ELIZABETH MARGARET ABRAHAM DEAL
January 27, 1917 – May 30, 2007
By her firstborn, James Robert Deal, II
Elizabeth Abraham Deal was born in Clarkesdale, Mississippi on January 27, 1917 to Lebanese-born immigrants. She moved with her family to Blytheville, Arkansas, around 1923. She studied for eight years at Immaculate Conception School.
Mom died Wednesday May 30, 2007, here in Washington state where she lived her last five years with my wife and me. I am her first-born son, lawyer and mortgage broker (Blytheville High School graduate, 1965).
As a child Elizabeth wanted to be a doctor. She didn’t make it herself, but her second-born son Chad Logan Deal (BHS 1969) did. He is a rheumatologist at the Cleveland Clinic, and a recognized authority on osteoporosis.
Father and mother Chadad and Helen Abraham owned a dry goods store located on the west side of Railroad Street between Main and Ash. They built the Abraham Motel at 1020 South Division, remodeled in 1964 by Elizabeth and her husband Jimmie into the Drummer Boy Motel and Restaurant. Today it is the Wilson Funeral Home.
Elizabeth understood Arabic to a certain extent but did not speak it well. Chadad forbad his children from speaking Arabic, believing that they would never master English if they spoke the old country language. After school she worked in the family dry goods store. Elizabeth vividly remembered some policemen beating up a black man and Chadad intervening and defending him.
The Lebanese were considered second-class citizens, much like the few Chinese and Jewish residents of Blytheville. They were allowed to attend white schools, but socially conscious whites preferred not to associate with them. Occasionally, people in Blytheville would call Chadad and his family “dirty Jews.” They didn’t know the difference between Lebanese and Jewish. Perhaps because the Abrahams were discriminated against, they had a compassion for Blacks. They were on good terms with Blytheville’s small Jewish community.
Most of the Lebanese who immigrated to the South in the early decades of the 20th Century were Christian and not Moslem, although some were Moslem, and Chadad befriended them and invited them to stay in his home. Chadad was descended from Maronite Catholics, while Helen Nassif Abraham came from a Greek Orthodox family. There were no Orthodox churches in the South, and so the Orthodox usually became Catholics.
Elizabeth dropped out of high school because Chadad wanted her to get married early to one of his Lebanese friends. Elizabeth did not find any of them interesting. So she returned to school and graduated from Blytheville High School in 1937 at age 20.
At this point Elizabeth wanted to be a nurse but did not know how to apply, so she put all 12 years of her report cards in an envelope and send them to the Catholic nursing school in Jonesboro. She was accepted, but Chadad would not consent, saying “No daughter of my is going to empty bed pans and scrub naked men.”
However Chadad was willing to send Elizabeth to Draughon’s Business College in Memphis. She took a weekend job working for Deal Flooring typing letters. There she met James Robert Deal (Sr.), known to all as “Jimmie,” son of the owner, Albert Deal. Jimmie was a hard wood floor layer during the day. At night and on weekends he was a drummer and singer in a Dixieland band. It was 1937 and the Great Depression was in full swing, but Jimmie drove a nice car with a trailer full of musical equipment and had money. Elizabeth found him much more interesting than the Lebanese men she had met. She had an intuition from the start that they would marry. Elizabeth’s typing was not very good, and she was nervous working for Jimmie, so she ruined a score of letterhead pages to finish one letter.
After dating less than a month, Elizabeth they took a drive to Blytheville to meet Elizabeth’s parents. As they were passing through Marion on Highway 61, Jimmie said, “This is Marion. They say Marion is a good place for marryin’. Do you want to get married?” Elizabeth thought he was joking, so she joked back and said “yes.” Jimmie decided to take her seriously and did a u-turn. They went to see the justice of the peace, and the ceremony was over in a half hour. They continued on to Blytheville. Chadad and Helen liked Jimmie and gave their approval. Only then did they begin their honeymoon.
During World War II, Jimmie and Elizabeth lived in California. Jimmie worked as a set decorator in Hollywood and later as a railroad brakeman. They lived in a small trailer and moved wherever the railroad sent them–from Los Angeles to Mexicali to Indio.
