Breaking: there's a little bit of Neandertal in all of us

By Razib Khan | May 6, 2010 11:00 am

We’re all a bit of a Neanderthal:

As a result, between 1pc [percent] and 4pc of the DNA of non-African people alive today is Neanderthal, according to the research. The discovery emerged from the first attempt to map the complete Neanderthal genetic code, or genome. It more or less settles a long-standing academic debate over interbreeding between separate branches of the human family tree. Evidence in the past has pointed both ways, for and against modern humans and Neanderthals mixing their genes.

Prof Svante Paabo, of the Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said: “Those of us who live outside Africa carry a little Neanderthal DNA in us.”

eva-green-picture-1I will have a thorough write-up when I get a hold of the paper, which should be soon. As I said, this is a story of genomics, not just genetics. 1-4% is not trivial. The Daily Telegraph has more:

They were surprised to find that Neanderthals were more closely related to modern humans from outside Africa than to Africans.

Even more mysteriously, the relationship extended to people from eastern Asia and the western Pacific – even though no Neanderthal remains have been found outside Europe and western Asia.

The most likely explanation is that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens interbred before early modern humans struck out east, taking traces of Neanderthal with them in their genes.

Professor Svante Paabo, director of evolutionary genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who led the international project, said: “Since we see this pattern in all people outside Africa, not just the region where Neanderthals existed, we speculate that this happened in some population of modern humans that then became the ancestors of all present-day non-Africans.

“The most plausible region is in the Middle East, where the first modern humans appeared before 100,000 years ago and where there were Neanderthals until at least 60,000 years ago.

“Modern humans that came out of Africa to colonise the rest of the world had to pass through that region.”

Several genes were discovered that differed between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens and may have played important roles in the evolution of modern humans.

They included genes involved in mental functions, metabolism, and development of the skull, collar bone and rib cage.

Image Credit: United Press International

MORE ABOUT: Neandertal, Neanderthal

Comments (40)

  1. miko

    freakin awesome

  2. dave chamberl n

    Somewhere Greg Cochran is doing the church ladies’ superior dance, as is Hawks, as is Wolpoff.

  3. freakin awesome

    how’d they do dat?

  4. Ray

    This discovery would explain a lot about some people I know.

  5. Katharine

    Makes sense. Neanderthals were sitting on their butts in Europe by the time we evolved.

    What made them migrate over there, though? What’s the geographic milieu of late hominid evolution?

    “They included genes involved in mental functions, metabolism, and development of the skull, collar bone and rib cage.”

    Also makes sense. We made them extinct.

    What Neanderthal DNA DO those of us who aren’t of more modern African descent carry?

  6. tgt

    By African I’m assuming you mean sub-Saharan African, right?

  7. pconroy


    We made them extinct.

    Indirectly perhaps. As if you consider the scenario of very low population numbers for Neanderthals, who survived on large mammals – and possibly large sea mammals too, my theory – then Neanderthals could have bred with Early Moderns who encroached on their range. But due to disease and range restriction Neanderthals gradually dwindled, but also due to admixture, till there were no pure Neanderthals left.

    I see it as being analogous to where are all the Native Americans in the Eastern US? The answers is that they are us – in that there are low levels of NA in most Americans, except for recent immigrants or ethnic minorities who don’t outbreed – like Amish.

  8. Not that I object, Razib, but why the smokin’ hot picture of Eva Green? To showcase her lovely hybrid phenotypes?

    ….I guess I just answered my own question.

  9. I see it as being analogous to where are all the Native Americans in the Eastern US? The answers is that they are us – in that there are low levels of NA in most Americans, except for recent immigrants or ethnic minorities who don’t outbreed – like Amish.

    yes, i that was the analogy i was going to use too.

  10. M-K

    Could someone please explain exactly what the 1-4% means? If we share 98+% of our genes with chimps, then early modern H.S. undoubtedly shared 99+% with H.S.N. The difference between the two subspecies would be less than 1%. So are we talking about 1-4% of <1%? (I suspect it's more complicated.)

    By the way, your links aren't working. I also had a lot of problems getting here from Google News, which listed this post but linked to a File Not Found.

    And thank you for breaking this news.

  11. 1-4% of ancestry is neandertal.

  12. Bill C

    I’m just guessing, but the 1-4% figure may take as its base the portions of DNA that are known to differ between modern humans. If that’s the case, then it would say, “One to four percent of DNA diversity in modern humans may be due to interbreeding with Neanderthals.” Most of the differences in the human genome are found among Africans because only a relatively small number of humans left Africa to populate the rest of the world. It’s ironic that in the process it looks like those that left picked up some unique genes of their own via interbreeding.

  13. M-K

    This implies that admixture is higher in regions once inhabited by H.S.N (up to 4%) than in regions not inhabited by them (1% carried on from Middle East admixture).

