What if our family tree was still around?

Sometimes I wonder what our world would be like if our evolutionary relatives were still around. How would things be different with intelligent cousins like Neanderthals in the mix? Would we just be perpetually trying to kill them off, since that’s probably what helped them originally go extinct? Would there be nations of Neanderthals or would we intermix? Would their be stigma with interbreeding (which we know sometimes happened) or general species-ist stereotypes? Would there still be tension from the genocide we inflicted on them ages ago, with reparations to current Neanderthals or monuments to those who lost their lives?

Would less intelligent cousins who still had primitive language, like Homo heidelbergensis, be relegated to a lower class? How would we treat our even more distant cousins like Austrolopithecus? Would we grant them some special rights above other animals, like we sometimes do with intelligent animals like dolphins and chimpanzees? How would the ethics of genetic testing work when trying to get samples from our cousins who are not intelligent enough to consent, but are still more intelligent that what we currently research?

…This is what a human evolution researcher with a penchant for science fiction daydreams about. I guess I’ll add it to the list of “Books I should write but probably never will.”


  1. says

    There has actually been some science fiction on this theme. The basic premise was that pre-modern H. Sap subspecies made it to the Americas before contact from the east by Europeans. Authors name was Turtledove. Been many years so I don’t recall exact details.
    I’ve always been uncomfortable with the thought that our species started with a genocide of competing sub-species of H. sap.

  2. says

    One thing would certainly happen: the Creationists’ favorite claim “If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” will have gained more ground and momentum… Hehehe!

  3. scottparr says

    I love that I got an Ancestry.com ad with this post.

    If Africa had split into two continents 3 million years ago during the Australopihicus era, we might well have seen two different lines of human evolution that didn’t contact each other until recently.

  4. says

    As always, nice to know I am not the only one that thinks thee things. I would also want to communicate with them and find out how they think! They could probably AT LEAST learn sign language (gorillas can do that :P) and we could communicate with them- what would be their concern and worries? Perception of time? Supernatural ideas? Sooo many questions!!

  5. says

    Neanderthals are so close to us that I’m doubtful they could exist as a species today. Tens of thousands of years of interbreeding might have resulted in a somewhat more robust body type for Eurasians and there might be some populations with a higher percentage of Neanderthal ancestry than others (as there are in the real world), but there would be no clear-cut line between “us” and “them.”

    Actually, it’s interesting to consider: what if there was such a perfectly preserved chain of the great ape family that we formed a ring species with chimpanzees?

    If, through this ring, genetics could pass (albeit over many generations) from humans to chimps, where would we draw the line between human and non-human?

  6. David Evans says

    Robert J. Sawyer has a nice SF trilogy (Hominids;Hybrids;Humans) in which a physics experiment opens a gate to a world where Neanderthals are the dominant species. Some interesting thoughts on how we would see them, and they us.

  7. TychaBrahe says

    You’re thinking of A Different Flesh.

    I was thinking Jerry Was a Man by Robert Heinlein, or Down in the Bottomlands, also by Turtledove. Radnal was a Neanderthal.

  8. says

    I know, right? I love thinking about this stuff.

    Since humanity sucks, I imagine there would have been some active oppression in this alternate history. While I think Neanderthals would probably be treated like white Europeans, Homo erectus and other close relatives might have been enslaved at various points in history. Entrenched racism against our close relatives would be particularly bad because many of them would have a lower intellectual capacity than modern humans. And yet even that different, with every branch of the human family tree represented there could still be reproduction going all the way back, making it difficult to deny the connection.

    Any distinction between humans and other great apes would be clearly arbitrary in a ring species situation, since chimpanzees would just be on the other arc from our common ancestor. There would eventually have to be a very hard debate about who gets full human rights and who doesn’t.

    Would H. erectus eventually win suffrage? If so, how far back would it go? Would speech be the deciding factor in whether or not they’d be allowed to vote or hold office? Would our sister species strategically marry into modern human families to gain “human privilege”? Would they have to fight for the right of interspecies marriage? Seems likely.

    This is just such a great thought experiment.

  9. says

    I actually posed this question to my students last year as a journal prompt. Sadly, I think they were more confused than anything else.

  10. Brian says

    I remember reading those stories when they were first published in the magazines. The idea was that with the simians populating the Americas instead, they had managed to be preserved from inbreeding and/or genocide until the arrival of the Pilgrims. Not only did their existence help spark the idea of evolution by natural selection earlier, but they also provided an easy-to-obtain source of slave labor, and therefore becoming the nucleus of a completely different kind of “racial tension”. So to speak.

