any problems with creationists?
FS: I have an intellectual problem with creationists.
I certainly don’t wear this on my lapel, but I’m a very religious person. I can’t be accused of being an atheist or anything, because I’m not. But I’ve had lots of debates with creationists over the years, and I’ve dealt with them in class, and the thing that I try to get people to understand is that creationism cannot be and never will be science. Because science is not a body of facts; science is an approach to understanding issues. And creationists have all the answers; they have no methodology; it’s not an approach. It’s an argument about ultimate truth–and that in and of itself defines it as not being science.
My problem with creationists is an intellectual one. I don’t want that sort of stuff taught as a substitute for science. I don’t want kids to think that that’s the way that science ought to be done, any more than I want kids to be taught alchemy instead of chemistry.
That doesn’t mean there’s no right to teach creationism as philosophy. I don’t have a problem with teaching it as philosophy. But I have a problem if you put it in a science class.
It has been my experience with the creationists that I’ve been around that, one, they don’t know the scientific [side]–they might know one little part, so you’re arguing with somebody who’s arguing about the ultimate origin of granite, and they might know a little bit about that. But they don’t know everything else. And the creationists who have written on the human fossil record–what they write is just absolutely ludicrous! They would have you think that we don’t know any more about the fossil record now than we did when the Piltdown forgery was perpetrated, for example. Or they point out Piltdown and say, “Look, they were fooled by this hoax!” The implication is that everything is fooling us today. Of course, they don’t point out that Piltdown is one of the best examples you can have of how science works as a process–the self-correcting nature of scientific endeavor. It wasn’t a bunch of creationists that proved that Piltdown was a hoax, it was a bunch of scientists.
BM: With the current fashion for the “politically correct,” is there, in your field, anything that it’s dangerous to say?
FS: I think that one of the things that became a sacred cow about the “out of Africa” hypothesis was the political correctness of it.
BM: Because it was out of Africa?
FS: Because it was out of Africa. And, in fact, I made a lecture at a major university in February, and after the lecture, a couple of faculty members who happened to be Afro-Americans–young Afro-Americans–really assailed me, and said that I shouldn’t be making these arguments, that this had political ramifications against black people, and this sort of thing. And I told them, I said, “Look, I make these arguments because that’s the way I interpret the scientific information, and not because I have any inherent prejudice that I know of against blacks.” We can’t interpret our studies in the light of political correct- ness. We’ve got to interpret the data [scientifically].
They really went after me, and I just wasn’t expecting that from scholars. It just blew me away. It took me completely off guard. I thought at first that the guy who asked me that was kidding. But it became quite clear immediately that he was not.
While I don’t think there are many people who would be quite that blatant about it, I do think that there have been people who have accepted this because of the political correctness of it and have gone from there. There is this movement among some Afro-Americans called Afrocentrism, which is attempting to explain everything as coming from Africa. I got one letter from some Afrocentrist who accused me of being a white supremacist because I was arguing against his point of view.
You know, we in anthropology should be very sensitive to the questions of race, class, and gender, and I think we try to be. Sometimes it gets to you a little bit, when things are taken by somebody completely out of context.
BM: A final question: What’s the purpose in your work? Beyond satisfying raw intellectual curiosity, what does this accomplish, and whom does it benefit?
FS: Well, that’s a very good question. One thing I would say is that it’s amazing how many people are interested in this sort of thing. There’s a tremendous amount of student interest in it.
BM: You could call it the ultimate Roots.
FS: I think anthropology fits very well into a good liberal arts education. And teaching people how to look at issues critically, as you have to do when you’re dealing with historical phenomena, is important training for whatever they might do.
People have a tendency to regard humans as something separate from the rest of the natural world, a belief that we are somehow a species apart. In some ways, they might intellectually recognize that we are animals, therefore organisms, therefore part of the natural world–but on another plane, we’re different. I think that by showing people that humans are in fact organisms that have evolved like other organisms, that because of some things that occurred to us biologically we are distinct–I truly hope this hammers home to people the fact that we are a part of the natural world, and that we have to be a part of the natural world, that we’re not something separate and divinely created to rule everything and have dominion over everything. I honestly think that if people would look at things that way, they might have a little bit better–to use a good Christian term–stewardship with respect to the world around them.
This may sound hokey, but it’s something that I firmly believe: that people need to understand that humans are a part of the web of life, that we’ve evolved just like everything else has, that we have a certain role to play and that role can have tremendous repercussions, that there’s not somebody who’s necessarily going to be able to repair all the things that we do. I think that’s important.
If you push me for why this is practically important, I would say that that’s one of the reasons why. However, I also believe, at the bottom of my heart, that anything is worth knowing, and that anything should be known. Now, we might choose, once we know something at a certain level, to say, “We need to leave this alone,” or, “We need to not pursue this further,” or, “We need to pursue this in secrecy.” But I honestly believe that ignorance about things is wrong. We’re opening some doors on knowledge, and that’s a good thing.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.