Who are you calling Neanderthal?

Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis, were the now-extinct cousins of our own species, Homo sapiens. In popular culture, the term is often used as an insult towards someone exhibiting primitive or perhaps violent behaviour. But get this: you’re most likely part-Neanderthal!

But let’s back it up a bit, to about 500-600 thousand years ago.

We begin our story in early Africa, where the ancient human species Homo heidelbergensis once called home. A subset of this population migrated from their homeland and split up; one group to West Asia and Europe, the other to South Asia. The former group eventually speciated to become the Neanderthals, and the latter becoming the Denisovans—a group only recently discovered within the last ten years. The group remaining in Africa were our ancestors; the precursors of the human race, homo sapiens. We will circle back to these guys in a bit.

Proposed Neanderthal appearance in the Natural History Museum in London. Image credit: Neil Howard via Flickr

Now, let’s get down to the saucy details: reproduction.

As mentioned earlier, the Neanderthals and Denisovans went their separate ways across the planet, where they set up camp and began to reproduce, slowly transitioning into their own unique species over time.

Now, let’s quickly get back to our ancestors back in Africa; 70,00 years ago, long after their cousins left, the early Homo sapiens emigrated from their home range to expand across the globe. Along their journey to new horizons, they encountered their not so distant relatives. And they seemed to get along very well. By that, I mean that the early humans began mating with the early Neanderthals and Denisovans.

Now, ordinarily, if members of two separate species attempted to mate, the copulation would not result in fertile offspring. However, these hominids were still closely related and shared a great deal of their genes with each other, despite being distinct enough to warrant independent classification. So, their attempts were not fruitless; interbreeding was successful.

Skull of Homo heidelbergensis; a common ancestor of humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans. The high amount of genetic material they once shared allowed for interbreeding. Image credit: Neil R via Flickr


So where do you fit in to all of this?

Well, if you are of European or Asian decent, you most likely have Neanderthal DNA in your cells! These archaic members of our genus have contributed between 1-4% of their genetic material to modern Eurasians.

Not only that, but many people in Asia and the Pacific Islands have received genes form their Denisovan ancestors! Melanesians specifically (those local to the Melanesian region in the southwestern Pacific Ocean), share 3-5% of their DNA with their Denisovan ancestors.

Contrastingly, for people in African populations, the number of shared genes with either species of early humans is close to zero, as the predecessors of the Neanderthals and Denisovans left the continent well before they diverged into their own species.

Where did they go?

So, according to the genetic evidence we have available today, these species were obviously around when humans began expanding our distribution. So, where did they go?

Well, we don’t actually know for sure!

Naturally, there are many theories to try and fill in this ever-puzzling gap in the history of human evolution. One suggests that humans out-competed the Neanderthals; that despite their burly structure, we were better suited to the changing environment and persisted while our European cousins perished. Neanderthals were adapted to survive in colder climate and were specialised hunters of large Ice Age mammals. However, as the planet began to warm, it is said that Homo sapiens began to thrive.

On the other hand, some believe we directly killed the Neanderthals, culling them to their extinction.

A theory that I believe to be particularly compelling, however, is that the Neanderthals disappeared from our world because they were absorbed into our own human lineage. This theory suggests that the increase of gene flow between the two populations through interbreeding caused the Neanderthal genome to melt into our own.

In short, depending on your cultural background, you just might be part caveman! But don’t fret; despite popular belief, Neanderthals were quite intelligent. They created impressive and highly functional stone tools for hunting, and buried their dead, showing to have some concept of a potential afterlife. When you think about it, they weren’t so different from our early human ancestors. So, not such an insult after all! Better think about that next time you start calling names!


Bonus Fun: Check out this site for a fun analysis of early humans depicted in cartoons!

11 Responses to “Who are you calling Neanderthal?”

  1. Kelley Leech says:

    I was pretty mind blown when I started researching this topic; I had always thought we simply out-competed the Neanderthals!

    An interesting thought! I suppose it’s worth noting that Neanderthals had larger cranial cavities, thus larger brains than we have. However, according to this paper, Neanderthals used a larger portion of their brain for vision and controlling their much larger body, meaning less was used for higher order thinking and social behaviour. So I guess there are a few questions to be answered there: was our higher order thinking diluted in the process of this absorption? Or perhaps, was our visual perception system improved? Of course, this is only one theory! But it’s definitely fun thinking about this possible scenarios! Thanks for your question Teresa!

  2. Kelley Leech says:

    Thanks for reading, Leo! Glad you enjoyed my post! That’s a great point- If numbers were already low, melting into our population would have been much easier work!

  3. Kelley Leech says:

    Thank you so much Daniel! Great feedback! Glad you enjoyed the link at the end, I myself had never thought about it before!

  4. Teresa Devine-Hercus says:

    Whoa cool idea with the Neanderthals being ‘absorbed’ rather than going textbook-extinct!
    Is that like, the opposite of evolution? Were the “pure” homo sapiens actually smarter than we are if our genome has been “diluted” with neanderthal traits?

  5. Leo Featherstone says:

    Hi Kelly,

    Thanks for such an engaging read. I think the same as you RE H. sapiens absorbing the neanderthal population. I think it’s worth noting that neanderthals were already on the decline once we made it into Europe, so absorbing the population would have been relatively easy. Great job!

  6. Kelley Leech says:

    Thank you very much Deb! Happy that you enjoyed the post, and I appreciate your kind words. Thanks for commenting!

  7. Kelley Leech says:

    Thank you Xavier! I’m glad you enjoyed reading it. I really appreciate the feedback, I’ll have another read through and see if I can edit it a bit! Thanks again!

  8. Steph says:

    I’m not surprised by any of this. I have a friend who after seeing an image of a proposed Neanderthal in our lecture slides proceeded for the next hour to justify why we should all find him attractive 😂
    All in all, a great post 😊

  9. Daniel Hutchinson says:

    Awesome post Kelley
    A really amazing topic and you explained it in a way that was super fun and easy to follow. I really liked the title and sub-headings, they definitely kept my interest piqued the whole way through. Also love the cartoon analysis at the end.

  10. Deb Osborne says:

    Hi Kelly,

    I thought it was an insightful and clever article. I really liked how you used the hyperlinks and visuals. Think you did a great job.

  11. Xavier says:

    Really interesting topic Kelly! Only feedback would be it is a little bit long towards the end. The images are great though, and I love the relation back to us now! Awesome job! 😀