Returning to Blytheville, they found the town booming. An Army Air Force base had opened there, and thirsty soldiers came into town at night and on weekends, wanting a place to drink. Chadad set up a beer joint for himself on the southwest corner of Railroad and Ash. It did a land office business. So he set up another beer joint for Elizabeth and Jimmie just around the corner and to the south on Railroad. It too did a land office business. So he set up a third beer joint further to the south for his daughter Marie and her husband Lonnie Manning. It was just as busy. Elizabeth would go to work at 5 pm, and take two dimes from two soldiers, ring up the sale in the cash register, open two taps and fill two glasses of beer, and give them to the soldiers, and do that non-stop until after midnight.
Running a beer joint was not to Jimmie’s liking. He was a committed Missouri Synod Lutheran, and Lutherans do not look favorably on drinking. So he and Elizabeth opened The House of Charm and did interior decorating. This business did well enough, however, Jimmie was on a religious quest for truth. He and Elizabeth visited many different denominations. For a while Elizabeth and I became Lutherans. They settled on the Church of Christ, which follows the New Testament as literally as possible and regards itself as replicating the original New Testament church. They were both rebaptized. Jimmie accepted a call to preach in Aubrey, Arkansas, not far from Helena. Elizabeth became a preacher’s wife. However, Jimmie had two sons with health issues, and the $100 per month salary was not enough to cover expenses. So Jimmie had to return to being a businessman. He continued to preach occasionally.
The family moved to Osceola, Arkansas, where Jimmie went into the paint store business with Mr. Kennemore, and where I attended second grade. The next year Jimmie took a job for Goldsmiths in Memphis heading up the sewing machine sales department, and the family lived in West Memphis, where I attended third grade. I was a cub scout, Elizabeth was den mother; my younger brother Chad was mascot. Greater opportunities presented themselves in Lincoln, Nebraska, so the family moved again, and I entered fourth grade. However, when the first blizzard hit at Thanksgiving, Jimmie announced that Nebraska was “too cold for man or beast.” We towed the 42′ x 8′ Schultz mobile home back to Blytheville and parked it at the Abraham Motel so we could be close to the Abrahams and Helen Abraham’s good cooking.
Jimmie and Elizabeth set up Deal’s Sewing Machine Exchange, which expanded soon into Deal’s Fabric Center. Later he set up Deal’s Custom Decorators as a separate business and ran it, while Elizabeth continued to run the Fabric Center.
Chadad Abraham died a few weeks before JFK was assassinated in 1963. He loved the young president so much that we said he would have died anyway when he heard the news. Chadad left the Abraham Motel to Elizabeth. She and Jimmie remodeled it into Deal’s Drummer Boy Restaurant & Motel in 1964. For many years it was the finest steak house in town.
In 1975 Jimmie and Elizabeth decided to sell all their businesses and retire. Elizabeth chose to pursue her life-long desire to be a healer and attended Cotton Bowl VoTec. At age 63 she became an LPN. She was amazed that she could study complicated scientific topics and learn them. She worked for almost 20 years at Beverly Senior Home with sick, disabled, and elderly patients, realizing her dream to care for others.
Her family wondered why a 60, 70, or 80 year old woman would continue to work. It was not just work for her; it was the realization of her calling. Elizabeth had spent so many years wishing to be a healer, and given that she had started so late in life, she did not want to miss one minute and never wanted to stop.
Husband Jimmie achieved success intervening in Middle South Utilities (now Entergy) rate cases. He saved Blytheville rate payers millions of dollars. He was so good that Middle South offered to hire him and pay him a huge salary. Jimmie declined. When he died at 86 in 2000 “Deal for Mayor” was still painted on his garage on Division at Hearn.
Jimmie and Elizabeth attended the Church of Christ. After Jimmie died she attended the Methodist Church. In her old age Elizabeth returned to the Catholic Church.
Elizabeth was witty and wise. She advised her sons, “When someone pays you a compliment, say thank you, and believe him.” She also said, “When someone gives you money, say thank you, and accept it.” She said, “Sometimes it is better to pay a little more and have something worth keeping.” At a time when racism was a common theme, Mom taught her sons a respect for all.
Elizabeth encouraged her two sons to go to college, and financed our tuition out of the coins that piled up in the cigarette and soft drink vending machines at the Drummer Boy.
Elizabeth retired the second time in 2001 because of health problems. The vertebrae in her neck were collapsing. She claimed it was the result of a crazy patient at the nursing home who snuck up behind her and smashed his fist into her upper back. Brother Chad, head of the Osteoporosis Division at Cleveland Clinic, arranged for her to have an operation. A titanium appliance was installed that supported her top seven vertebrae, which were fused together. Elizabeth lived in such agonizing pain for the first year that she was even disoriented about who we were. “Are you my son,” she asked once. “I’m not sure who you are, but I know you are someone I love.” Gradually her memory recovered.