  11. says

    Considering how some humans today treat people with slightly different genetic differences, I suspect such an alternate reality would be filled with tales of horror.

    But then, maybe evolution would have weeded out such assholes.

  12. advancedatheist says

    If Protestants descended from Catholics, why do Catholics still exist? They should all have evolved into Protestants.

  13. says

    There are two related questions that have always occurred to me:

    1. Are any captive animals capable of realizing that the humans around them are intentionally keeping them captive? A captive chimpanzee, for example, is presumably aware that it is confined, and may even observe that human actions contribute to its confinement. However, is it capable, even in principle, of realizing that the humans are doing this deliberately.
    2. Are any animals capable of perceiving their intellectual inferiority to humans? Do chimpanzees perceive humans as just another animal, or as some kind of unusually capable being? Are they capable, even in principle, of thinking “I am stupid”?

    In relation to the original post, at what point would a human ancestor gain these abilities?

  14. Matt says

    Don’t forget about the Thursday Next books by Jasper Fforde, in which Neanderthals, Dodos, etc… were cloned and resurrected.

  15. advancedatheist says

    Sorry, you don’t get it. Patriarchy has an empirical advantage over theism, and in fact the case for male authority exists independently from the case for traditional theism. Despite what clergymen and the people on those foolish ghost-hunting shows on cable claim, we can’t communicate with supernaturals; but men have had to live with women all along.

  16. MNb0 says

    I agree. Think of the Native Americans (and not only those of the USA) and the Bonobo’s.
    Neanderthaler’s (or Australopithecus, Heidelbergensis or whatever) best chance of survival had been isolation in a for Homo Sapiens fairly unaccessible area, like the Papua’s of New Guinea.

  17. jamesfish says

    Neanderthals are still around (and no, this isn’t the feed line for the lame satirical gag that someone always seems to make at this point). We are them, slightly. They couldn’t survive as a separate species because we aren’t separate species.

  18. adamgordon says

    we aren’t separate species.

    You state this with such certainty! This is an issue that’s far from being settled within scientific community. I’ve actually witnessed two paleoanthropologists get into a bitter argument on this very question.

    Even wikipedia makes no judgement on this issue, choosing to state:

    Neanderthals are classified alternatively as a subspecies of Homo sapiens (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis) or as a separate human species (Homo neanderthalensis).

  19. jamesfish says

    “Even” Wikipedia? Wikipedia is equivocal about everything over which there is any controversy. Most of the pages on human evolution are horrible.

    The exact application of different species concepts to extinct organisms is a knotty area anyway, but the fact is that anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals could, and did, interbreed and produce fertile offspring, so the biological species concept is a bit of a bust as far as these two putative “species” is concerned. Whether or not we choose to retain the current taxonomic separation for clarity’s sake is a different question.

  20. says

    Wikipedia doesn’t really sway me much on this topic.

    Our concept of “species” is a human construct that doesn’t exist in nature, so paleoanthropologists will most certainly argue over whether or not Neanderthals should be grouped in a species with modern humans, since there’s no factual answer there. It’s going to depend on which definition is used and a few other factors.

    What we do know is that there are genes in common between Neanderthals and Eurasians which are not shared with certain populations in Africa. There have been other indications of archaic members of Homo providing genes to different populations of early modern humans as well, not just the Neanderthal. The picture being painted by our DNA is a complex one where it appears that there were multiple points where early modern humans and these other populations were interbreeding. We know these matings were fertile because we are the result.

    One definition of species is that the populations will interbreed in nature and produce fertile offspring. This definition fits early modern humans and Neanderthals. Using that definition, it’s entirely correct to state that Neanderthals and humans are the same species.

    Anyone with Eurasian ancestry and many people with African ancestry carry Neanderthal derived genes. John Hawks himself is 2.5% Neanderthal. Quibbling over whether or not they were a separate species is just that: quibbling. Their DNA is alive and well within billions of people.

  21. jonathanray says

    chimps are more than intelligent enough to consent or decline to research, either nonverbally or with sign language, but researchers don’t give a fuck.

  22. jonathanray says

    In JS Mill’s On Liberty, the line below which one needs to be ruled over for one’s own good is pretty high — an adult of normal intelligence (though, arguably, even adults of normal intelligence are very inept at promoting their own welfare). No matter where this line is drawn, people just below the line (e.g. kids) are going to be pissed and and people just above the line are going to piss themselves.

  23. jamesfish says

    It’s also worth pointing out that the Neanderthal genetic material we’ve used for comparison is recent and northern European. It would be rather more fascinating to get our hands on genetic material from Neanderthal populations that lived in the Near East, rather closer to the African cradle of anatomically modern humans. Unfortunately even ancient DNA from much more recent periods hardly ever survives in such an arid region.

