Hot human-on-neanderthal action: A scientific update


So, remember a few weeks ago when new genetics research challenged the accepted idea that humans and neanderthals had never knocked boots? Back then, I mentioned that we were waiting to hear from Svante Pääbo, a hominid genetics expert who was due to publish his findings from sequencing the neanderthal genome. The Pääbo data would be the key to clearing up this ancient soap-operatic mystery.

This week, Pääbo weighed in and the answer looks pretty clear: If your ancestors are from anyplace other than Africa, you've got a little neanderthal in you. And so did your great-great-etc. grandma.

In fact, researchers can actually narrow down the location where at least some of this hanky panky happened.

all non-Africans - be they from France, China or Papua New Guinea - share the same amount of Neanderthal DNA, suggesting that interbreeding occurred before those populations split. The timing makes the Middle East the likeliest place where humans leaving Africa and resident Neanderthals did the deed.

Interestingly, there's not any one trait or even genetic sequence that seems to come from the neanderthals. Everybody (except Africans) is a little bit neanderthal, but it's not the same little bit.

Got questions? This New Scientist feature has answers.

Image courtesy Flickr user erix, via CC


  1. If your ancestors are from anyplace other than Africa, you’ve got a little neanderthal in you.

    Well that explains the back hair.

  2. I like how this goes with the arguments of the “racial purity” white supremacist ninnies – the only “racially pure” people are African! Now, if only white supremacists had any regard at all for science, they could be made to feel sheepish by this finding…

    1. Nah, Dragonfrog, the racial purity advocates have no shame, or memory. They’ll take any new discovery that comes along as define it as “evidence” of what they already believe. Soon they’ll come up with a story about how a bit of neanderthal DNA is the sign of a superior race.

      1. Either that, Avram, or they’ll deem this study a Jewish conspiracy to undermine the authority of the Aryan race. Svante Pääbo? Semitic name if I ever saw one. The Middle East? That’s where Jesus was born. The nerve!

  3. Pilar Ossorio: “If we take the standard racial categories, and we ask: Are the people whom we call black more like each other than they are like people who we call white, genetically speaking, the answer is no. There is as much or more diversity and genetic difference within any “racial” group as there is between people of different racial groups. ”


    maybe Ossorio spoke too soon?

    1. maybe Ossorio spoke too soon?

      Just because they don’t have that little bit of Neandertal DNA doesn’t reduce the actual, observed current genetic variation. Note that comment that all the little bits of Neandertal DNA were different – they really AREN’T a “similarity” in a genetic diversity (or lack therof) sense, only a similarity in origin.

  4. Everybody (except Africans) is a little bit neanderthal, but it’s not the same little bit.
    I wonder how much of the Neanderthal genome could be tracked down and reassembled as a genetic reference. Not that it would be put into practice, but I wonder how much of our brother species is still there in our genes.

  5. Hell . . . I got Neanderthals sitting across from me at the coffee house, with their WiFi connections, logofied attire, designer watches, and a latte.

    1. Hey! I resemble that remark! (except for the part where I’m sitting at work in a Star Wars T-shirt and a Coke, and not wearing a watch.)

  6. I’m not up on the reading, but some form of this argument may be upcoming. In the literature are we now gonna to be referring to the seperate lineages as homo sapiens neanderthalensis as the new name for neanderthal and homo sapiens sapiens as still the name for modern man. Vs. Homo sapiens africanus as the name for the progenitors of modern human populations? This raises some weird and unsettling taxonomic issues. woo!

    @dragonfrog as with other inductive ‘science’ (read: quackery) the aryan school made up stuff like aryans moving to China and inventing paper and teaching Egytians how to paddle canoes and crap. I have a book in my collection that is some of the most horrible twaddle this side of daytime television.

  7. “Hey, have you got any neanderthal in you?”


    “Would you like some?”

  8. What do they mean “non-Africans”? Everybody’s family is from Africa originally: it’s the Factory Floor for humanity. What’s the cut-off date they’re using to call someone “non-African”?

    1. That’s just what I was thinking. If you go back a little further, we’re still all from Africa.

    2. In the Green et al paper, the Neandertal genome is compared to five modern humans, from France, China (Han), Papua New Guinea, West Africa (Yoruba), and South Africa (San). The non-Africans all showed (different) elements of the Neandertal genome. The two Africans did not.