She lived with Chad in Cleveland and then with niece Yvonne Manning Marshall in Charlottesville, Virginia. In 2002 the family asked if we wanted to take Mom. I said, “She took care of me when I was helpless, so I want to take care of her now.” Mom moved in with me and my new wife Emelyn. Emelyn became Mom’s primary care giver, and was like like a daughter to Elizabeth. The three of us were a happy family for the last five years of Elizabeth’s life. When Emelyn and I went out for a date, Mom volunteered to come along and pay for the movie and dinner. Chad and his family visited Elizabeth frequently. Without Mom as the magnet, the two families would not have been as close as we have become.
Elizabeth was never a complainer, even when she was in pain, and her neck pain was very bad at times. She was good at getting people to laugh.
Elizabeth fell ill in 2007 when an infection developed in her upper neck. It is common for a metal apparatus to harbor bacteria in its nooks and crannies. Antibiotics cannot kill the bacteria because blood flow to areas near the metal is limited. A Group Health surgeon went into the wound twice to clean it out. The wound healed, but it was discovered that Elizabeth’s aortic valve was 60 percent obstructed with plaque. The aortic valve leads from the heart into the aorta, the main artery leaving the heart. Although her heart was strong, it could not force enough blood out through the constricted aorta. Blood was backing up into the pulmonary artery, and her lungs were filling with fluid. Her liver and kidneys were receiving insufficient blood flow and were gradually failing. So they were not cleaning her blood, which in turn was affecting her heart. She was too old and fragile for an operation to clear out her aortic valve. Death was certain; the only question was how quickly it would come.
Elizabeth became weak and wanted to sleep most of the time. She needed help just to roll over. She was a tired of being confined to bed, of breathing through a nasal canula to get oxygen, of being catheterized, of being unable to get up to urinate, of having to defecate in the bed and be cleaned up, of having to be hooked up to a PICC line to receive medicine intravenously. She said she was ready to go. Occasionally, she would raise her hands and say “enough.” Mentally she was ready to go, but her body was not. She had a strong heart that was not ready to quit.
For a few hours each day she would wake up and eat a little and talk and laugh with us. I played guitar and flute for her and sang. Mom always liked my music and encouraged me to sing and plan. She was apparently having epiphanies thinking about her coming death, because occasionally she would exclaim, “Wow!”
As she was dying we reminded Mom that she was a big success, that she fulfilled her childhood ambition, went to college, and became a nurse, and that she raised up a doctor and a lawyer son. I reminded her, “If you had not believed in me, I would never have believed in myself.”
The day before she died, Mom rallied, and ate a lot. We thought she might even regain her strength and come home. But an aide fed her a lot of macaroni and cheese. Florence Joyner Griffith, Flo-Jo, died after eating a lot of cheese. Cheese has a tendency to produce a gluey mucous in the lungs. During the night Mom had extreme difficulty breathing. I slept beside her to monitor her condition, give her water, and call the nurse for help.
In the morning I sat by the bed and worked on my laptop. She said: “Son, I think I’m ready”. She asked me how to die. “Stop breathing”, I said. And soon she was released.
Elizabeth is survived by her sons, attorney James Robert Deal II (Blytheville HS 1969) and Chad Logan Deal M.D. (Blytheville HS 1973), and by nieces Sandra Manning Kennemore of Conway AR (BHS, 1964) and Yvonne Manning Marshall of Charlottestville VA (BHS, 1968) and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
(Click here to read about her husband, Jimmie Deal.)
JAMES ROBERT DEAL—”JIMMIE DEAL”
September 17, 1914 – March 11, 2000
by James Robert Deal, II
James Robert Deal was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on September 17, 1914. Everyone knew him as “Jimmie.” Jimmie’s father, Albert Deal, moved from Conover, North Carolina to Memphis at some point.
Jimmie had a grandfather named James Robert Diehl back in North Carolina, who was a hard wood floor layer. “Diehl” is a German word for a type of wood or flooring wood. The Diehls were hardwood floor layers from Germany, conservative Lutherans. “Diehl” is pronounced the same as “Deal.” James Robert Diehl changed his name to James Robert Deal to go with his business slogan, “a good deal more for a good deal less.”
