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The DNA Legacy Of Our Extinct Relatives: Neanderthal Genes

The DNA Legacy Of Our Extinct Relatives: Neanderthal Genes

The Neanderthals are an ancient branch of man that went extinct long ago. Most people, except those of African descent, have Neanderthal genes in their DNA.

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, Neanderthals roamed the European subcontinent and the Middle East, but it didn’t last. About 30,000 years ago, they were driven out by the Cro-Magnons, Europe’s early modern humans.

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It’s unclear why the Neanderthals went extinct in this evolutionary tale of mankind, but they didn’t quite disappear – they left traces of their existence in our DNA. The human genome contains 2–4% of Neanderthal gene variants, but there is one exception.

Neanderthal genetics haven’t been found in the DNA of African populations. For this reason, scientists believe that Neanderthals appeared after the first migrations out of Africa. In this article you’ll discover the legacy of our ancient cousins and the benefits associated with their genetics.

☝️Do humans have Neanderthal genes?☝️ Yes, many humans have traces of Neanderthal genes in their DNA, especially European and Western Asian populations.

What's special about Neanderthals?

Neanderthals are often underestimated (by National Geographic)

Neanderthals, like our Cro-Magnon ancestors, belonged to the human race. They separated ways about 700,000 years ago and went on to colonise the territories of Europe and Western Asia, all the way to Altai, a mountainous region of southern Siberia.

Physical Traits

Short limbs Muscular physique
Large cranium Big brain
Wide nose Thick lips

Neanderthals were short, stocky, and muscular. Being short of limb was a strength for this species, as it helped them stay warm. They were also distinguished by a characteristically elongated skull, large lips, and a wide nose. In fact, the size of the Neanderthal nasal cavity suggests that they were able to inhale more oxygen that made them effective athletic hunters.

The brain of the Neanderthals was larger than ours. But bigger isn’t always better when it comes to the brain, because cognitive function depends more on brain structure than size. So even though Neanderthals had bigger noggins, they weren’t necessarily better at conceptual thinking, language, remembering, and social skills.

However, their brains were probably superior to modern man in one way: their occipital lobe and visual cortex take up more space than ours. This leads researchers to believe that Neanderthals possibly had better visual acuity than us.

☝️Do Africans have Neanderthal genes?☝️ Research suggests that African populations may carry up 0.3% of Neanderthal gene variants, which is very low, but not totally absent.

Why Neanderthals went extinct

There's no redhead Neanderthal gene by Christopher Campbell for Unsplash.
The redhead Neanderthal gene is a myth

When Cro-Magnons began to populate Europe, they weren’t as physically suited to cold climates as Neanderthals, so it’s a bit of a mystery why Cro-magnon Man bested the Neanderthals. Here are the main theories regarding their disappearance:

Physical inferiority

One theory suggests that Neanderthals might not have survived the competition with our ancestors. Judging by archeological digs, they did not have throwing weapons. It is believed that, instead of actively hunting, Neanderthals would wait for their prey and pounce with spears.

Some experts suggest that their hunting technique was determined by the structure of their shoulders. According to evolutionary anthropologists Jill A. Rhodes and Steven Churchill, they lacked the backward shoulder mobility that would have allowed them to use projectile weapons.

Comparatively, other early humans were slimmer and more agile, which made them formidable hunters who could travel over long distances and use projectile weapons effectively. In short, the Neanderthals just couldn’t compete – the Cro-Magnons had many survival advantages and they were more populous.

Death by disease

One main cause of death in human history has been the transmission of infections to populations whose immune systems weren’t equipped to deal with them. A prime example happened during the colonisation of North America: European pilgrims brought diseases to the New World to which the indigenous populations had no immunity.

The same concept has been put forward to explain the Neanderthals’ demise. It has been suggested that during the resettlement across Eurasia, other humans may have brought diseases for which the Neanderthal organism was not ready. The Neanderthals, which had lived in isolation for a long time, may have been particularly susceptible to infections that were common among other humans.

Decreased fertility

Incremental and constant decline in fertility among Neanderthals could have led to their complete extinction. One possible explanation of their infertility is nutritional deficiencies, especially a lack of body fat.

