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Unraveling the strands that bind us to our inner Neanderthal

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Our fascination with our closest human relative dates back to their discovery in the 1800's. Often thought of as inferior brutes, new discoveries paint Neanderthals in a different light, and unravel our shared genetic history.
Lauren Green
photo illustration
Our fascination with our closest human relative dates back to their discovery in the 1800s. Often thought of as inferior brutes, new discoveries paint Neanderthals in a different light, and unravel our shared genetic history.

There’s a little bit of Neanderthal in all of us. That’s not meant as an insult.

New research is shedding light on our ancient cousins and how their legacy lives with us today.

Genetic sequencing is helping unravel the threads that bind us to our inner Neanderthal.

nancy luken
Jeff St. Clair
Artist Nancy Luken was curious about her ancestry. A genetic screen showed that she has Neanderthal lineage, and it implied some strange attributes. The truth is, all of us have some Neanderthal genes mingled in our DNA.

Akron artist Nancy Luken is one of around 12 million people worldwide who’ve had their DNA sequenced by the company 23andMe.

Her ancestry is charted online.

She reads the list of northern European forebears, “38% British and Irish, 26% French and German.”

Looking further back, "there’s Scandinavian, Eastern European, it looks like Ukrainian."

The site also lists a far distant ancestor, a Neanderthal.

Despite the stereotypes, she was thrilled.

“I felt a little special,” Luken said.

A link to the past

Actually it’s not that special.

Everyone has some Neanderthal DNA, around 2% for people from Europe and Asia, less for Africans.

We know that because in 2010, an international team took on the formidable task of sequencing DNA taken from 40,000 year-old bone fragments belonging to three Neanderthal individuals and comparing it to modern humans.

Nick Patterson, a researcher at the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard, was part of the effort.

He says our ancestors emerging from Africamet and mated with Neanderthals, and we carry remnants of that encounter.

“There’s more Neanderthal DNA on the planet today than there ever was because it’s all living in us!”

His colleague Sriram Sankararaman, now at UCLA, helped date that interaction to around 55,000 years ago.

He says overall, their genes didn’t fit.

“On the whole Neanderthal DNA was bad for us,” said Sankararaman, and he says our genome spent generations trying to get rid of it.

He says Neanderthal DNA in some populations is associated with type 2 diabetes. A recent paper shows that a major risk factor for severe COVID is inherited from Neanderthals.

Other researchers, however, have found that Neanderthal DNA bolstered our immune system in ways that may have benefited us 55,000 years ago.

But Sankararaman discovered what he calls "deserts" in our genome that don’t contain any Neanderthal DNA, especially genes involved in reproduction, and that control speech and language.

“Those deserts of Neanderthal ancestry are really interesting places in our genome because they might point us to places which are important for uniquely human functions."

He cautions not to draw too many conclusions about Neanderthal DNA since it only makes up a small proportion of individual genes.

Getting to know our cousins

The fact that we carry it at all opens a window into the distant past.

Bruce Hardy holds model of skull
Jeff St.Clair
Bruce Hardy of Kenyon College holds a model of a Neanderthal skull. The archaic humans were different than us, as can be seen in the sloping forehead and heavy brow ridges. But Hardy says they were also intelligent and resourceful people who lived in Europe for 200,000 years before our ancestors arrived.

Bruce Hardyis an archaeologist at Kenyon College in Gambier who studies Neanderthals. He says they were anatomically different than us.

A quick test you can do to see if you’re a Neanderthal is to slap your forehead.

“If you can do that and you hit something, you know you’re a modern human,” Hardy said.

Neanderthals had huge brow ridges, but no forehead to speak of, although their brains were actually larger than ours.

They were heavily built, stocky and barrel-chested.

But Hardy made a discovery at a cave in France that shows Neanderthals were both dexterous and could count. It was a tiny fragment of string. Hardy says the three-stranded cord with fibers twisted in opposite directions has loads of implications.

“You’ve got the idea of sets and numbers, that’s basic numeracy, understanding basic numbers, basic math,” Hardy said.

Having string also implies that Neanderthals could have made rope, bags, nets, mats, and Hardy says, even outfit boats.

New discoveries in Spain show Neanderthals were experimenting with cave artlong before our ancestors arrived.

For Hardy, this adds up to a new appreciation of Neanderthal culture.

“We’re dealing a different human, but they can’t be acting that differently,” he said.

The lives of human hybrids

Archeologist Rebecca Wragg Sykes is author of the book Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art.

She says thinking about the lives of these women from so long ago helps us imagine the outcomes of sex with Neanderthals.

Those mothersraised babies that were different than either parent, “so that suggests that they’re not complete social outcasts and those hybrid babies aren’t being killed, at least some of them aren’t.”

Still, Neanderthals died out around 10,000 years after modern humans arrived, and we’ll likely never know why.

Although a little bit of them lives on in all us.

Jeff St. Clair is the midday host for Ideastream Public Media.