Jimmie’s mother was Ada Mahaffey, who was of Irish descent. Jimmie’s siblings were Albert Deal, Jr., Clara Deal Dellinger, and Eva Deal Westbrook.
During World War I Jimmie’s family moved to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where Albert took some kind of war related work.
Jimmie’s family loved music. Albert played guitar. Albert Jr. played piano. They all sang in their Lutheran choir. At a young age Jimmie was given violin lessons and taught how to read music. Jimmie was recognized at a young age as having a gift for the violin. His teachers told him he was a virtuoso.
However, Jimmie’s violin playing came to a halt when he was around 11 years old. He wore some shoes that were too tight and developed an infection in his left foot, which moved to his left ankle. Several doctors were consulted, and they recommended amputation. The family called in a well-known Jewish doctor, Dr. Meyer, who believed it was possible to save the foot. He drilled a hole through the ankle and irrigated it regularly with Dakin’s solution, which is made of bleach and baking soda. Recovery was slow, but after a year in bed, Jimmie recovered fully. The hole grew together, but Jimmie had a scar and a depression in both sides of his ankle. When Jimmie volunteered for military duty in World War II, he was asked to stand on one foot. He lost his balance, and the doctor noticed his scars. He was classified 4-F.
Jimmie was not allowed to play violin in bed. After he recovered, some idiot told him and his family that because he had not played for a year, he would never regain his skills. This is of course a stupid myth. Unfortunately, Jimmie and his family believed it. Family finances had tightened, and Albert could not afford a full size violin for Jimmie, so the lessons stopped, and the violin was stored away. Music was Jimmie’s first calling. It is my belief that Jimmie’s loss of his first calling created psychological tensions for him later in life. Jimmie was born left handed. His family or his school teachers forcibly converted him from south paw to right hander. This may have also caused problems for Jimmie.
As a teenager Jimmie helped in the flooring business. He also delivered newspapers. He learned how to box and had to defend himself at times. Jimmie had little interest in school except for music. He took up the drums. The teacher liked him because he could “read the spots,” meaning he could read drum music. As a teenager he joined a Dixieland jazz band and he played drums and sang. He had jobs during the week laying floors with his father and on weekends playing music with the band. Jimmie completed twelve years of schooling but failed to receive a diploma because he took too many band and choir classes and not enough academic classes. It was not until Jimmie retired and studied bonehead English at Mississippi County Community CollegeIs—and got his GED—that he learned how to punctuate and spell properly.
Jimmie made good money working for his father and playing music up and down the “music road,” Highway 61, which runs from New Orleans to Memphis, to St. Louis, to Chicago. In the Summer of 1937, when Jimmie was 23 years old, Deal Flooring Company needed a secretary to type correspondence and bills. Jimmie called Draughon’s Business College and asked for a typist. On a Saturday Jimmie drove downtown and picked up Elizabeth Margaret Abraham. Back at the office it became evident that Elizabeth was just learning how to type. She went through ten pages of expensive stationery to complete each letter. And she was distracted by good looking Jimmie. Jimmie thought she was Jewish and tried to fix her up with a Jewish buddy. The buddy talked with Elizabeth and found out she was Lebanese. He told Jimmie, “She’s all yours.” Jimmie and Elizabeth met the next Saturday but dispensed with the whole idea of typing letters. Thereafter they dated daily. Within a month they were married.
Jimmie and Elizabeth lived in Jimmie’s parents’ home on Decatur Street. A friend had moved to California, so Jimmie and Elizabeth followed him to Los Angeles. Jimmie couldn’t play in union bands until he had been a member for a year, so he looked around for other work. He found employment in Hollywood where he put his decorating skills to work as a set designer. Jimmie was put off by the low level of morality he observed in the movie business. Jimmie had a chance to go to work on the railroad. A friend needed work, so Jimmie arranged for the friend to take over his Hollywood job, and Jimmie became a railroad man. He traded positions and worked up to brakeman and conductor. Jimmie really liked the excitement and comradery of working on the railroad. Jimmie and Elizabeth bought a small trailer. They moved whenever the Southern Pacific asked Jimmie to move, from Los Angeles to San Diego to Mexicali.
After his one year waiting period passed, Jimmie started playing with bands. He wrote songs and sang them. However, he was put off by his fellow musicians’ drinking and marijuana smoking. They all wanted him to join in and get high. Jimmie observed that their playing “went to pot” when they were stoned along with their sense of rhythm. He felt that at least the drummer should stay “straight.” And there were the groupie girls who were constantly trying to seduce him. He decided that music “was no life for a married man.” He turned his back on the music business.
