National Geographic Daily News
A reconstruction of a Neanderthal female.

Like some other Neanderthals, "Wilma," a DNA-based reconstruction, was red-headed, freckled, and fair.

Photograph by Joe McNally, National Geographic

Sarah Zielinski

for National Geographic News

Published October 12, 2012

Part of our weekly "In Focus" seriesstepping back, looking closer.

The Neanderthals are both the most familiar and the least understood of all our fossil kin.

For decades after the initial discovery of their bones in a cave in Germany in 1856 Homo neanderthalensis was viewed as a hairy brute who stumbled around Ice Age Eurasia on bent knees, eventually to be replaced by elegant, upright Cro-Magnon, the true ancestor of modern Europeans.

Science has long since killed off the notion of that witless caveman, but Neanderthals have still been regarded as quintessential losers—a large-brained, well-adapted species of human that went extinct nevertheless, yielding the Eurasian continent to anatomically modern humans, who began to migrate out of Africa some 60,000 years ago.

Lately, the relationship between Neanderthals and modern humans has gotten spicier.

According to a new study that analyzed traces of Neanderthal DNA in present-day humans, Neanderthals may have been interbreeding with some of the ancestors of modern Eurasians as recently as 37,000 years ago. And another recent study found that Asian and South American people possess an even greater percentage of Neanderthal genes.

"These are complexities in the out-of-Africa story that certainly I would not have anticipated two or three years ago," said Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London and author of Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth.

(See pictures of a reconstructed Neanderthal and take a Neanderthals quiz.)

Blurring the Line

In their original incarnation, Neanderthals were viewed as the primitive, backward cave dwellers of Eurasia, far less complex than the sophisticated Homo sapiens who used language and developed sophisticated art as they migrated out of Africa and conquered the world.

But new studies are making it much harder to draw a clean line between us and them.

"It's increasingly difficult to point to any one thing that Neanderthals did and Homo sapiens didn't do and vice versa," said John Shea, an archaeologist at Stony Brook University in New York.

"These Ice Age people, both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, survived, thrived, and increased their numbers under conditions that would probably kill people nowadays, even ones that are equipped with modern survival technology."

No Hanky-Panky Necessary?

The draft sequence of the Neanderthal genome, published in the journal Science in 2010, provided the first compelling genetic evidence that Neanderthals and H. sapiens had more in common than just an ancestor in Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago.

The researchers, under the direction of Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, found that 2.5 percent of the genome of an average human living outside Africa today is made up of Neanderthal DNA. The average modern African has none.

This suggested that some interbreeding had taken place between the two kinds of human, probably in the Middle East, where the early modern humans migrating out of Africa would have encountered Neanderthals already living there.

The even larger percentage of Neanderthal DNA found in Asians and South Americans, announced in Science in August, could indicate additional interbreeding in Asia long ago, or could mean that the percentage of Neanderthal DNA in Europeans was diluted by later encounters.

Not everyone is convinced that interbreeding was responsible for similarities in the Neanderthal and H. sapiens genomes. "The similarities they're seeing may be ancient," Shea noted.

Another recent study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in August, calculated that the shared DNA could have come from an earlier, common ancestor of Neanderthals and H. sapiens—no hanky-panky necessary.

A new study by Pääbo's team, published last week in PLOS Genetics, also considered the possibility that the presence of Neanderthal DNA in people living outside Africa today could be traced far back, to the common ancestor of both Neanderthals and modern humans in Africa.

Perhaps the early modern humans who left Africa 60,000 years ago were already genetically more similar to the Neanderthals—who had left hundreds of thousands of years before—than were the modern human populations that stayed behind in Africa. In that case, no interbreeding would have needed to occur to account for the trace of Neanderthal DNA in non-Africans today.

To test the two hypotheses, Pääbo's group analyzed the lengths of segments of Neanderthal DNA in modern Europeans to determine when Neanderthal genes may have mixed with those of modern humans. The date they came up with for the gene flow was 37,000 to 86,000 years ago, and most likely 47,000 to 65,000 years ago.

This date strongly suggests there was indeed interbreeding between "us and them," when H. sapiens was moving into the Middle East from Africa and would have encountered populations of Neanderthals already settled there.

"This [interbreeding] could have been a really powerful mechanism for humans to adapt as they moved into Eurasia," said Sriram Sankararaman, a statistical geneticist at Harvard Medical School and the lead author of the PLOS Genetics study.

