90,000-year-old human hybrid found in ancient cave

Researchers have just discovered the remains of a hybrid human.

90,000 years ago, a young girl lived in a cave in the Altai mountains in southern Siberia. Her life was short; she died in her early teens, but she stands at a unique point in human evolution. She is the first known hybrid of two different kinds of ancient humans: the Neanderthals and the Denisovans.


Her remains were discovered by a team of researchers this past summer. In a study published in Nature, the details of the discovery and the implications it has on our understanding of human evolution are explained. 

A hybrid who and what?

We Homo sapiens aren’t the only species of human to have walked the earth, and only recently have we lacked the company of our evolutionary siblings, the Neanderthals and the Denisovans. While the former is rather famous the later is nearly unknown.  

This might be because we only discovered the Denisovans in 2010 and have so few fossils to work with that we don’t even know what they looked like. We’re not quite sure when they faded away, but it is probable that they vanished around the same time the Neanderthals did, 40,000 years ago. 

What do we know about this girl? 

Denisova 11, the rather dull name the researchers have given the hybrid human, is the fifth Denisovan ever found, which makes the fact she was a hybrid all the more fascinating. A small bone fragment is all we have of her, or the other members of her species for that matter. We know she had parents of two different species and lived in a cave with several members of both species.

This image from the study, which explains itself in the caption, shows the location of the human ancestors whose DNA has been analyzed. Of these few individuals, two are known to either be hybrids or to have had close relatives of a different human species. (Slon et al.)

How do we know she was a hybrid?

During DNA sequencing of the bones discovered at the site, the researchers noticed that half of the chromosomes in Denisova 11 were similar to those of the other Denisovans and half of them were closer to those of the Neanderthals. Initially, Viviane Slon, a graduate student involved with the study thought that she must have made a mistake. However, after the hybrid hypothesis was suggested, the DNA evidence became “good proof that this was real,” she explained. 

The researchers looked at the mitochondrial DNA, which can only be inherited from your mother, to determine which parent belonged to which species. This is how we know Denisova’s mother was a Neanderthal and her father was a Denisovan.

Her father’s DNA was very similar to that of the original Denisovan found in the cave. Strangely, her Neanderthal mother’s DNA was closer to that of Neanderthals found living in Croatia thousands of years later than to the other members of her species in the cave. This suggests that migrations of Neanderthal populations took place at some point in the last 100,000 years.  

Were there other hybrids?

In 2015, scientists found the 40,000-year old remains of a modern human who had a Neanderthal for a great-great-grandparent. The discovery of two individuals with blended DNA in the small group of ancient humans scientists have tested so far suggests that more will be found.

We also know that people from pretty much everywhere but Sub-Saharan Africa have either Neanderthal or Denisovan DNA mixed into their genome, with variations of which and how much varying with geography. You, dear reader, probably have a Neanderthal in your family tree!

What does this mean for human evolution?

We’ve only been genetically sequencing the remains of ancient human remains over the last decade. The evidence that modern humans were interbreeding with other subspecies has been piling up since then. This find, however, is the first evidence that the other two human species were interbreeding too.

This could pose a problem for the scientists who wish to explain away the discovery of Neanderthal or Denisovan DNA in modern humans by claiming it merely comes from a recent common ancestor, as we now have direct evidence of interbreeding between two of the groups. 

Finding a hybrid specimen amongst other archaic species suggests that interbreeding was either common or didn’t strike the two groups as odd. This could end up supporting the idea that both the Neanderthals and the Denisovans interbred with humans to the point where they ceased to exist as a species, though further evidence is needed before that can be proven.

We’re not the only humans to have existed on this planet. In the not too distant past, we shared Eurasia with some close evolutionary cousins. Why they died out we cannot say, but this discovery helps shed light on these mysterious relatives of ours. 

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.