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A second Neanderthal genome has now been fully and carefully sequenced, and she’s a beaut. Scientists reported on Thursday that the DNA from the woman, whose 52,000-year-old remains were discovered in a cave in Croatia, suggests she was more closely related to the Neanderthals who mated with the ancestors of today’s Europeans and Asians than was the only other Neanderthal to be fully sequenced, a man from southern Siberia.

That means her genetic variants are more likely to be in people today. Here’s what you need to know to sound knowledgeable about your Neanderthal genes, should someone make any cracks about your posture:


How much Neanderthal do I have in me?

That depends on your family roots. If you’re from sub-Saharan Africa, zero: Neanderthals, who inhabited Europe, mated only with Homo sapiens who left humankind’s ancestral continent some 100,000 years ago. They’re therefore ancestors only of non-sub-Saharan Africans. If you’re East Asian, you’re about 2.3 percent to 2.6 percent Neanderthal. If you’re from Western Eurasia, approximately from central Russia to points west, your genome is 1.8 percent to 2.4 percent Neanderthal. That range of 1.8 percent to 2.6 percent compares to previous estimates of 1.5 percent to 2.1 percent.

I’m guessing that includes genes that make my brother-in-law really hairy.

Probably not. DNA from the southern Siberian chap and three other Neanderthals whose DNA was partly sequenced previously showed that modern humans carry Neanderthal genes involved in depression, being overweight, getting skin damage from sunlight, catching serious upper respiratory tract infections, developing atherosclerosis, lipid metabolism, diabetes, and immune defense against bacteria and parasites.

But wait, there’s more?

Yes, the genome from the Croatian Neanderthal adds to that list, biologists led by ancient-DNA whiz Svante Pääbo, of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, reported in Science.


Thanks to Neanderthals’ long-ago couplings with our ancestors, some modern humans inherited a DNA variant associated with blood levels of the “bad” LDL cholesterol. (The variant is called rs10490626, and it’s in a gene called INSIG2, for those of you who want to ask your friendly neighborhood DNA sequencer to check for it.) Another Neanderthal gene is associated with vitamin D (the rs6730714 variant of the PAX3 gene).

There are also variants associated with eating disorders, visceral fat accumulation, rheumatoid arthritis, schizophrenia, and the response to antipsychotic drugs.

A separate study, in the American Journal of Human Genetics, took a somewhat different approach. It compared DNA from the Siberian Neanderthal to genetic data on 112,338 participants in the UK Biobank study, which records participants’ genetic data, physical traits, disease, and more. Janet Kelso and Michael Dannemann, also of the Max Planck Institute, got 15 matches: Neanderthal variants are associated with skin tone (either light or dark, depending on the variant), hair color, how easily a person tans and whether they had sunburns in childhood, height, and a high resting pulse rate. Note to artists: the Neanderthal had zero genes for red hair color.

So if I have arthritis or a fast heartbeat, I can blame my great-great-great … Neanderthal grandparent?

Not necessarily. The arthritis variant raises your risk of that disease by a piddling 14 percent, so lifestyle factors and other genes not from Neanderthals play a role, too. The schizophrenia variant raises the risk of developing that disease sixfold, though, at least according to a small 2009 study.

Wait. Why would evolution not have eliminated bad variants from the human gene pool?

First of all, studies linking genes to traits sometimes turn out to be wrong, so it’s possible Neanderthal variants that seem harmful might actually do something else, or something additional, that’s either beneficial or neutral. The researchers didn’t investigate the function of the new genes they identified in Ms. Croatia; they just checked her DNA sequences against databases, which can be incomplete or incorrect.

To state the obvious, Neanderthals weren’t taking Ativan, so a genetic variant that influences the brain’s response to antipsychotic drugs must have had, and probably still has, an additional function. And maybe seemingly harmful variants such as that for schizophrenia have stuck around because they also confer benefits — perhaps it made those who carry it more creative, a useful trait to have when you’re battling mammoths and ice ages.

  • I was extremely disappointed by the Medically skewed findings.
    People with diseases pay for treatment. health-care pays for disease screening.
    Disease screening confirms bad traits.
    Other claims have been made – that neandertals had red hair genes. So they may have had more than one hair color.
    Please remember screening dead “persons” for disease traits tells us; nothing? about why they out survived others for .5 MILLION years (that we know of) after they finally, out competed, & replaced other hominids.


  • Very interesting article on a fascinating subject but one correction and one comment. Ativan is primarily an anti anxiety medication (benzodiazepine type specifically) and is certainly not an antipsychotic. Also as a professional who works with schizophrenic patients daily I would doubt any “creativity” associated with the disorder would help a species better adapt -(poor reality testing rarely aids adaptation to ones environment) and produce better hunting techniques. Now individuals with schizophrenia may have been seen as shamanistic possibly but even that would likely be too rare to make it a desirable evolutionary trait.

  • I read this article with great interest for its scientific value. As an interested lay person, I wanted to learn as much as I could about these recent SCIENTIFIC discoveries.

    It had my attention right down to the (not quite ancient), but certainly archaic, psycho-babble nonsense of equating schizophrenia and creativity. I have been associated with many people who SUFFER from this devoustating disease. It does nothing but destroy lives and would alienate even ancient sufferers from those around them. Schizophrenia does not make an individual any more creative than the Neanderthal next to them. After all of this scientific discovery, I was sorely disappointed to read this ridiculous, UNSCIENTIFIC leap to a conclusion straight out of the dusty annuals of some psychoanalytical library from the mid 20th century. To suggest that this awful illness would make someone develop better methods of hunting mammoths is absurd. They could likely reproduce, as they do today, allowing the genes involved to perpetuate, but this would NOT result in some creative advantage. If your goal is to employ serious scientific methods, please don’t make such absurd, uninformed leaps.

  • Regarding the sentence “…Neanderthals weren’t taking Ativan, so a genetic variant that influences the brain’s response to antipsychotic drugs…”

    Ativan has several uses (anxiolytic, sedative, suppressing an active seizure), but it’s not an antipsychotic.

  • We are told that the DNA of all modern humans is 99.9% the same.

    Yet this Neanderthal study says that non-sub-Saharans have from 1.8-2.6% DNA from Neanderthals, while sub-Saharan Africans have no DNA from Neanderthals.

    This appears to be mathematically impossible. According to this study, non-sub-Saharans would only be 97.4-98.2% the same as sub-Saharan Africans, and could not be 99.9% the same.

    • That’s only the case if the Neanderthals and other early humans didn’t share any genes. Our Neanderthal and Homo sapiens ancestors probably shared substantial common genes, since they were able to mate. So you could be 2% Neanderthal and still differ from a 0% Neanderthal person by 0.1% or less.

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