Another group, publishing last year in Science, for example, determined that modern humans gained from Neanderthals a family of genes that helps the immune system fight off viruses. Breeding with the locals could have unwittingly given H. sapiens a survival advantage in a new land.

"[Neanderthals] are not just some extinct group of related hominids," Pääbo said. "They are partially ancestors to people who live today."

Take any two unrelated humans today, Pääbo noted, and they'll differ in millions of places in their genetic code. But the Neanderthal genome varies on average from that of H. sapiens in only about a hundred thousand positions. Pääbo and his colleagues are now trying to figure out the consequences of those differences.

(Related: "Sex With Humans Made Neanderthals Extinct?")

Act Like a Man?

Regardless of the similarities to our DNA, how "human" were Neanderthals in their sensibilities?

Last month a study led by the Gibraltar Museum and published in PLOS ONE documented a multitude of fossil remains of bird wings, particularly from big black raptors, at Neanderthal sites in southern Europe. The team suggested that Neanderthals could have been plucking feathers from the wings for personal use or even for ritual ornaments.

"We have other evidence for Neanderthals preferring mineral pigments that are dark, blackish color," Stony Brook's Shea said. "There may be something for them with the color black just as there seems to be something for us with the color red."

(Related: "Neanderthals' Last Stand Was in Gibraltar, Study Suggests.")

Sophisticated art, however, still appears to remain in the realm of H. sapiens.

The ancestors of modern humans left behind images of animals and other objects in caves around the world, most famously at Lascaux cave and Chauvet Cave (pictures) in southern France. Paintings in the latter cave could be as ancient as 37,000 years old. (See a prehistoric time line.)

Images found in a cave called El Castillo on the Spanish coast were recently dated at more than 40,800 years old: a time before Neanderthals disappeared, raising the tantalizing possibility that they were indeed the artists. However, "it hasn't been demonstrated that Neanderthals produced any of that cave art," the Natural History Museum's Stringer said.

The simpler answer is that H. sapiens, who had also reached Europe by that time and are known to have produced later but similar art, were responsible.

Neanderthals, though, have proven advanced in other ways.

They used pigments and may have made jewelry; some made complex tools. "We know they buried their dead," Stringer said. In 2010, researchers from the Smithsonian Institution even found evidence that the Neanderthal diet included a diverse mixture of plants, and that they cooked some of the grains. (Related: "Neanderthals Ate Their Veggies, Tooth Study Shows.")

"Cooking something like oatmeal is not what we would have imagined," said John Hawks, paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. With no pots, Neanderthals may have cooked inside leaves, Hawks suggested. "That starts to sound like cuisine."

"Neanderthals have gone from being different from us to being like us," Hawks noted. "They're looking like [Homo sapiens] hunter-gatherers look."

But while modern humans continued to develop cultural complexity and spread across the globe, the Neanderthals vanished. Why remains a mystery.

15 comments
Judith MacInnis
Judith MacInnis

And in furtherance, what about the tiny, 3'6" tall homo floresiensis?  They were found in Indonesia, and they were dated back 700,000 years ago.  Perhaps they evolved from a smaller primate than our Java ancestor? Homo sapiens are  actually closer in DNA to chimpanzees than the great apes....why are we so certain, that our evolution resulted out of one single circumstance?

Judith MacInnis
Judith MacInnis

Well, yes okay, Rute, I'll provide you an answer, but you can decide how plausible it is.  In Africa, a great ape species (ancestor of the Gorilla?) evolved into a human sister group.  But there is another great ape species which we don't seem to be considering.  What about the orangutan?  The orangutan was (and still is) exclusively found in southeast Asia, the area where Neanderthals are considered to have first populated.  I also think it's interesting that the ancients tell us humankind originally began out of Sumatra, where the orangutan's ancestor (Ponginae) existed.  This would infer that two distinctive ape types evolved into humans, and not just one.  I think Neanderthals, understood to have had fair hair and skin, strangely resemble the orangutan. I think this theory would support such great physical differences in human sister groups, and they exist to this day.  I would hope, that if down the road this theory becomes seriously considered, that we deem both species of these great apes ''equal'.  I hope we could educate modern humans, that even though we evolved from two different monkey species (lol), they were both of equal import.    

Rute Oliveira
Rute Oliveira

please, someone give me a plausible answer...


