What did red-haired Neanderthals look like?

By Razib Khan | July 19, 2011 12:27 pm

So asks a commenter below in relation to the question above. First, why would one even presume that they were red-haired, see my 2007 post, or the paper in Science: A Melanocortin 1 Receptor Allele Suggests Varying Pigmentation Among Neanderthals. In humans loss of pigmentation can usually be thought of as loss of function on genes. That’s probably one reason that there are several different genetic architectures for light skin, but only one for very dark skin. There might be only one way for an engine to operate as designed, but there are many different ways you can tweak a part and render it broken.


The reason that scientists have posited that Neanderthals were red-haired is that they examined the region around a melanocortin receptor gene which serves as something of a master regulator in terms of melanin production. Their sample was of two Neanderthals, one from Italy and one from Spain, and both exhibited signs of loss of function within this region. An N = 2 is small, but one must recall the fact that they are independent draws as they were sampled from different regions. Also, since then from what I recall in the Denisovan paper the authors noted that all four of their Neanderthals, from Spain, to Italy, to Croatia, to the Caucasus, seem to have a shared recent common history back to an extreme population bottleneck. If Neanderthals were relatively genetically homogeneous spatially, they may also have exhibited phenotypic similarities (thought perhaps not, due to the power of natural selection to reshape populations).

But back to the question about what Neanderthal looked like. I’m sure you’ve heard the old chestnut that if you made a few hygienic changes and had a Neanderthal don modern clothing no one would bat an eye. I’ve obtained an artist’s reconstruction of a red-haired Neanderthal in contemporary dress after a visit to a barber:

Image credit: Hoggarazzi Photography

  • Jim Johnson

    I believe I speak for everyone here when I say, “Hmmmm.”

  • Miley Cyrax

    Like the scientists in Jurassic Park (the novel) with their dinosaurs, we would have to make sure any hypothetical genetically reconstructed Neanderthals don’t succumb to sunburn. http://tosh.comedycentral.com/video-clips/carrot-top-rubdown

  • juan

    So all non-Africans are 2% prop comic?

    I guess this explains why black people never liked Gallagher.

  • http://eclecticbreakfast.blogspot.com/ Michael Brady

    My eyes!!!

  • don

    So all non-african humans have neanderthal DNA; I always wondered why the agricultural revolution–necessary for beer drinkers–and ultimately the industrial revolution was a warm interglacial non african event. I guess the Neanderthals were not stupid, lumbering beasts of burden after all.

  • Ian

    2%? Interpretome told me I’m 8%…

  • Dwight E. Howell

    Some were red heads others were not! The interesting point is the Hsn mutation for red hair isn’t found in living humans so far as is known.

  • http://www.buildinghistory.org/distantpast/ Jean M

    The interesting point is the Hsn mutation for red hair isn’t found in living humans so far as is known.

    Precisely. Europeans did not inherit red hair from Neanderthals.

  • MSG

    He’s no oil painting, but you wouldn’t call to have him arrested.

  • http://gdiusa.ws GDI

    Which means Europeans are separated on the evolutionary tree by about 400,000 years from Africans?

  • http://www.indezaanstreek.nl/ bedrijvengids

    Thanks for another great article. Where else could anybody get that type of information in such an ideal way of writing? I’ve a presentation next week, and I am on the look for such information.

  • Roger

    New Scientist has recent article saying around 4% of genome of non-Africans is Neanderthal.

    Gregory Cochran thinks that the Neanderthal genes might have helped Europeans and North Asians with cold adaption.

    John Hawks has post about how Asians and Europeans have different Neanderthal genes — implying separate breeding with Neanderthals.

  • Mathilda

    Not the furred ape man of yester-year.

    I would have gone with straight hair myself for a recon. Better at keeping the neck warm.

    Jean M, some of the age estimates for red and light brown hair in humans are hugely old. Possibly we picked them up from the Levantine Neanderthals; maybe the European N ginger variant had some kind of undesriable effect in modern hybrids that got itself deselected. We don’t have N Mt or Y DNA either.

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

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 http://www.razib.com

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