Skip to page content

Unlocking the genetic code of Neanderthals

15 November 2006

Scientists have revealed part of the genetic code of Neanderthals, the ancient human species living in Europe until about 30,000 years ago.

Model head of a Neanderthal man

Model head of a Neanderthal man

Using the latest analytical and computer techniques, scientists mapped out the genetic code from material from a 38,000-year-old Neanderthal fossil . The fossil was extremely well preserved and enables scientists to reconstruct large portions of the DNA.

Previously, fragments of mitochondrial DNA (DNA that is passed from mother to daughter) have been extracted from Neanderthal fossils, the first time being in 1997. This new research is filling in many of the genetic gaps.

'The results confirm the distinctiveness of the Neanderthals,' said Chris Stringer, human evolution expert at the Natural History Museum. Neanderthals and modern humans are thought to have diverged from a common ancestor around 500,000 years ago and the new research supports this date.

Equivalent genes
Neanderthal skull from Gibraltar.

Neanderthal skull from Gibraltar.

The study is a unique opportunity to find out any similarities and differences between us and our ancient relatives. Scientists will look for equivalent genes in Neanderthals that give modern humans characteristics such as eye colour, hair type and language skills.

'It will be especially interesting to look for the microcephalin gene, a gene that contributes to the form of the brain, in Neanderthals,' said Chris. 'It has recently been suggested that a variant of this gene was introduced into Homo sapiens quite recently from a distinct source, perhaps through interbreeding with Neanderthals.'

Living alongside

Scientists know that there was a period of time when Neanderthals and early modern humans, or Cro-Magnons, lived alongside one another. Some scientists think they may have interbred. 'It was probably a rare event,' adds Chris.

'My view is that these groups had been biologically separate for much longer than any modern human groups have been separated. There could have been profound differences in appearance, body language, language and general behaviour, which would have impinged on how they saw each other.'

'The question then is whether, when the populations met, they regarded each other as simply people, enemies, alien or even prey. We simply don't know the answer, and the answer may have varied from one time and place to another, especially given the vagaries of human behaviour.'

The whole genome

Research will now begin on mapping the complete genetic code for Neanderthals. 'Having a Neanderthal genome,' says Chris, 'will also throw light on our own evolution, by allowing a three-way comparison of the genetic blueprints that produced Neanderthals, and that today produce us and our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees. We should then be able to pin down unique changes in each genome to show how we came to be different from each other.'

This research is reported in the journals Nature and Science .