How Much of Us Is Neanderthal?

I recently reviewed Raven’s Choice, a book by Harper Swan, the premise of which is based on the discovery that at some point in time Neanderthal and Homo sapiens commingled and as a result, we all have Neanderthal DNA. I remembered reading about this in passing, and my interest became piqued while reading this book. So I did a little investigation…

Some 200,000 years ago, the ancestors of modern man evolved in East Africa. They spread throughout the rest of the continent and then moved out into eastern Asia and western Europe. By the time modern humans arrived there, some 45,000 to 80,000 years ago, the Neanderthals had already been there for more than 100,000 years and established their own culture. As Homo sapiens journeyed though these regions, they encountered Neanderthals and at least once in a while, they had sex.

Homo neanderthalensis Neanderthals were not a hunched over, brutish people, hairy and with dark complexions. More recent have studies have concluded that Neanderthals were fair-skinned and probably with no more facial hair than modern man. They may have communicated by speech, made and used a diverse set of sophisticated tools, controlled fire, lived in shelters, made and wore clothing. They were skilled hunters of large animals and also ate plant foods, and occasionally made symbolic or ornamental objects. There is evidence that Neanderthals deliberately buried their dead and occasionally even marked their graves with offerings, such as flowers. No other primates, and no earlier human species, had ever practiced this sophisticated and symbolic behavior.

Nevertheless, Homo sapiens and Neanderthals did not merge into a single people, and Neanderthal culture and purebred Neanderthals died out 35,000-30,000 years ago. Hypotheses for the manner of their extinction include a failure or inability to adapt to climate change or competitive exclusion by encroaching Homo sapiens. However, there was enough interbreeding that around 2.5 percent of the DNA in Asians and Europeans is Neanderthal.

The skeletal remains of an individual living in northern Italy 40,000-30,000 years ago are now believed to be that of a Homo sapiens/Neanderthal hybrid, according to a paper in PLOS ONE. Genetic analysis was done on the individual’s nuclear and mitochondrial DNA. The nuclear DNA was mainly Homo sapiens, but the DNA of the mitochondria, which is are cell organelles containing DNA transmitted only from the mother, was Neanderthal. It was concluded the individual was the product of a female Neanderthal who had mated with a male Homo sapiens.

Anthropologists have long wondered why, if Neanderthal and Homo sapiens brains were the same size, did Homo sapiens dominate? A functional comparison has revealed it was a matter of allocation: Neanderthal brains focused more on vision and movement, leaving less room for cognition related to social networking. Homo sapiens evolved distinct genes related to cognitive functions, metabolism and the development of cranial features, the collarbone and the rib cage.

So when I’m acting a little primitive (which my children used to accuse me of), I can blame it on my Neanderthal DNA!





21 thoughts on “How Much of Us Is Neanderthal?”

  1. I love all this tracing back trough DNA – haplogroups and mitochondria and what have yous. My current WIP has this as one theme so a good and well timed post. Tanks Noelle.

  2. I enjoyed reading this, and you’ve given me more research information. I wasn’t aware of the PLOS article. Thanks, Noelle. The fictional genetics company in the story, Genetics and Me, was inspired by the actual company, 23andme. According to them, I’m 2.8% Neanderthal. The latest and probably most accurate research, however, indicates lower amounts for today’s peoples as you’ve mentioned here. I love it that other people find all of this highly interesting.

    1. Hi Harper! I just might have to check out how much of me is Neanderthal! I sent my DNA into Ancestry and discovered that I am 13% Irish. I’d always thought English, and it explained a lot of what my father told me about my ancestors settling in Maine (where a lot of Irish ended up during the potato famine) and why I was sung to sleep with an Irish lullaby. Part of my research used molecular techniques, so all of this genetics is a big draw for me!

  3. This is fascinating. It probably accounts in part for some of the different cranial structures between races as well. Thanks so much, Noelle!

  4. Very interesting, Noelle. I remember reading something on this a looong time ago, but you did a great job covering this in a much easier-to-grasp way. And, no blaming anyone but ourselves, I guess. Okay, you offer excellent proof here, so the blame shifts back to the self. 😉

    1. I remember the discovery really piqued my interest at the time. They are now finding several offshoots of hominid species – the hobbit sized people, for example – and I’m having a hard time keeping up. The ability to sequence DNA has opened up a whole new way of discovering how we evolved, a remarkable scientific accomplishment. Who knows what the next century will bring? A cloned Neanderthal?

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: