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The Neanderthal in You

Say hello to the Neanderthal in you. People of non-African ancestry, Europeans and especially Asians, have Neanderthal genes in their DNA, which means about 4% of your genome may be from your archaic cousins.

Neanderthals are our extinct hominid relatives known to have existed throughout the Eurasian continent for roughly the 200,000 years. They are believed to have died out about 60,000 years ago. The picture of our ancient brothers and sisters is not clear for one simple reason – interbreeding between both human species. The conventional view is that modern humans drove their archaic kin to extinction through conflict, competition, disease and interbreeding – our numbers were high enough to swamp the Neanderthal gene pool.

But Homo Neanderthalensis still lives on  – in our genes. Their genes improved our immune system and allowed people in higher climates to better synthesize vitamin D. We may have also inherited the FOXP2 gene from them, and hence our ability to speak.

Every so often Neanderthals throw up more surprises. Until recently it was believed that the gene flow was from Neanderthal to humans. This is not the situation now. DNA extracted from a Neanderthal skeleton discovered in Altai, Siberia has 5% human DNA, which interestingly deals with speech and brain function. Human DNA has also been found in a Neanderthal skeleton found in Hohlenstein-Stadel, Germany.

The prevailing view is that modern humans originated in Africa. Around 60,000 years they migrated to the middle East and from there on spread across the globe, along the way interbreeding with archaic humans like Neanderthals and Denisovians. This out-of-Africa theory is under threat from supporters of multi-regional theory, which states humans arose from different Homo erectus sub-species in Africa, Europe and Asia.

It is quite possible your ancestors were Neanderthals hundreds of generations removed before you could read this article on the device of your choice.

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Written by Vin Chauhun

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  1. PS There is a fascinating novel about primitive humans: “The Inheritors” by William Golding. I read it many years ago, must re-read it. Try and get hold of it yourself: you would probably like it. It is about how one species/group, who were probably Neanderthals, were supplanted by modern humans, and it is written from the viewpoint of one of the earlier humans, so it is very cleverly done.

    • The current theory states that modern humans arose in Africa, not in Europe/Asia. But there many loop holds in that theory. Each year the time span for when humans left Africa keeps on getting pushed back. a decade ago it was unthinkable that humans could have Neanderthal or archaic DNA, now its the norm. A fossil in Romania was discovered to have about 10% Neanderthal DNA. In other words, the ancient human’s great-great-great-great-great grandfather was a Neanderthal, or somebody who a quite a high level of Neanderthal genes.

      According to conventional theory, no we did NOT arise from Neanderthals, but we interbred with them, which they believe explains why non-Africans have a small amount of their DNA.

      That theory in nonsense. I believe humans evolved both in Africa and in Eurasia. Before “modern humans” arrived in Europe+Asia, Neanderthals were the apex species. I believe that evolved to modern Eurasians. Later there was movement out of Africa but only to a limited extent.

      Human DNA is classified in terms of haplotypes, which form several haplotype families. Apparently these types are not found in Neanderthals, so the normal view is that humans could have not ‘evolved’ from our archaic relatives.

      But that is misleading because we don’t yet have the full haplotype picture, and Neanderthal -human transitional types could have gone extinct before being represented in the DNA.

      So my great-great-grand father could have neanderthal, my great-grandfather could have been 25%, with a haplotype very similar to my R1b1 haplotype, let call it R1AB. Grandpaw is R1b1A and Paw is R1b1. The R1AB could have disappeared from my gene pool, by drift, non-inheritance, or it hasn’t been found yet.

      I gave a very simplified example. Evidence of our Neanderthal ancestry could have gone extinct, so it would not show up in our genes, or the fossil record.

  2. I think you have to be careful when using the word “human” to distinguish between “us” and other homonid species. They all belong(ed) to the genus Homo, which means that interbreeding was possible and that they are/were all therefore “human”. The recent book by Yuval Noah Harari, which I am reading at present, is careful to use the term “sapiens” for modern humans, so that this point is made clear.

    • I have a problem when people talk about interbreeding or introgression – for one important reason: Neanderthal H-Y genes in the Y-chromosome resemble HLA antigens, and a woman’s immune system would attack the fetus, causing a spontaneous abortion.

      Hominid would have been a better choice – point taken.

      Whats the title of the book you are reading?

      Just yesterday, I saw the movie Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It was absolutely fascinating.

      • The book is just called “Sapiens”. To quote from page 19: “… it appears it was still just possible, on rare occasions, for a Sapiens and a Neanderthal to produce a fertile offspring. So the populations did not merge, but a few lucky Neanderthal genes did hitch a ride on the Sapiens express”.

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