An Unexpected Gift

We’ve known for some time that our Homo sapiens ancestors mated and mixed with Neanderthals in what would later become Europe. As a result of these mixed couplings, up to four percent of our DNA comes from this other human species. What exactly those DNA molecules changed has been fodder for speculation, but also—and luckily—the subject of scientific studies.

A Neanderthal, our friendly cousin helping us out with a couple of DNA strands .... photo by Flickr user Erich Ferdinand, Creative Commons License 2.0

A Neanderthal, our friendly cousin helping us out with a couple of DNA strands. Photo by Flickr user Erich Ferdinand, with Creative Commons License 2.0.

One such study was published last month in the journal Science, with John Capra (Vanderbilt University) as lead author. They took the vast wealth of anonymized patient data, coupled with their genetic data, and let loose some heavy statistics. Do note that this is correlation, not necessary (unique) causation, and that it only concerns clinical issues, as logged in medical records of patients. Overall, some 28,000 records were analyzed. These came only from Eurasians as they are the ones who mixed with the Neanderthals.

So what did the researchers learn? Some good things that helped us, but also some worrying findings. For instance, there is a very positive link to skin cells called keratinocytes, which help defend the body from environmental damage. The Neanderthal DNA apparently is correlated to a better protection against UV radiation (among others) and keeps those cells stronger against those exterior threats.

There is also a link with increased blood coagulation. Now that is an interesting trait to have, as it more quickly seal wounds and therefore makes it more difficult for viruses and bacteria to enter the body. Sadly, however, it can lead to hypercoagulation, leading to obstructions in the blood vessels and strokes.

Some bad surprises we inherited could be linked (this is, again, correlation, not causation) to depression and addiction to tobacco, or at least the risk of having a depression or addiction. The reason for this is not clear from my reading. Depression is an especially complex disease, and it could be correlated with other inherited traits, such as behavior or mood. Sadly, some less scientifically reputable sites ran away with this part of the research without indicating its contextual complexities.

The findings leave little doubt that the DNA from the Neanderthals was an unexpected gift, helping us survive better as a species in certain cases. But it just as clearly also imbued its negative consequences, which may only now show up clearly. Interesting research that whets the appetite for more.

Tip o’ the hat to Futurity, where I first picked up this news.

About Bruno Van de Casteele

Philosopher by education, IT'er by trade. Allround Armchair Skeptic, History Enthusiast, Father of Three. Twitter @brunovdc Personal website:
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14 Responses to An Unexpected Gift

  1. James O'Connell says:

    As there is increasing evidence of earlier hominid forms, such as Florens , lasting into modern types it is possible that cross breeding also happened in other parts of the world with types similar to Neanderthal and also earlier types. Also, prior to modern humans different types of more apelike hominids may also have intermixed.

  2. Freke1 says:

    I’ve read that we got a lot of Our immune system from the Neanderthals as they were better adapted to the colder climate and its diseases. Also humans interbred with Denisovans and other early humans. We were very active travellers with a lot of curiousity and ingenuity and friendly cultural interconnectedness. We didn’t kill the Neanderthals, we lived alongside them but eventually we greatly outnumbered them.

  3. Rob says:

    The occasional skeletal evidence of conflict aside, it’s entirely possible if not probable we simply “absorbed” the Neandrathal species into ours.

  4. Ed Graham says:

    I wonder what a hot neanderthal woman looked like…I’m hoping that picture (above) is a male.

  5. Francis says:

    Do not worry Ed! That photo is of a really rather out of date model. Recent reconstructions of Neanderthalis show that if you put him or her in modern clothes you would work hard to tell them apart from H. Sapiens. They are really far more like us than we used to think. And the fact that we interbred with them successfully suggest to me that we are probably two subspecies of the same Hominid, and not separate species at all.

  6. richard1941 says:

    The Neandertal in the picture above looks a lot like anti-Semitic characterizations of Jews in National Socialist times. Who was the model for that photo, what was his ethnicity, and how was he selected?

  7. Bruno Van de Casteele says:

    Hey all – I got the picture from Flickr here:
    It is taken in the museum in Neandertal (Germany). Another picture from that museum: (I assume it’s the same dude)

    Basically, I agree with Francis but even stronger: put this guy in a jeans and a t-shirt, and he could serve your coffee in Starbucks or run for president.

    • James O'Connell says:

      In the novel, ‘Clan o the Cave Bear’ the Cro Magnons call them ‘flat heads’. They are still different from existing races, notably in the skull shape and brain structure, as well as the squat but powerful bodies. They were not, however, shambling along like apes.

  8. Bill Crane says:

    While I certainly agree that Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons lived near one another and occasionally mated. But I also believe that when Cro-Magnons had Neanderthals over for dinner, they probably ate them,,,

  9. Vlad, N says:

    Hello Brian Dunning, I recently started listening to your show from episode 1 and I enjoy it a lot. Chances are you haven’t done anything on EmDrive. Could you do an episode on how EmDrive (electromagnetic drive) works as a means of propulsion on space?

    Thanks and stay skeptical.

  10. Greg Johnson says:

    The young people today seem to be no longer interested with the history. Blogs like this should be ones to revolve online.

  11. Randy B says:

    In the American Journal of Human Genetics, a Stanford-led group says that the Neanderthal Y chromosome is missing from modern humans. This may mean that male hybrid fetuses from Neanderthal fathers didn’t survive, perhaps due to immune reactions from the mother. So, Neanderthals may not have been so genetically super-compatible with us, and hybridization could have led to lesser relative success of the Neanderthal genome.

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