Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | January 29, 2014

The Neanderthal in Us

Homo sapiens neanderthalensis

Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore.

– Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 44:14 (KJV)

Some interesting science news about our prehistoric ancestors:

Benjamin Vernot and Joshua Akey at the University of Washington in Seattle sequenced the genomes of more than 600 people from Europe and eastern Asia. They then used a computer analysis to find gene variants that bore all the hallmarks of having come from Neanderthals.

To see whether the technique worked, they checked the genes against the official Neanderthal genome, which was sequenced from fossil remnants in 2010 by researchers in Germany.

The researchers found that while most non-Africans carried 1 to 3% Neanderthal DNA, the total amount in modern humans reached about 20%. “Although Neanderthals are extinct, there’s still a lot of genetic information about them floating around, in our own genomes. It’s not necessarily useful in that it will cure cancer, but it helps us to learn about our history,” Vernot told the Guardian. Details of the study are reported in Science.

In a separate study published in Nature, David Reich at Harvard University looked for Neanderthal genes in the DNA of more than 1,000 living people. He found that the Neanderthals left a mark in distinct regions of the modern human genome, but in others left no trace at all.

Reich says that many of the Neanderthal genes that are in the genomes of modern humans “are involved in making keratin, a protein used in skin, hair and nails. Reich speculates that modern humans may have picked up Neanderthal genes that were better suited to the cold environment, perhaps because they produced more or thicker hair, or tougher skin.”

According to the Washington Post, early Homo sapiens and Neanderthals interbred “about 40,000 to 80,000 years ago,” shortly after a small Homo sapiens population migrated out of Africa through Arabia and Mesopotamia into the broader Eurasian landmass.

Here are stories in Time, in the Seattle Times, and at Ars Technica.

And Annalee Newitz at io9 and Carl Zimmer at National Geographic have topical posts.

Hat tip: NPR.

Image Credit: Neanderthal skull discovered in 1908 at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France. Photo by “Luna04,” October 2005, and used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Source: Wikimedia Commons.



  1. This is great. Thank you!

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