So, there's a genetic similarity between Neanderthals and Europeans, Modern Africans do not have it... yet, it is believed that the 1st humans came out of Africa with the primordial genetic line traceable to the bowls of the continent and several descendants of Adam and Eve live to this day in a more so protected enviroment, hardly any mix ocurred whatsover... If there were a common ancestor between Neanderthals and Humans then there OUGHT to be Neanderthal genes in the African population?

Definitely there was some hanky panky goin' on... or someone is not telling the whole story since the explanation given here in this article makes no sense!!

Catherine Glidden
Catherine Glidden

I wish there had been more discussion regarding the specific traits that might be linked to Neanderthals.  Could the development of certain behaviors (now considered neuroses) be linked to them and their environment?  (I think this could be an exciting area of research.)  Do those who have a larger than normal percentage of Neanderthal DNA tend to be stronger and stockier than average (I am and have over 3%).  What about the picture?  It implies that Neanderthals were redheads with blue eyes (like me).  I think with a little makeup (I see she's wearing blush but it's not quite right for her) and hair products, Wilma could be quite pretty!  She also needs to get that scowl off of her face.  Of course, what the picture displays is a continued bias that implies modern humans are somehow more sophisticated.  It's ridiculous, really and perpetuates this negative view of Neanderthals.

Avishek Adhikari
Avishek Adhikari

I am 2.9% Neanderthal according to my DNA test and I dont look anything like that.

Im much good looking. 

Jerzy Kijewski
Jerzy Kijewski

Neanderthals were not human, were hominid-scavengers and had more than twice bigger skulls than ours. Professor Chris Stringer and other prominent anthropologists distorting human evolution, to support dubious “Out of Africa” theory, of the emergence of Homo sapiens species about 200,000 years ago in Africa. Prominent anthropologists create myths that the neanderthals were intelligent humans who were able to fabricate composite tools, made and wore clothing, were skilled hunters of large animals, and throwing spears with stone tip glued (!) to the shaft. And playing flutes. They don’t say that Neanderthals had more than twice bigger skulls than ours, but say, that they were extremely similar to humans!

Well, Neanderthals were not human but wild animals, hominids living exclusively at the level of instinct. Looked extremely different to humans, had enormous elongated“monkey” mid-faces, heavy brow ridges, receding foreheads. They didn’t hunt big game and were scavengers. Did’t fabricate composite tools, did not know the clothes and walked naked. And never play flutes.

Although Neanderthals looked extremely different to humans, Professor Chris Stringer says untruth: "Neanderthals looked extremely similar to humans but did not have chins. If you shaved and dressed a Neanderthal and put them on the New York subway, no one would be able to tell the difference between us and them”, said Prof Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London.

http://ksiezycowahipoteza.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/00-re16-copy1.jpg

More: http://cro-magnons.com/neanderthals/

Johnny Bocchetti
Johnny Bocchetti

After a year-long camping experience in 2009, I suspected that my Neanderthal qualities came out, impervious to cold and wet weather on the Pacific Ocean, I became a leaner and fitter version. The greater the physical hardship, the leaner and meaner human comes to the fore to accept the prize; Survival of the fittest!

G Molin
G Molin

@Rute Oliveira  The Neanderthal species developed AFTER early hominids left Africa.  Therefore, the Neanderthal DNA is not found in modern Africans.

Cheyenne Banks
Cheyenne Banks

@Catherine Glidden  We received some genes involving the immune system from Neanderthals, also genes having to do with hair. There are a lot of articles out there that discuss the genes we inherited. You should watch NOVA's Decoding Neanderthals, it's a great watch if you're interested in them.

Matt West
Matt West

@Jerzy Kijewski Awesome, you now have your own hypothesis.  Now figure out a way to test it, show some evidence, and maybe one day you can have your own theory.   Until then, I'm going with the science.

Sean Wrath
Sean Wrath

@Jerzy Kijewski I am part Neanderthal, thanks much. In as much your comments being unfounded drivel, I find it rather repulsive that you automatically assume homo sapiens superiority. Your species isn't the pinnacle, it's a stepping stone. The next version of, 'us..' will be better suited for the world at that time. It's the natural order of things.

Share

How to Feed Our Growing Planet

  • Feed the World

    Feed the World

    National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.

See blogs, stories, photos, and news »

The Innovators Project

See more innovators »

Latest News Video

See more videos »

See Us on Google Glass

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Be the First to Own <i>Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</i>

    Be the First to Own Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

    The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.

Shop Now »