Rights: University of Waikato Published 14 June 2017 Download

Everyone living outside of Africa today has a small amount of Neanderthal DNA. Oxford University Professor of Archaeological Science Tom Higham explains some of the traits we’ve inherited from our ancient evolutionary relatives.



What did we get from Neanderthals? What was it that Neanderthal DNA gave us? We know from the DNA that we actually have some positive inherited genes from Neanderthals, and one of these are genes that affect the keratin. And these groups of genes appear in our genome, and they are directly coming in from Neanderthals, and they seem to give us better adaptations for skin and hair – the quality of the hair is better. And this intriguingly could be due to the fact that, when we came out of Africa, we were coming from our tropical environment and were coming into the Ice Age realms, and it may be that this gave us a better adaptation, and therefore it was positively selected, and perhaps this is why these genes came into us.

But on the negative side, we also have some groups of genes that are responsible for several other things, for example, Crohn’s disease, diabetes type 2. Diabetes type 2 – this group of genes which will give you diabetes or a higher propensity to get diabetes – is linked strongly to Neanderthals. This doesn’t mean that Neanderthals had diabetes type 2. In fact, in Neanderthals, it almost certainly had a reverse influence and a reverse effect, because it could be linked with starvation adaptations. These genes are also linked with that. And it also doesn’t mean that Neanderthals went around smoking cigarettes either. This simply refers to the fact that there are several genes linked with compulsive addictive behaviour personalities that we also find coming from Neanderthals.

So it could be that, in the time since we interbred with Neanderthals, there have been these negative genes that have come into us that the evolutionary process of these as it happens is currently sifting through and selecting against.

The Science Learning Hub would like to acknowledge:
Professor Tom Higham, University of Oxford
The Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution
Models of Neanderthal couple, courtesy of S Estressangle/E Daynes
Model of Neanderthal man, © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London/Kennis & Kennis Reconstructions
Video re-enactment of Neanderthals, courtesy Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology