The Neandertal Olympics?

By Razib Khan | June 24, 2012 1:39 pm

In the comments:

And yes, species concepts are much more fuzzy in many cases. Were mice to hold their own Olympics, they might well have learned (if slightly furry) discussions about whether musculus/domesticus/castaneus should compete in the same events, and if so, which events molossinus or other hybrid individuals should compete in. As humans, we dodge that bullet by having no closely enough related species to confuse the issue. The difference between us and a chimp is well defined. If Neanderthals were still around, that would be a different matter.

What happens is a nation (e.g., China?) reconstructs a Neandertal individual from the sequence in the public domain as well as segments from living human beings. Do they get to compete as power-lifters? This might seem like a crazy question, but I’m not totally unconvinced that it will be just academic within our lifetime. Genetic modification is likely to become ubiquitous within a generation.

Image credit: Wikipedia

MORE ABOUT: Bioethics

Comments (17)

  1. Antz

    More likely the genetic engineers would only splice a few advantageous genes that contribute to muscularity–and not even from Neanderthals. Remember that German kid with the mutation?

  2. Dwight E. Howell

    The kid has a mutation that makes him much stronger. I’m not sure if his skeleton is set up to handle it. Studies of the crew of Henry VIII ship that sank suggest that the work loads they were exposed to was a common cause of the failure of bones, ligaments and tendons.

    Early Homo appears to have been better buttressed. The evolutionary trend that I see seems to be for people that need less food, have degenerate teeth, and can fight off disease better but clearly lack the athleticism of the past.

    Nearly all true super star athletes have genetic reasons to think and are outliers in some regard.

  3. ElamBend

    Look at olympian sprinters, particularly sprinters. That what makes them fantastic sprinters also makes them fantastically muscular. Sure, training has developed it more, but the genetic ability was there. As for neandertal olympics, judging by the pics, I think Razib was tongue-in-cheek suggesting that Northern Euros, who do well in the power lifting events are merely exhibiting their mixed sapien-neadertal ancestry. (see: Sebastian Chabal)

  4. dave chamberlin

    I knew football jocks at University of lllinois who were roided up in the 1970’s. I watched professional baseball turn into a joke for a decade and a half with players magically returning from the offseason with another thirty pounds of muscle, possible at age sixteen but at age twenty eight? I knew why, but the press stayed away from the subject until Bonds took it to the extreme. It will happen again, all it will take is an atheletes’ chemist or geneticist being ahead of the leagues or olympics enforcement policies. Razib might be joking about Neanderthals but his point is well taken that sports are going to be had by cheaters in the future, you can count on it.

  5. Bobby LaVesh

    “Razib might be joking about Neanderthals but his point is well taken that sports are going to be had by cheaters in the future, you can count on it.”

    Look at professional cycling- it is more or less a farce now (and has been for over a decade). How many pro-cyclists have been caught taking drugs? It appears you have to now to stand a chance. The good ones that haven’t been caught have all come under suspicion- and it may be a case of them just being good at hiding their drug use- having better, harder to detect drugs.

    It’s easy to see other sports going the same way- where it will eventually be the norm.

    Going back to the gene side of things; what are we going to do- start doing a DNA test on atheletes to see if they have “illegal genes”? It is mostly our genes that make us naturally better at sports or not.

  6. pconroy


    I’ve watched the “World’s Strongest Man” a few times, and the winners are indeed almost all from Northern Europe, with many small countries ( < 10 million people) well represented, such as :

    So this may indeed be a case of introgression of Neanderthal genes for strength, or there may be low levels of the Myostatin defect gene in these populations?!

  7. pconroy


    Yeah, in the future I expect to see gene modification/stem cell treatments for athletes – if they don’t exist already – and that’s going to be even harder to spot…

  8. RafeK


    There is evidence of evolution in myostatin metabolism in african populations but no so far as I know in any eurasian population based on appearance and athletic performance I suspect the genes are related to down regulation of myostatin function.

    What distinguishes the northern European athletes who dominant strong man isn’t so much muscle mass in particular but rather total body mass, in fact total body mass even fatty tissue contributes to some degree to the highest levels of strength performance in addition bone mass and lever systems have a great deal to do with strength potential.

    Northern Europeans are the tallest heaviest populations in the world(save for possible for Polynesians who are are numerically far inferior), relative to tropical populations in general in accordance with bergmans law northern europeans are heavier, with shorter limb segments relative to the torso, this is huge determinant of performance. If we take two athletes and assume they have equivalent muscle mass, equivalent fast twitch distribution and equivalent neural factors but one has legs 25 percent shorter then the other and you will see that the shorter limbed athlete will be able to lift heavier objects and exhibit better slow strength this is due to having to overcome less lever disadvantage during strength performance, on the other hand the longer limbed athlete will run faster and jumper higher because he can produce more momentum at the end of his levers. If the only difference between Europeans and Africans was the evident skeletal proportions one would predict soley from that that Europeans would on average excel in power lifting and olympic lifting while africans would on average excel in running and jumping.

    Neanderthals with even shorter limb segments far stronger bones and presumable more muscle mass then any modern population would seemingly have been certain to dominate power lifting and olympic lifting at least in middle weight divisions. The shear muscular hypertrophy may have overcome their lever disadvantages in other sports as well impossible to tell. Tropically adapted heidelbergensis might have really dwarfed us in sprinting and jumping performance.

    On a tangent I find it very interesting that the current top five long jumpers in the world are all of European ancestry, all are very long limbed individuals of course.

  9. I really think PConroy might be on to something. I agree with RafeK’s reasoning, and agree that overall body size may be a factor, but watching the show has made me wonder if something else might also be at work. One World Champion, if I remember correctly, was a Polish fellow who was only 6’2. While this is certainly taller than average for most populations, it makes me think that while height is probably a factor in the competition, it’s also probably not the most important one. If the argument is that it’s not height specifically, but instead body size as measured by weight of bone, muscle mass, and fat, then these are all the very things that Neanderthal ancestry might help contribute to.

  10. Tomasz R.

    Alexander Karelin – the famous former Russian wrestler – was measured and found out to have unusally wide (even compared to top stportsmen): bases of the bones, elbows and knees.


    His birth weight was 6.8 kg.

  11. pconroy


    I remember watching the Karelin vs Gardner match in the olympics – see here:

    Karelin was a much better wrestler, both stronger and better technique, but his signature move was to get the other wrestler in a bear hug grip around the chest – but Gardner was just too big, wide and heavy for Karelin to lock his fingers, and so couldn’t execute!

  12. One of the reasons to enjoy and appreciate amateur and community based athletic events as distinct from pro and national/international sports is that they escape problems caused in the dynamics of the games involved when you are dealing with outlier individuals (e.g. NBA height men) in terms of natural ability.

    For example, you will next see a Little League perfect game. Errors and lack of great ability is part of what makes it interesting.

    Likewise, the kind of people who thrive in rural high school basketball and the kind of game that gets played there, differs dramatically from the big college/pro game in a way that is still fun. A prety short, but fast guy can succeed in the former game.

  13. dave chamberlin

    Keep an eye on HGH – human growth hormone as one of the tools in the cheaters toolbox. It is now medically prescribed to really small junior high school kids whom without HGH would only grow to a little over five feet tall but with it add a half foot or more of height. Now I have two six foot four inch sons, how much would it have saved me in college tuition bills if I had slipped the very athletically inclined son HGH and made him a seven footer. Surely if the extra growth boost hadn’t scewed up his knees or his back he could have played college basketball and maybe even professional ball. The internet has all kinds of goofy ads promising HGH right now and professional baseball (naturally) is dragging it’s feet in testing for it.

  14. Tomasz R.

    @dave chamberlain
    Increasing levels of Human Growth Hormone increases chances of getting cancer. Yes, tall people are more prone to cancer.
    Besides supplementing with HGH has to be done under supervision, otherwise you may end up with surprises, eg. assymetry – your one arm getting very long while the other not so…

  15. dave chamberlin

    @14 No way in hell would I reccomend anyone taking HGH except under a doctors advice and supervision, as you have mentioned there are nasty side effects. I was merely illustrating one of the reasons why there will be plenty of abusers of HGH, just like there was and still is in the use of steriods.

  16. muhr

    I haven’t paid attention to drug use in bodybuilders or sport for a while, but HGH has been a standard drug for years although it’s use to increase height in young people may be on the increase. Last I heard mechano growth factor was gaining interest. HGH increases muscle mass through eliciting skeletal muscle secretion of MGF, so some people would no doubt want to skip the middleman. Although perhaps it would be easier to detect, I haven’t kept up with the developments in HGH drug testing.

    And I suspect that myostatin antibodies have already been used. There are no myostatin antibodies for human use, but from googling myostatin antibody you can see that there are such products available for lab work. I suspect there are some people who would risk trying them out.

  17. ackbark

    I saw something somewhere describing the distinction between European and African athletes as having to do with torso length, that Europeans have longer torsos and Africans shorter torsos and that in Europeans led to an advantage in swimming. The article gave Michael Phelps as an extreme example of someone with a long torso combined with long arm lengths and shorter legs relative to the arms, the perfect recipe for a swimmer.

    I was wondering, does this not also describe Neanderthals, is this body configuration what we’ve inherited from them?

    And, additionally, would that suggest Neanderthals spent a lot of time near and in the water, along coastlines now submerged?


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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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