  24. adamgordon says

    First off, I’d just like to say that I agree that species are a human-derived concept, there lots of species concepts, etc. etc.I also happen to agree that Neanderthals should probably be classified as a subspecies of Homo sapiens.

    HOWEVER, I’m noticing something more and more in discussions of the relationship between early homo sapiens and Neanderthals. These quote are illustrative of what I’m talking about:

    anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals could, and did, interbreed and produce fertile offspring

    One definition of species is that the populations will interbreed in nature and produce fertile offspring. This definition fits early modern humans and Neanderthals.

    More and more frequently I’ve seen it stated as scientific fact that humans and neanderthals interbred to produce fertile offspring. Although this makes a great soundbite on Nature’s website, the fact of the matter is that this is only one possible interpretation of the genetic findings.

    It’s a very, very big leap to go from “humans have low-frequency haplotypes that are shared with neanderthals that are not present in chimp” to “humans and neanderthals interbred and produced fertile offspring.” There are several other plausible explanations for this observation, although they are not quite as ‘sexy’ as the former.

    Stating with such certainty that they interbred to produce fertile offspring ignores the complexities of the population genetics behind the actual findings, complexities that I think make the results even more interesting than just a simple conclusion that humans and neanderthals interbred.

    (As an aside, this is a topic of great personal and professional interest to me so I tend to get nitpicky about it!)

  25. says

    I agree that it would be very interesting to see what we’d find in the DNA of Near Eastern Neanderthals. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that will ever happen. It’s still pretty remarkable just how far we’ve managed to get with what we have been able to find, though. It wasn’t that long ago when the mitochondrial evidence made it appear that interbreeding had never happened at all.

  26. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    Given how poor stupid anatomically modern humans are at 1) realizing they’re stupid and 2) making correct judgments about who is responsible for their plight and what the motivation is…

    Nature will have to get back to you on that.

  27. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    Then why is there such an overwhelming correlation between greater freedom and equality for women, and better societal outcomes, dipshit?

  28. says

    Brave New World anyone? The people in that clearly believed themselves superior to the Native Americans…

    Jen, if you haven’t heard of it, you might like The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. The environment they have created allows for more context for theoretical situations such as this — there are humanoid species that you could easily say are descendants of other branches of homo sapiens cousins, and suddenly humanity is interacting with them. In addition, homo sapiens themselves are suddenly divided into groups that have nothing (apparently) to do with genetics or racial groups. Those aspects are fascinating from an anthropology position.

  29. Gord says

    You might find Stephen Baxter’s SF novel “Manifold: Origin” interesting. Humans come into contact with a variety of species/strains/subspecies of hominids. I found his attempt to represent different forms of consciousness a bit strained, but it’s an interesting read.

  30. jamesfish says

    I’m more of an archaeologist than a palaeoanthropologist, but I’ve yet to speak to, nor to read a paper by, anyone who questions the basic interpretation of the genetics, i. e., that (at least some) anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals interbred and produced fertile offspring. I’m interested to hear your argument, but I’m a little dubious. The cumulative literature in this area now amounts to rather more than a “soundbite on Nature’s website”, to quote your rather condescending assumption about where we’re getting our data (also the initial bombshell, Green et al (2010), was published in Science).

    The main point your criticism fails to address is that not all humans are equally similar to Neanderthals. Arguments for interbreeding aren’t based on a greater genetic distance between humans and Neanderthals on the one hand, and chimps on the other. Rather they’re based on the fact that some modern human populations are clearly less genetically distant from Neanderthals than others. Given the relatively recent origin of anatomically modern humans, and the geographical distribution of the two groups in question, this is considerably more parsimoniously explained by assuming differential levels of interbreeding with Neanderthals (or possibly with already hybridised archaic sapiens in the Levant) by different groups of anatomically modern humans.

  31. Jim Spalding says


    There is a great short story by Issac Asimov called “The Ugly Little Boy” about a future society bringing a Neaderthal into the future. Asimov thought it was one of his top 5 stories. Here is the Wiki Summary. Its a good read.