As the war was ending Jimmie and Elizabeth returned to Memphis and then to Blytheville. Elizabeth’s father Chadad Abraham set them up in the saloon business down on Railroad Street just south of Ash. Chadad set up three saloons, all in a row, one for himself, one for Jimmie and Elizabeth, and one for Lonnie and Marie Manning. Marie was Elizabeth’s younger sister. All three saloons did a land office business. These beer joints hosted blacks and whites, but they were divided into a white and a black side, which was divided by a U-shaped bar between the two.
Being a strict Missouri Synod Lutheran, Jimmie did not like selling beer. He was on a religious quest for truth. He and Elizabeth visited many different denominations. For a while Elizabeth and I became Lutherans. Jimmie visited many churches and studied late into the night while trying to keep up with his growing business. He drove himself to the point of exhaustion, working all day and studying all night.
Jimmie persisted in his religious quest, despite the fact that it was partially responsible for his health problems. Jimmie always had a bias against higher education. The Church of Christ would allow a man to be a minister without a seminary degree. He decided the Church of Christ was closest to the New testament. Jimmie and Elizabeth were both re-baptized.
When I was a first grader in 1953, Dad accepted a call to preach in the Arkansas farming village of Aubrey, not too far from Memphis. Baptism had to be by immersion. Dad took converts down to the lake and dunked them. In summer he used an oar to kill water moccasins; in winter he used it to break ice. In the Church of Christ, you get to know the Bible extremely well. At Dad’s encouragement I memorized the names of all the Books of the Old Testament and New Testament, the twelve apostles, and the twelve tribes of Israel. Even today I can recite them all, Old and New, apostles and tribes, in one breath. Church of Christ people are very talented musically. Their hymnals are written in do-re-mi shaped notes, which makes reading and transposing music really easy. Church of Christ people are very scholarly in their own literalist way.
Jimmie was a long-winded preacher. His sermons usually lasted close to an hour. He was effective. He doubled the size of the church. Jimmie had two sons with health issues. His $100 per month salary was not enough to cover expenses. He had tripled the weekly contribution, and Jimmie asked for a raise. The farmers could not imagine how we could possibly need more than $100 per week to cover our expenses. So Jimmie had to return to being a businessman. He continued to preach occasionally.
Jimmie went into the sewing machine business, which evolved into Deal’s Fabric Center at 123 West Main. He set up Deal’s Interiors and when Chadad Abraham died and left his Abraham Motel to Elizabeth, Jimmie remodeled it into the Drummer Boy Motel and Restaurant. For several years it was the best steak house in Blytheville. When Jimmie returned to running Deal’s Interiors and leased out the restaurant, it went into decline. Jimmie was good at setting up businesses but not good at sticking with them.
Business was not Jimmie’s real calling. He wanted to do something to help the people of his adopted Blytheville. Numerous times, Jimmie intervened in utility rate cases, receiving no compensation whatsoever and neglecting his businesses, but saving Arkansas residents millions of dollars. He was recognized by Middle South (Entergy) utility gurus as knowing more about their books than their own economists. Once they offered him a fat salary to come over to their side. Jimmie turned them down. Jimmie was allowed to interrogate witnesses before the Public Service Commission, a privilege rarely accorded non-attorneys. This was Jimmy’s last and most important calling, his crusade for “the little man.” Had Jimmie gone to college and law school, he would have been a powerful attorney.
Jimmie circulated petitions to force the City to municipalize its electric service, which could have cut rates in half, but the forces against him were insurmountable. Because of Jimmie, state law was changed to make it virtually impossible for cities to buy out their electric companies. Jimmie ran for mayor and for city council, always showing well, but never coming close to winning. He was not part of the political elite.
Jimmie accumulated adversaries. Electric company employees feared they would lose their jobs if the city took over the electric company. His businesses were boycotted. During his last race for mayor, gray-bearded and 76 years old, he offended a county park board employee, who formerly had worked for the electric company. The man became enraged when he concluded (incorrectly) that Jimmie was gathering petition signatures on the fair grounds—a constitutional right, by the way. The man fisted Jimmie in one eye, knocking him out of the race. Jimmie sued his assailant and the park board, and I went down to Arkansas and tried the case in 1995, Deal vs. Sanders. The Little Deal stood up for the Big Deal, and we won a judgment against them. “We should have listened to Jimmy,” is what many say of him.
