The origin and future of modern humans

Graphical Abstract

Earlier this year, we published an article describing an exciting hypothesis that explains how two important observations, that on the surface appear incompatible, come together to provide insight into the evolution of modern man (1). Recent evidence demonstrates that modern humans share some genomic DNA with Neanderthals (2), yet decade-old analyses clearly demonstrate that modern human and the ancient hominid share zero mitochondrial DNA (3). To reconcile these apparently paradoxical discoveries, Australian anthropologist duo Paul H. Mason and Roger V. Short describe the type of mating patterns and offspring success rates that might have occurred between Neanderthal and premodern humans tens of thousands of years ago. Their article captured the attention of the popular science media and garnered the most views of any article in Volume 9. We consulted Tatjana Schmidt-Derstroff to gain an independent perspective on their theory. As a veteran archaeologist who spent 5-7 months for 27 years living amongst the Australian aboriginals, Schmidt-Derstroff has collected some of the world’s finest photographs of ancient human cave engravings and petroglyphs and has deep insight into their modern and ancient way of life.

Forty years ago, many of the most important methods for investigating evolutionary data were not yet invented,” remarked Schmidt-Derstroff, “and many of the less pronounced discoveries went unnoticed.” Asked what her primary discoveries were, she replied that cataloging people and their ancient art was a discovery unto itself. “The first step in exploring the culture of ancient men of the earth was to find the evidence of ancient culture. Many, or perhaps even most, of the photographs I took were the first of their kind.” In this way, Schmidt-Derstroff extended the known inventory of cave paintings and carvings. “The aboriginals were aware of the paintings, of course—they led me directly to them—but much of this ancient artwork had never before been seen by people from elsewhere on earth.” Schmidt-Derstroff’s exclusive photographs were frequently published in popular German cultural magazines during the 1970’s, and select examples are shown in figures 1-3. These photographs are all the more important today, as access to much of the area through which she travelled with the aboriginals is now restricted in a national effort to protect their ancient way of life.

Figure 1: Modern aboriginals encountered by Schmidt-Derstroff in the Australian outback. (left) An example of a blond individual from the Andy Ngohgol tribe within Beagle Bay of Kimberley, Western Australia. (right) Modern aboriginals dancing by firelight.

While living in the outback, Schmidt-Derstroff noticed two easily distinguishable physical forms of the Australian aboriginal. “The gracillis have long legs, long arms and roam the desert. The robustus are, as the name suggests, more muscular and are not found in the desert. Furthermore, while all have a dark-black skin, the robustus have streaks of blond or red hair.” Interestingly, she also noted that the facial features of the robustus are most reminiscent of the Neanderthals. Much as in Europe, the mystery of how these two types of peoples came to exist in Australia remains unsolved. “I have of course no evidence,” Schmidt-Derstroff declared to us when we asked if the gracillis and robustus interbred, “but I am convinced they did—it’s normal!”

Figure 2: Ancient Petroglyphs. (top) Hanging foxes (bats) represent a known barrier warning women not to go further as there is secret men business behind. (middle) Yellow crocodile used as a teaching tool for tribal youth. The 8,000 year-old painting demonstrates where to kill yellow crocodile, how to section them for eating, and which parts are the most tender and should therefore be reserved for elders. (bottom) Nowlaugie fish gallery in X-ray painted style with heart, lungs and stomach visible. These images of fish are believed to be 40,000 years old.

She said that the most magical moments of being in the Australian wilderness came whenever she laid down at night and gazed up at the “huge dome of the endless Milky Way, with its billions of stars.” Schmidt-Derstroff described it as an “absolute stillness.” Commenting again on the Hypothesis article, she added “I am happy to be a hybrid with a contribution of nuclear DNA from a Neanderthal, a species whom I learned had a creative culture refused to him in former years. If we evolved from Homo erectus to the astronaut in a relatively short time, we may be on the brink of another change. Considering the possible destruction of our planet, we may have to colonize a different part of the universe.”

Figure 3: Paintings of the world, twins and spirits. (top) The circles of this estimated 10,000 year-old cave carving have many interpretations. A spiritual owner of Ayers Rock told Schmidt-Derstroff that they represent a land map of the world, guiding tribes from one water hole to the next by a day’s walk. (inset) Arial photo of a water hole in the Autralian desert. (bottom left) X-ray-style pictograph of a woman in the birthing position with twins in her womb. Twins were considered by some tribes to bring bad luck back and were buried in the sand at birth. (bottom right) Cave painting in Kimberley now closed off to the public. This Wandjina head is continually re-painted by the aboriginals to ensure its spirit endures.


1. Mason, P & Short, R. Neanderthal-human hybrids. Hypothesis, 9(1):e1, doi: 10.5779/hypothesis.v9i1.215 (2011).

2. Noonan, JP, Coop, G, Kudaravalli, S, Smith, D, Krause, J, Alessi, J, . . . Rubin, EM. Sequencing and analysis of neanderthal genomic DNA. Science, 314(5802):1113-8, doi: 10.1126/science.1131412 (2006).

3. Ovchinnikov, IV, Gotherstrom, A, Romanova, GP, Kharitonov, VM, Liden, K & Goodwin, W. Molecular analysis of neanderthal DNA from the northern caucasus. Nature, 404(6777): 490-3, doi:10.1038/35006625 (2000).

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