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Neanderthal Genome: Untangling the DNA

By Edited Jun 10, 2016 0 0
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Ever wondered why we are the only human species in the world? We once were two.

Neanderthals were hominids that coexisted with Homo Sapiens (us) from 230,000 to 30,000 BC, during the Upper Paleolithic, in Europe and parts of western Asia. The common ancestor between Homo Sapiens and Homo Neanderthalensis is estimated somewhere between 350,000 and 400,000 BC. The Neanderthals appeared in Europe while the Homo Sapiens appeared in Africa.


Neanderthals had wide and short bodies; men were about 1m65cm and women measured around 1m55cm. Their characteristic traits were a large central part of the face, angled cheekbones, and a huge nose for humidifying and warming cold, dry air. This helped with harsh weather conditions such as the ones experienced during the Ice Age. Their brain capacity was similar to ours. Their main facial features were a broad and long face, a quite large nose and large, protruding teeth; they hardly had any chin.
The interesting thing is that they could talk, or communicate between them with vocal sounds (as proved by the presence of the gene FOXP2). This is not fully proved, and even some scientists justify the extinction of the species to the lack of speech (a disadvantage in comparison with Homo Sapiens).
Their technology was not very advanced, but quite practical. They lived in shelters , had a wide set of tools, controlled fire, and made and wore clothing. Their stones were carved very well, so they had a very effective weapon. They specialized in hunting (they even went for mammoths) and collecting. The specific type of hunting was quite dangerous because they had to be close to their prey in order to attack. This caused them frequent injuries, reducing their life expectancy to about forty years old.
The burials of these hominids were quite unique, in some cases the relatives pulled the skull to preserve it, giving them something to keep from the dead. They also used to separate the muscles from the bones.

The causes for their extinction are not clear. Some say the weather conditions changed so much at the time that they were not able to adapt. Others say that the invasion of the Homo Sapiens reduced the territories for their hunting and kept them moving to less favorable areas. Finally, some others say that direct competition (physical fight) between Neanderthals and Sapiens would have taken place, and because of the increasing Homo Sapiens population they would have outnumbered them.

In any case, it is clear that any valuable information we can extract now comes only form the archeological remains, but especially from the DNA and the analysis of the genome. This can elucidate ultimately where they came, how much they shared with us and where (or why) they disappeared.

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The Neanderthal Genome Project has sequenced the full genome of a single Homo neanderthalensis, coming from a specimen found in a cave in Croatia.

The Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology Max Planck in Germany reported in March 2013 that this is the first complete sequence of a single individual, earlier drafts were based on different samples of Neanderthal fossils.

The new genome was deciphered thanks to new techniques that allowed to perform the genome reading 50 times, achieving a unique resolution which will reveal the deepest secrets of Neanderthals. The sequence was achieved based on a sample of only 0,038 grams of fossil from the foot bone found in a cave in the Altai region in southern Siberia, on the border between Russia, China and Mongolia.

The announcement states that the individual screened in this sample was related to other Neanderthals in this region and also with specimens discovered in Croatia. He also had ties to the Denisovans, a human group that lived in the region known only by genetic studies taken from a single piece of fossil finger. The archeological remains of Neanderthal Altai, as he is known, were also discovered in Denisova Cave in 2010.

The most interesting of the entire sequence published online is in its resolution, in addition to having been released to the public domain before being published on scientific journals. To date, draft genomes were only obtained by screening each position of each gene within the genome only once, on average. That is, they had previously managed overall a single reading.

In the current work, they achieved 50. Such a high number of readings can reveal which copy of each gene comes from the father and which the mother, for example. The first draft was sequenced in 2010, based on the archeological remains of a Neanderthal from Vindija Cave, in Croatia.

The Neandertal Genome project manager at the Max Plank institute, Svante Paabo, said that they are comparing the result of the Neanderthal genome to the Denisovan drafts and other Neanderthal genomes. This will reveal aspects of the history of the Neanderthals and the Denisova and refine our understanding of the genetic changes that occurred in modern humans after diverging from them.

The group made the data available through their website even before publishing it in a prestigious journal such as Science or Nature because they wanted other groups to start working on it as soon as possible.

Genetic evidence suggests that modern non-african humans have 1-4% of their DNA inherited from Neanderthals[1].

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  1. Richard E. Green et al "A Draft Sequence of the Neanderthal Genome." Science. (2010): 710–722.

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