Win a Date with a Neanderthal

May 12, 2010

Brit Trogen

science in seconds blog brit trogen


Burly; muscular; covered in fiery red hair… And that’s just the women. The discovery that modern day humans carry the remnants of Neanderthal DNA is shaking up some age-old debates. Were Neanderthals just a sub-species of Homo sapiens or another species entirely? How closely did our two cultures interact? Can a visit to the Natural History Museum ever be the same again?


It all boils down to genes. Humans evolved out of Africa, and studies of the migration patterns and gene flow of various populations have been the subject of intense research for decades. It's no surprise; everyone wants to know where they came from, and if ancient bones and teeth can tell us the story of our origins—stories of a mitochondrial Eve—we'll pore over those bones like baby pictures.


This latest research involved sequencing Neanderthal DNA and uncovering common genetic markers between the Neanderthals and modern European populations, but not in modern day African populations. In fact, current estimates suggest that up to four percent of the European genome was passed down from the Neanderthal, while African populations remain Neanderthal-free.


Translation: those dirty Europeans got it on with the cave men. Well, other cave men. And while that is very possible, it’s actually only one possible explanation that, not surprisingly, was grasped rather strongly by the major news outlets. What’s the other? 


Genomes are in a constant state of flux; clipping out regions that they have no use for via the arbitrary mechanisms of natural selection, and maintaining those they do. So if the Neanderthal sequence was actually present in the African genome from the very beginning, then simply lost over the millions of years, we’d see the same effect. The authors of the paper mentioned this, but… it wasn’t reported. 


Even Neanderthal sex sells.



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