Jimmie Deal had another heart attack just after Christmas, 1999. He spent months in the Baptist Hospital, trying to make a recovery. He had a feeding tube in his stomach. A dialysis machine was doing the work of his failing kidneys. He was breathing almost pure oxygen. He declared to Elizabeth it was a “good time to die,” and the kidney dialysis machine was disconnected. Fortunately, I was able to spend time with Dad just before he died. Billy Boone and I sang hymns and read scriptures to him. Mom and Jimmie regarded Billy Boone as his third son. I reminded Jimmie of the many people who admired him and the good he had done.
How do you measure success in life? Jimmie was certainly not wealthy. In fact, he died owing a small fortune on credit cards. He invested in penny stocks, gambling that he could make a big profit and make us all proud of him. He had a weakness for buying into get-rich-quick schemes. He bought thousands of dollars worth of pay telephones, none of which was ever installed. He bought into multi-level marketing programs, but he never had the time and energy to build a “downline.” I remember his buying a thousand dollars worth of diet cookies. He ended up eating them himself. He was always trying to get me to get involved in his money making ideas.
Jimmie wanted to die a success in business. However, business was not his real calling, and he was doomed never to succeed in business. Oh he excelled in setting up businesses, such as the Drummer Boy Restaurant and Motel, but he tended to lose interest in his businesses and move on to other things. He failed to continue to monitor and manage his businesses, and they tended to decline. He owned rental homes, but he allowed his tenants to get away with not paying the rent and damaging the properties. He was constantly repairing them, only to have them damaged again.
I believe that Jimmie’s lost his way when he gave up on being a violinist. He could have played first chair in a symphony. He lost his way again when he gave up on being a musician in his Dixieland band. He loved music. He tried being a businessman, but it was not his real calling. He was never really interested in it, and so he was fated not to succeed in business. He had a real calling to be a minister. He was offered a scholarship at Harding College in Searcy, Arkansas. He could have gotten the education he sorely needed while at the same time being assigned his own church and supported with a full scholarship. Jimmie could not see the value in higher education and turned away from formal study. He lost his way again by not getting a proper education. Jimmie might have gone onto be a lifelong minister. He might have gone to law school, and he would have been a powerful attorney. Jimmie suffered from lack of education and a prejudice against education. He discouraged his sons from going to college. He wanted us to let him set us up in business in Blytheville. I tried working for him in the Drummer Boy Restaurant, however, I was unable to turn the business around. My brother and I needed to get away from the South.
Jimmie did find great fulfillment in his political work. Although he was not a financial success, there was a more relevant balance sheet. His success was on a personal and spiritual level. In every thing he did his aim was to be Christ-like. Jimmie treated everyone he met with respect. He was generous to all, including needy tenants and employees. He was ahead of his time in rejecting racial prejudice. He did not take himself too seriously and laughed easily. He stood by his convictions despite the financial cost. And so I regard the life of Jimmie Deal as having been a great success.
We shed tears together at the last. I took his shoulders and told him numerous times, “Jimmie Deal, you did well.”
Jimmie Deal, you did well.
Read about Jimmie’s wife, Elizabeth Abraham Deal.
January 30, 2012
By ALANNA MITCHELL
The tip of a girl’s 40,000-year-old pinky finger found in a cold Siberian cave, paired with faster and cheaper genetic sequencing technology, is helping scientists draw a surprisingly complex new picture of human origins.
The new view is fast supplanting the traditional idea that modern humans triumphantly marched out of Africa about 50,000 years ago, replacing all other types that had gone before.
Instead, the genetic analysis shows, modern humans encountered and bred with at least two groups of ancient humans in relatively recent times: the Neanderthals, who lived in Europe and Asia, dying out roughly 30,000 years ago, and a mysterious group known as the Denisovans, who lived in Asia and most likely vanished around the same time.
Their DNA lives on in us even though they are extinct. “In a sense, we are a hybrid species,” Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist who is the research leader in human origins at the Natural History Museum in London, said in an interview.
The Denisovans (pronounced dun-EE-suh-vinz) were first described a year ago in a groundbreaking paper in the journal Nature made possible by genetic sequencing of the girl’s pinky bone and of an oddly shaped molar from a young adult.
Those findings have unleashed a spate of new analyses.
