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Paleontologist asks, what does it means for modern humans to be lone survivors if ancient populations mixed?

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Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on EarthIn “The only humans left on Earth” (New Scientist Culturelab, 14 March 2012), John Hawks reports,

What explains the success of these more recent Africans and the decline of Neanderthals and other ancient peoples? In Lone Survivors, [palaeontologist Chris] Stringer tabulates the scientific ledger on this question, presenting his views on the advantages of modern human behaviour patterns, the distinctiveness of archaic peoples’ anatomy, and the meaning of recent genetic findings.

The book is most interesting as he describes the surprising turns of the last few years: a 100,000-year record of gradual increases in sophistication of engraving and pigments within Africa now includes a few Neanderthal sites; genes of the archaic Neanderthals themselves have been found to make up about 2.5 per cent of the genomes of the majority of people living outside Africa, including mine; Denisova cave in the low Altai mountains of Siberia has provided the genome of yet another archaic lineage, whose living descendants include aboriginal peoples of Oceania and Australia. We have entered an era in which never-before-suspected human groups can be discovered with barely any anatomical trace, using forensic methods.

Looking at our genes and those of our ancestors, we find evidence for mixing between these ancient populations, yet clearly most of the ancestry of living groups traces to those African pioneers of the last 150,000 years. How can we account for this contradiction? And what does it mean to be “lone survivors” when the Neanderthals, Denisovans and a diversity of ancient African groups all had a part in our genesis?

Stringer, says Hawk, doesn’t really answer the question, but who can? Absent a historical record, we have only a catwalk of this season’s fashionable ideas on what exactly happened.

The big news is that there doesn’t seem to have been one group that was really sophisticated and a number of others that were half ape.

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