To reproduce, a woman's body must have a certain amount of fat. It has been suggested that Neanderthals developed nutritional deficiencies due to climate change and increased competition for food and resources, which ultimately led to decreased fertility and slow extinction.

Low Diversity

Like cheetahs, Neanderthals may have had low genetic diversity

Another possible reason for extinction is low genetic diversity among Neanderthals. Scientists at Max Planck University analyzed the remains of two representatives of this species whose lives were separated by 6,000 km and 70,000 years. Despite the vast chasm of time and space between these two Neanderthals, they had lower genetic diversity than modern humans.

Cro-Magnon Man may have won the evolutionary battle, but there is still a little piece of Neanderthal inside most of us.

Genetic diversity is a strength when it comes to survival and evolution because if there is a disaster or pandemic, then some part of the population is more likely to survive. In contrast, when there’s limited genetic variation in members of one species, it makes them more susceptible to adverse conditions and diseases that can lead to complete extinction.

It is believed that the Neanderthals lived and reproduced in small groups compared to our direct ancestors who formed large tribes that exchanged ideas, technologies, and genes with one another.

☝️FACT☝️ There are many other extinction theories, but most likely, the Neanderthals simply slowly dissolved into a large population of early humans, leaving just small genetic trace.

Neanderthal genes in modern humans

Nope, Neanderthal genes didn't make your back hairy by imone Pellegrini for Unsplash
Nope, Neanderthal genes didn't make your back hairy

Scientists suggest that the gene variants passed on by Neanderthals primarily helped people adapt to the cold European climate. Some of them are helpful, but other Neanderthal genes in humans may increase your disease risk.

☝️TIP☝️ You can do an Atlas DNA test for Neanderthal genes to see how many Neanderthal gene variants they passed on to you.

The Neanderthal ginger gene myth

There is a misconception that the Neanderthals gave us red hair. In fact, the genes associated with this trait in modern humans are absent from Neanderthal DNA. Rather than a redhead Neanderthal gene, their genetics may mildly influence hair colour.

☝️Is red hair a Neanderthal gene?☝️ Nope. That’s a myth. Neanderthals did not give modern humans red hair.

Skin tone and sunburn

Researchers have found that variants of Neanderthal genes can influence skin characteristics. For example, a variant near the BNC2 gene is associated with increased sensitivity to the sun. People with Neanderthal heritage get burned easily.

☝️Do Neaderthal genes make your back hairy?☝️ No, Neanderthals had less hair on their back. So if you have a lot of Neanderthal DNA, chances are you got this trait too.

Human health and Neanderthal genes

Neanderthal genes might explain why some people are night owls

Neanderthal genes protect us from bad cholesterol (low density lipoprotein LDL). In addition, people with specific Neanderthal gene variants may have stronger blood clotting. This trait may have helped protect their wounds from infection, but today, it increases the risk of stroke.

While there are no Neanderthal disease genes per say, their genes may influence how the body responds to infection. Studies comparing how the immune cells of people with Neanderthal genes compared with those of African populations showed that their immune reactions were different.

☝️FACT☝️ Scientists speculate that genetic inheritance of Neanderthals may also be linked to incontinence, bladder pain, and urinary tract problems.

Neanderthal genes and lifestyle

Researchers have found that Neanderthal genes may help explain why some of us are night owls - people who find it difficult to get up early and are active late at night. However, scientists also speculate that this trait may increase the risk of depression.

Interestingly, some Neanderthal gene variants may pass on a tendency to nicotine addiction. This does not mean that our ancient relatives smoked tobacco, only that if they tried, they were likely more susceptible to developing a nicotine addiction.

Reveal your Neanderthal traits

If you’re looking for the best DNA test for Neanderthal genes, try the Atlas DNA Test. Developed by geneticists and medical professionals, it explores your genetic ancestry and unique health traits influenced by your DNA, like nicotine addiction and LDL cholesterol.

Michelle Clarke
Michelle Clarke Health writer passionate about DNA and lifestyle
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