Sex and love in the time of Neanderthals

[T]he evidence that sex between early modern humans and Neanderthals was not a rare event has been mounting up. Hidden in the genomes of present-day populations, there are tell-tale signs that it happened on many separate occasions and across a wide geographical area.

Crucially, though you might think the salacious details of these ancient liaisons have been lost to pre-history, there are still clues as to what they might have been like around today. Here’s everything you’ve ever wanted to know about this titillating episode in human history.

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One way in which human penises are unusual is that they are smooth. Our closest living relatives, common and bonobo chimpanzees – with whom we share around 99% of our DNA – have “penile spines”. These tiny barbs… are made from the same substance as skin and hair (keratin).

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Back in 2013, scientists discovered that the genetic code for penile spines is lacking from Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes, just as it is from modern humans, suggesting that it vanished from our collective ancestors at least 800,000 years ago. This is significant, because penis spines are thought to be most useful in promiscuous species, where they may help males to compete with others and maximise the chances of reproducing. This has led to speculation that – like us – Neanderthals and Denisovans were mostly monogamous.

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