Neanderthal Genomes and the Domestication of the Horse

The two are not, of course, related. As I pointed out recently there seems to be a race to sequence the Neanderthal genome. National Geographic has a story on it, which focusses mainly on the work of James Noonan. It doesn’t add much to what we already know about the story. It does drop one interesting tidbit from Svante Paabo:

Based on his results to date, Paabo expects to see some surprises as his project proceeds. “Neandertal DNA is degraded in specific ways that we had not anticipated, and in some ways Neandertals actually look closer to humans than we had expected[emphasis mine – afarensis],” he said.

It would have been nice if they would have asked a follow up question like “Could you explain what you mean by that?”

National Geographic also has a story about the implications of horse poop on the origins of horse domestication. You see, horse poop is apparently high in nitrates and phosphates:

Traces of ancient horse manure have been found in a remote 5,600-year-old Kazakh village–a discovery that could be the earliest known evidence of horse domestication.
A team of archaeologists and geologists discovered the traces inside a circular array of postholes in the village.
While no actual smelly remains were present, the researchers did find that the level of nutrients called phosphates was ten times higher in the soil within the array than in soil adjacent to it.
Animal manure is high in nutrients, including phosphates, so the find is a strong indication that the enclosure used to be a corral.

No nitrates have been found, so there is a certain amount of doubt but other data from elswhere at the site reinforce the identification:

While the existence of manure alone does not prove that the animals housed in the corral were horses, there is strong evidence that they were, says team member Sandra Olsen of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. Her team recovered more than 300,000 animal bone fragments in just one of the five Kazakh villages being studied. “Of those, over 99 percent are from horses,” she said.

In particular, archaeologists are finding a lot of larger bones that would not be schleped back to the village if they were just hunting horses. Additionally, archaeologists were finding a lot of smoothers and scrapers (used to work the hide).

But soil in the ancient animal pen may contain additional secrets. Only a week ago, the Carnegie Museum’s Olsen says, she learned that the supposed corral’s soil is ten times saltier than the surrounding earth. The probable source: horse urine. Geochemists are also analyzing the soil for traces of fatty chemicals unique to horse manure. “If we find those,” Olsen said, “that really nails it.”

So there you go, if you want to become an archaeologist you have to learn about the chemical composition of animal poop and pee…

9 Responses

  1. I’ve been following this sort of stuff for years. Basically, I got into it because I’m a writer of “romantic” science fiction, and some of my heroes are Neandertals! Be that as it may, it would seem that the more people think they’ve found “the” answer to some question about Neandertals and early “moderns”, the more complex it seems to get. It’s interesting that Svante Pääbo has finally acknowledging that some of the DNA sequences he’s previously been so confident about, may actually be degraded and therefore possibly not giving the information he might like them to give.
    Anne G

  2. Hadn’t seen the National Geographic article, but there was a presentation about a horse poo study with some of the same authors at the Geological Society of America annual meeting this week (abstract here) and another about horses and strontium isotopes (abstract here).
    I think it’s kind of neat, if sometimes bizarre, how many applications of (geo)chemistry to archaeology have been developing.

  3. Oops, my bad–the first study I cited is the same one as the NG article.

  4. I think it’s kind of neat, if sometimes bizarre, how many applications of (geo)chemistry to archaeology have been developing.

    Back when I was in grad school trace element analysis and stable isotope analysis had just started to get big. I wished then that I had taken more chemistry because I think this kind of thing is the tip of the iceberg…thanks for the links.
    Anne – did you see Razib’s comments on this?

  5. I still wonder about possible genetic exchanges between Neanderthals and Homo sap. I don’t think that we really have settled that question, although most genetic evidence so far has been against it.
    There are some oddities here and there, though…like, a friend of mine from when I was a teenager has a Neanderthal skull, complete with orbital ridges AND sagittal crest, not to mention a near-Neanderthal dentition — all of which was noticed by her anthropology professor when she was at Uni. Have to wonder why such things occasionally crop up in people who are indubitably Homo sap. And frankly, given that human sexual tastes can be both wide-ranging and occasionally indiscriminate, even taking into account the strength that societal phrohibitions can achieve, it would be remarkable if it never happened.

  6. Luna, there’s little doubt that it happened. The only questions are, were there any offspring and were they fertile.

  7. “Luna, there’s little doubt that it happened. The only questions are, were there any offspring and were they fertile.” – JohnnieCanuck
    And. if they were fertile: were the Neanderthal-derived genes at a selective disadvantage?

  8. Jane_S: Oooo, now there IS a good question!

  9. Mel: “strontium isotopes”
    Slightly off the topic of Neandertals and horses–physical anthropologists studying gladiator remains discovered that the bones had high levels of strontium, indicating a diet high in veggies. “Eat your spinach, Spartacus, it’s good for you!”

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