Scientists are trying to envision the ancient couplings and their consequences: when and where they took place, how they happened, how many produced offspring and what effect the archaic genes have on humans today.
Other scientists are trying to learn more about the Denisovans: who they were, where they lived and how they became extinct.
A revolutionary increase in the speed and a decline in the cost of gene-sequencing technology have enabled scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, to map the genomes of both the Neanderthals and the Denisovans.
Comparing genomes, scientists concluded that today’s humans outside Africa carry an average of 2.5 percent Neanderthal DNA, and that people from parts of Oceania also carry about 5 percent Denisovan DNA. A study published in November found that Southeast Asians carry about 1 percent Denisovan DNA in addition to their Neanderthal genes. It is unclear whether Denisovans and Neanderthals also interbred.
A third group of extinct humans, Homo floresiensis, nicknamed “the hobbits” because they were so small, also walked the earth until about 17,000 years ago. It is not known whether modern humans bred with them because the hot, humid climate of the Indonesian island of Flores, where their remains were found, impairs the preservation of DNA.
This means that our modern era, since H. floresiensis died out, is the only time in the four-million-year human history that just one type of human has been alive, said David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School who was the lead author of the Nature paper on the Denisovans.
For many scientists, the epicenter of the emerging story on human origins is the Denisova cave in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, where the girl’s finger bone was discovered. It is the only known place on the planet where three types of humans — Denisovan, Neanderthal and modern — lived, probably not all at once.
John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose lab is examining the archaic genomes, visited the cave in July. It has a high arched roof like a Gothic cathedral and a chimney to the sky, he said, adding that being there was like walking in the footsteps of our ancestors.
The cave has been open to the elements for a quarter of a million years and is rich with layers of sediments that may contain other surprises. Some of its chambers are unexplored, and excavators are still finding human remains that are not yet identified. The average temperature for a year, 32 degrees Fahrenheit, bodes well for the preservation of archaic DNA.
Could this cave have been one of the spots where the ancient mating took place? Dr. Hawks said it was possible.
But Dr. Reich and his team have determined through the patterns of archaic DNA replications that a small number of half-Neanderthal, half-modern human hybrids walked the earth between 46,000 and 67,000 years ago, he said in an interview. The half-Denisovan, half-modern humans that contributed to our DNA were more recent.
And Peter Parham, an immunologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, has used an analysis of modern and ancient immune-system genetic components — alleles — to figure out that one of the Denisovan-modern couplings most likely took place in what is now southeastern China. He has also found some evidence that a Neanderthal-modern pair mated in west Asia.
He stressed, however, that his study was just the first step in trying to reconstruct where the mating took place.
Dr. Parham’s analysis, which shows that some archaic immune alleles are widespread among modern humans, concludes that as few as six couplings all those tens of thousands of years ago might have led to the current level of ancient immune alleles.
Another paper, by Mathias Currat and Laurent Excoffier, two Swiss geneticists, suggests that breeding between Neanderthals and modern humans was rare. Otherwise, they say, modern humans would have far more Neanderthal DNA.
Were they romantic couplings? More likely they were aggressive acts between competing human groups, Dr. Stringer said. For a model, he pointed to modern hunter-gatherer groups that display aggressive behavior among tribes.
The value of the interbreeding shows up in the immune system, Dr. Parham’s analysis suggests. The Neanderthals and Denisovans had lived in Europe and Asia for many thousands of years before modern humans showed up and had developed ways to fight the diseases there, he said in an interview.
When modern humans mated with them, they got an injection of helpful genetic immune material, so useful that it remains in the genome today. This suggests that modern humans needed the archaic DNA to survive.
The downside of archaic immune material is that it may be responsible for autoimmune diseases like diabetes, arthritis and multiple sclerosis, Dr. Parham said, stressing that these are preliminary results.
Although little is known about the Denisovans — the only remains so far are the pinky bone and the tooth, and there are no artifacts like tools. Dr. Reich and others suggest that they were once scattered widely across Asia, from the cold northern cave to the tropical south. The evidence is that modern populations in Oceania, including aboriginal Australians, carry Denisovan genes.
Dr. Reich and others suggest that the interbreeding that led to this phenomenon probably occurred in the south, rather than in Siberia. If so, the Denisovans were more widely dispersed than Neanderthals, and possibly more successful.
But the questions of how many Denisovans there were and how they became extinct have yet to be answered. Right now, as Dr. Reich put it, they are “a genome in search of an archaeology.”