      Science Magazine has more, and is publicly available.

    3. From Sept 09, The Independent, on the uncovering of a skull in Dmanisi, Georgia. Just a theory – maybe somebody knows if disproved:

      “Speaking at the British Science Festival in Guildford, where he gave the British Council lecture, Professor Lordkipanidze raised the prospect that Homo erectus may have evolved in Eurasia from the more primitive-looking Dmanisi population and then migrated back to Africa to eventually give rise to our own species, Homo sapiens – modern man.”

    4. “What do they mean “non-Africans”? Everybody’s family is from Africa originally: it’s the Factory Floor for humanity. What’s the cut-off date they’re using to call someone “non-African”?” If there’s a group standing in a field A, and some leave for field B, and afterwards they meet again in C, then it is perfectly OK to call them ‘from A’/’from B’.
      My family is not ‘from Africa’, just as it is not ‘from that puddle, 4 Billion years ago’.
      They did not use a cut-off date as such, but simply sampled in the respective countries.

      Link to the Science 2010 paper (free)

    5. A non-african is those humans who wandred out of Africa in to the middle east. And thaths where the interbreeding was done. so those who stayed in africa didnt mix with neanderthals.

  9. I don’t understand how they can say both of these:

    1) That modern humans are a product of interbreeding with neanderthals.
    2) Neanderthals dies out 28,000 years ago.

    Seems they didn’t die out if we have them as ancestors…

  10. the governer of california has to be 7/8 neander except his head is inflated a bit or and forhead grew..steroid use? hollywould makeover? i always think of big dumb blonde surfer types or redneck country boys as throw back neanders pre maturely bald,kissin cousin inbreds and no ethnic blood maybe take of their dna for a missing link match..

  11. Alternately, DNA formation/legacy might be much more screwed up than we thought.

    – I’m suprised no one has brought up this VERY recent Popular science article about “horizontal DNA transfer.” (That’s transfer without sex) Supposedly it’s been concretely proven by researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington. ?

    Basically, transposons have been passed from bugs and snails into human cells. It seems this would be quite disturbing to the classic evolution theory. no?

  12. I was under the impression that all living humans populations were closer related than this-such that if all European human populations had Neanderthal ancestors, that’d also be true for all African populations. Understood there’d been enough migration and interbreeding among all the various human populations that we’d all have some common ancestors sometime after that 45-60,000 BCE dates.

  13. Me and, I think, science are a little sketchy on what makes a species and what doesn’t. But if we mated with Neanderthals and produced fertile offspring doesn’t that make us all the same species?

    btw my band that I just formed this instant; Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis is going to be at the Stork Club Tuesday night.

  14. Always thought it was a shame to just have one hominid species floating around. Good to know we’ve got a touch of another still with us.

  15. Oh, I can see the appeal of sex with Neanderthals. They’ve got a nice flat head that you can set your drink on.

  16. I know this is wrong already because the majority of the people of Ethiopia, the second most populous sub-Saharan African country, has southwest Asian (Arabian peninsula) ancestry from within the past 4,000 years. The following wikipedia article has a bunch of links to relevant genetic studies on that fact.

    So, how do these people have non-African ancestry, but no Neanderthal ancestry? Maybe its at an undetectable level, but it would have to be there, unless the relevant non-African groups didn’t have Neanderthal ancestry.

    Additionally, I find the use of “African” to mean “sub-Saharan African” in a science article stupid. The Sahara isn’t some magical border, people have crossed it for the history of human existence. You just need to look at and study the populations of Mauritania, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt to get the idea.

  17. This is even more interesting when considered alongside the fact that there is more genetic diversity in sub-Saharan Africa than in the whole rest of the world. Maybe the neanderthal genes are what limit that diversity?

    1. Nah, migration did it, almost certainly. The few tribes who wandered out of Africa and bred couldn’t represent the entire genetic diversity of the parent population.

      Theorized as one additional reason that European diseases were so devastating to the New World population– by the time people wandered over that far, they were all descended from a fairly trimmed-down set of genes. Diseases love populations without much variation.

  18. Is it just me or does the individual in the image above look like one of the Aphex Twin masks?

  19. Well you know what they say, if you can’t keep it in the loin cloth, keep it in a neanderthal.

  20. Africans are pure people while Europeans are part Neanderthal. Oh to have a wire tap on a white supremacist leader’s phone today.

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