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Reality Check: Inhumans and Interbreeding

Reality Check

Reality Check: Inhumans and Interbreeding

As Marvel’s “Infinity” has drawn to a close, we also end our three-part series analyzing the way-out science Jonathan Hickman has included therein. From the directed panspermia of Ex Nihilo to the motivations of Thanos’ interstellar pirate horde, we finish with something a little more human. Or Inhuman, as it were.

Hiding in Plain Sight

As with many modern comic events, “Infinity” serves as its own self-contained story while at the same time teeing up the new line-wide status quo, in this case dubbed “Inhumanity.” In issue #4 we discover that several tribes of Inhumans, a race of beings produced by tampering in the human genome by the extraterrestrial Kree, were long ago confined to the Earth, where knowledge of their presence was eventually forgotten.

Reality Check: Inhumans and Interbreeding

In combating the galactic warlord Thanos, the mighty voice of the Inhuman king Black Bolt not only fells his own floating city of Attilan, but it triggers the terrigen bomb. The terrigen mists are used to create physical changes in Inhuman teenagers akin to mutations, and as they’re released over the world, the Earth’s inhabitants learn something curious about themselves.

Reality Check: Inhumans and Interbreeding

The description of terrigen delivery is nonsensical gobbledygook, but the notion that ancient Inhumans interbred with our Homo sapiens ancestors, and that bits of their DNA have been secretly hitching a ride, is intriguing. And, as first seen in 2010, it’s rooted in scientific fact.

Prehistoric Hanky Panky

That’s when the shocking research of paleogeneticist Svante Pääbo of Leipizig, Germany’s Max Planck Institute came to light. Using newly developed advancements in sequencing technology, Pääbo and his team were able to reconstruct almost the entire genome of a Neandertal – a burlier strain of humanity that lived alongside early Homo sapiens in Europe – from fossils uncovered in Croatia. For the previous 25 years it had been the general consensus that modern people had either killed off or outcompeted the Neandertal and other subspecies, a theory called the African Replacement model. Pääbo’s technique showed that the two populations had actually successfully interbred, as 1-4% of every non-African’s genome is made up of Neandertal DNA. The classic caveman lives on – inside us.

Reality Check: Inhumans and Interbreeding
The head shape’s about right, but my grandpa had less hair.

And it didn’t stop there. Shortly after, Pääbo et al. further rocked the establishment when analysis of a 40,000 year old finger bone from a Siberian cave demonstrated that up to 6% of Polynesian and Aboriginal DNA was contributed by the so-called Denisovan man of the Altai Mountains. The results of a study by Pääbo and Harvard Medical School’s David Reich announced just last month add yet another, completely UNKNOWN hominid to that mix. Research in 2011 by Michael F. Hammer of Tuscon’s University of Arizona also suggests that mixing occurred in African populations both before and after the eventual Europeans and Asians left the continent.

Reality Check: Inhumans and Interbreeding
The human family tree is bushier than once thought. Figure from Michael F. Hammer’s article “Human Hybrids,” in the May 2013 issue of “Scientific American.”

Species or Houses?

These continued findings effectively sink the once-preferred African Replacement model, although caveats and questions had always surrounded it. The lack of identified Neandertal DNA, before improved sequencing technology, was seen by many as evidence against interbreeding, although others pointed out that such sequences could have bled away and been lost if they conferred no significant survival advantage. Which begs the question, could Inhuman DNA, like the STAT2 Neandertal gene that helps fight viral pathogens, be working to help the Marvel Universe citizens so graced even BEFORE terrigenesis? A story for a later time, perhaps.

Reality Check: Inhumans and Interbreeding
Fulmina finds out about her muddled genetic ancestry in Superior Spider-Man Team-Up #3, but what got that Inhuman code to stick around for so long?

Many researchers now favor the Hybridization model of human origins proffered by Gunter Brauer of Germany’s University of Hamburg, which should be good news for Marvel Homo sapiens worried about being wiped out by Inhumans or mutants. As I mentioned after the furor created by Havok’s speech in Uncanny Avengers #5, interbreeding between species is somewhat unlikely, leading some to think that Neandertals weren’t that different from us, so perhaps the Inhumans aren’t, either. Marvel marketing likens “Inhumanity” to the warring factions in Game of Thrones, but evolutionary geneticist Mark Thomas characterizes our real history instead as “a Lord of the Rings type world,” adding that “there were many hominid populations.”

Hell, we’ve already got the Hobbit!

Reality Check: Inhumans and Interbreeding
Homo floresiensis, affectionately nicknamed “The Hobbit,” was a 3-foot tall Indonesian hominid that died out 12,000 years ago. No archaeological evidence of an affection for magical jewelry has been discovered.


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