    I still don’t understand how one could calculate the percent of ancestry as opposed to the percent of unique Neandertal genes.

  14. dave chamberlin

    Anyone else notice that the artists depictions of neanderthals have slowly changed from stupid brute monkey men to ruggedly handsome moderns with a protruding brow? Hmmm, I bet they get even more good looking now. Hawks promises all neanderthals all the time, I for one can’t get enough of it.

  15. Maciano

    Interesting. Thanks for sharing.

    – Is the amount of gene approximately between 1-4% among non-Africans?
    – Or do non-African populations have at least 1% Neanderthal genes and maximally 4%?

    Evolution is truly remarkable.

  16. Eric Johnson

    This is one of those antipodes-of-“heard the learn’d astronomer” moments. I just walked five blocks to the pepsi machine, and I was shocked and amazed to observe some 400 of these neanderthal intergrades. Many of them carrying, or otherwise associated with, interesting artifacts. I’ll be submitting my data to PNAS first off.

  17. Dana

    pconroy: Just because you’re obviously unaware of the fact, there are still American Indians in the eastern United States. Let’s not get carried away when it’s obvious some of us haven’t been paying attention.

    More generally speaking: I’m not sure it matters that we carry Neanderthal DNA. Obviously those of us who do not directly hail from sub-saharan Africa can still intermarry with those who do, so the differences are not that important–more on the order of, say, golden Laboradors vs. black Labs rather than wolf vs. German Shepherd. Interesting only really in an academic sense, nothing really earth-shattering otherwise.

  18. . Interesting only really in an academic sense, nothing really earth-shattering otherwise.

    first, if someone is reading this weblog they’ll probably take offense at the idea that something which is interesting in an academic sense wouldn’t be earth-shattering (though among stupid people that makes sense as shorthand). second, as a scientific matter it’s a big, big, deal. mostly because of the homocentrism in biological science, and the perception among many until recently that neandertals were a separate dead-end and species qualitatively different.

    anyway, i can’t gainsay that it’s not that big of a deal for you. fine. but it is for someone like paul and me because of our interest in the topic of human evolution. if you think we’re getting carried away, that reflects on your values of course. there are people who think space exploration is boring and a waste of time. i can’t prove to them wrong it isn’t because the difference is one of values.

    p.s. as a quantitative fact it may be that most of the genetic material distinctive to eastern amerindians is now found among self-identified white people, though i haven’t crunched the numbers. paul’s not retarded, he obviously knows that there are plenty of native peoples around. he just thinks quantitatively.

  19. Eric Johnson

    > there are still American Indians in the eastern United States.

    Sure. But it’s still an illuminating analogy overall, that detail aside.

    Also, there wouldn’t be any Amer-indians left, had Euro-Americans remained hostile, racialist, highly-fecund/expansionist, and fundamentally Malthusian — in a sense, “normal” — for thousands of years. So, the fundamental pattern has been disrupted to some extent by very novel, late-breaking cultural developments which have superimposed themselves. The analogy is still meaningful at the fundamental level.

  20. M-K
  21. Eric Johnson

    To me the whole thing is like finding out some of my ancestors were extra-terrestrials — to exaggerate rather markedly. So it doesn’t matter much that it’s still unclear whether this ancestry has had any non-negligible effect on my phenotype/nature. I find it very strange and exciting, pretty much the most stunning science discovery of my time. It’s somewhat less cool than the moon landing (which I wasn’t alive for), but kind of comparable.

  22. diana

    I think it’s a very very big deal. The liberal (left wing) evolution story that is fed to us amateurs on PBS by Alan Alda is that intelligent anatomically modern humans walked out of Africa X years ago and successfully colonized the planet because of our superior genes and moral ways. In Europe they just swept those disgusting, inferior Neandertals out of the way with their fabulous superiority.

    I’m not exaggerating. I saw something like this on TV not long ago. The clear implication (to me, anyway, your mileage may differ) was that Africans are cool. They hammered that African origin to death.

  23. re: american indians, i believe most eastern american indians are *genetically* majority european (i.e., tribal members, who i think have to be 1/4 native). i had a friend who was a member of the iroquois nation who was 1/4 and when i expressed surprise that a white dude like him was iroquois as an ignorant elementary schooler he explained that most tribal members were basically white, though some were not. he told me that in the native circles his mom socialized in the catholic vs. non-catholic difference was a bigger deal.

  24. Jim

    Yay , about time somebody used intelligent reasoning to come to an obvious conclusion

  25. Mary

    Yeah!!! I’m so glad they’re a part of us. Complete extinction is so sad. Oh, gosh, my genealogy project just got more difficult. Our family is undergoing some serious admixture in this generation. My mostly northern European descended son married an Igbo woman from Nigeria whose family has a long oral tradition of descent in that tribe. So I somewhat doubt that she has much if any non-subsaharan admixture. They just had fraternal twins with light skin and straight hair. I thought that was unusual. They have another child with skin color midrange between her very dark and my son’s fair skin and very curly hair. This 4 year old grandson notices skin color, but he has his own categories for the people he knows: yellow, orange, brown, pink. He self-identifies as orange. His parents are yellow and brown. I think I will have a glass of Champagne to toast our new ancestors.