    “A Neanderthal child is brought to the present day as a result of time travel experiments by a research organization, Stasis Inc. He cannot be removed from his immediate area because of the vast energy loss and time paradoxes that would result. To take care of him, Edith Fellowes, a children’s nurse, is engaged.
    She is initially repelled by his appearance, but soon begins to regard him as her own child, learns to love him and realizes that he is far more intelligent than she at first imagined. She names him ‘Timmie’ and attempts to ensure that he has the best possible childhood despite his circumstance. She is enraged when the newspapers refer to him as an “ape-boy”. Edith’s love for Timmie brings her into conflict with her employer, for whom he is more of an experimental animal than a human being.
    Eventually, her employer comes to the conclusion that his organization has exacted all the knowledge and publicity which could be gotten from Timmie, and that the time has come to move on to the next project. This involves bringing a Medieval peasant into the present, which necessitates the return of Timmie to his own time. Miss Fellowes fights the decision, knowing that he could not now survive, having acquired modern dependencies and speech. She decides to smuggle the boy out of the facilities, but when that plan fails, she returns to the ancient past with Timmie.” – Wikipedia

  32. Kevin K says

    They’d be pets, or slaves, or both.

    Probably not food. Too high of a cost to raise a hominin to adulthood to get maximum meat yield. Except as a “delicacy”, of course.

  33. Valroy says

    Reading the Earth’s Children series right now! There seem to be big themes of “racism” once the female protagonist is cast away from the clan of Neanderthals that raised her. The Cro-Magnons dismiss Neanderthals as “animals”, and half-breed children are considered abominations to most.

    I can’t speak for the scientific credibility of the books, but Jean Auel did do lots of research and offers interesting speculations about what the culture and spirituality were like 30,000 years ago. For instance, the Clan is patriarchal, while the homo sapiens are relatively matriarchal in comparison. The main character is definitely an iron woman. And there’s lots of sexy action that caught me pleasantly off guard. Fun stuff, for sure, but I’m only on the 3rd or 6 books.

    I would read any novel that Jen put out (once she has time), as long as it doesn’t start out as an erotic Harry Potter fanfic. Teehee!

  34. KG says

    There should probably be something parallel to Rule 34 for SF scenarios.

    A few books on this and related themes not yet mentioned:

    Orphan of Creation by Roger MacBride Allen: Australopithecus skeletons turn up in a slave graveyard in the southern US, and living ones are eventually discovered in Africa.

    Dance of the Tiger and Singletusk by Bjorn Kurten. Kurten was a vertebrate palaeontologist, specialising in the Quarternary. (Admittedly he did have some ideas which look quite cranky now, e.g. that anthropoid apes descended from hominid ancestors.) Set in Scandinavia, at a time when anatomically modern humans (“blacks” in the book) and Neandertals (“whites”) exist alongside each other. These books are to Jean Auel’s roughly as Jane Austen’s are to Barbara Cartland’s.

    The Gameplayers of Zan by M.A. Foster. Set a few centuries from now, with a species produced in an unsuccessful attempt to create superhumans, the Ler, living on a reservation. There are two other books by Foster about the Ler, but I’ve only read one of them, The Warriors of Dawn, apparently written earlier, but set later; and much inferior in my judgement.

    Then there’s the third part of my unwritten SF masterpiece…

  35. whatnot says

    I’m not too sure about the Robert Sawyer series. It is as if he Mary Sue-ed an entire race.

  36. witless chum says

    I remember liking Orphan of Creation a 15 years ago or so. Allen’s a pretty good sci fi writer who’s never had a lot of recognition.

  37. ik says

    It doesn’t take much of a brain to not consent to something. Almost anything but bacteria can.

  38. ik says

    IIRC, I think it was pretty much a cultural/tech thing, and they would have considered themselves superior to 1950s white Americans as well.

  39. ik says

    Probably depends a lot on which proto-human you are talking about. Also I doubt anybody would keep them as pets. That would be completely stupid, and they wouldn’t be cute or anything.

  40. ik says

    I imagine that you might have had a fair amount of parallel development of civilizations in the more intelligent ones, and that might serve as pressure to compress the extant h. sapiens races into a single society. I would expect exotic stereotypes, not entirely wrong or all that demeaning, going both ways between sapiens and neanderthals.

    Not sure about the other ones. I suspect that some features of them might make them not very good slaves. They might just be left as a backwater that would slowly get encroached on.

  41. says

    An interesting SF series by David Brin is the uplift books, based on the premise that chimpanzees and dolphins are genetically modified (“uplifted”) by humans so that they can talk and even understand and practice science. Furthermore, humans come into contact with a Galactic civilisation in which patron species regularly uplift client species they discover on other planets. The Galactics believe that humans must have been uplifted at some point in their history by unknown patrons who later abandoned them. Interestingly, humans seem to treat their client species much better than Galactic patrons in general treat theirs, although the chimps and dolphins don’t quite have equal rights with humans.

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