    Hey, don’t bash liberals on this news. It has nothing to do with left or right. It has to do with verifiable information (so we expect) and people can like it or not. But there it is. Personally, I love it and I’m an old leftie.

  26. Twilightened

    So what’s Eva Green got to do with this topic ?

  27. M-K

    She’s pale and red haired, like Neandertals.

  28. diana

    A bizarre, fun Brit named Stan Gooch has been saying for years that Middle Easterners (esp. Jews) have Neandertal genes. Was he vindicated?

  29. Calvin

    For a truly fascinating read about the probably interactions (think predation, sex, territory, differences, etc) between the Neanderthal’s and human’s, don’t miss out Danny Vendramini’s website and book too!:

  30. @ Eric Johnson: Honestly, I think that most Native Americans are well on their way to assimilation, with the language shifts largely completed and urbanization undermining traditional modes of production. There’s certainly going to be a large number of people of Native American ancestry, but there’s also large numbers of people of German and Italian ancestry and those cultures aren’t exactly dynamic.

    @ Razib: Most of the Amerindian tribes in eastern North America descend in large part from white and black immigrants, a consequence of intermarriage and migration on the frontier. Ironically, the Mohawks of the Kanesetake reserve outside Montreal are trying to enforce a law banning people of insufficient blood quantum for living on the reverse, even though as early as 1900 the fundamentally mixed nature of the population was known.

    @ Mary: Agreed. It pleases me, too, that they left some sort of progeny, that there were descendants.

  31. diana

    That website:

    makes them look very apelike. I resent this slur on our ancestors.

  32. Sil

    Looking through the Science supplemental, one of the 88 fixed genes in Eurasians which came from Neanderthal is one that relates to the formation of hair structure. I wonder if this accounts for some of the morphological differences in the hair appearance of Africans compared to Eurasians? :

    KR241 205 V/M 21 Keratin-associated protein, formation of a rigid and resistant hair shaft

    I serached this on the for more explanation:

    UniProtKB/Swiss-Prot: KR241_HUMAN, Q3LI83
    Function: In the hair cortex, hair keratin intermediate filaments are embedded in an interfilamentous matrix, consisting of hair keratin-associated proteins (KRTAP), which are essential for the formation of a rigid and resistant hair shaft through their extensive disulfide bond cross-linking with abundant cysteine residues of hair keratins. The
    matrix proteins include the high-sulfur and high-glycine-tyrosine keratins

  33. John Robert Walsh

    I was just waiting for some racist to point out that the study concluded that NON African IE: those 3000 or so modern humans that trekked out of Africa to the middle east, china Russia and western and eastern Europe managed to interbred with the many Neanderthal tribes along the way (Modern Homo Sapiens Women having sex with big strapping Male Neos apparently ) I wonder why? No evidence it seems that semi allegedly sophisticated Homo Sap males made advances to NEos missus though ???

    Anyway, I digress, the resulting hybrid offspring would inherit Neo DNA and hence some advance in extra fertility and brain development, the racist point pending is that it would explain European and Asian technological advances in these areas of the world while also being a reason why Sub Saharan Africans failed to develop in the same way and continue to be a bit disorganised when ruling themselves even today.

    If this was the outcome of this study and conclusive proof could be established it would have to be suppressed or re written or denied.

    So of course it can’t be true can it?? Before anybody has a go: I’m Black by the way! So Homo Sapien without the NEO injection!

  34. Afterthought

    What phenotypic advantages would a HSN be able to contribute to newly arrived HSS?

    Most likely those gained by HSN peculiar to life outside of Africa; for instance, lighter skin to produce more vitamin D; thicker bodies to retain more body heat in the frozen north. Larger skulls? Now that’s going to be a touchy subject. One day we’re all Africans who share 99.99% of our genes, the next day we find out that a fair chunk of our genes aren’t from Africa at all, perhaps the decisive ones.

    After all, when we talk about non-African humans, we are talking about the most successful lineages of recent times (Asians, Europeans, Native Ameircans).

    A good 5/6th or more of the human race (the successful part) came from a group that was at one time far less than 1% of the total species, and the 1% that mixed with HSN.

    Not a coincidence.

  35. Sandgroper

    You don’t regard Bantu farmers as successful?

  36. Sharon

    I just knew it, before I can find a trace of Native American blood in my family, which I have searched for, the entire white bunch from Europe gets to add Neo.

    Neos R Us.

    I am hoping DNA from similar extinct animals will show, or prove speciation.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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