We’re more Neandertal than we thought

Inherited genes from the extinct hominids linked to sunburns, being a night owl

toddler on a sunny beach

ANCIENT TRAITS  Some people may have inherited a tendency to sunburn from Neandertals, a new study finds.


Modern people of European and Asian ancestry carry slightly more Neandertal DNA than previously realized.

About 1.8 to 2.6 percent of DNA in non-Africans is an heirloom of ancient human-Neandertal interbreeding, researchers report online October 5 in Science. That corresponds to 10 to 20 percent more Neandertal ancestry than previous estimates — and it may carry consequences for human health and behavior, say paleogeneticist Janet Kelso of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and colleagues. Analysis of DNA from an about 50,000-year-old Neandertal woman from Vindija Cave in Croatia allowed Kelso and colleagues to find the extra ancestry contribution. Among the gene variants modern humans inherited from Neandertals are ones associated with higher cholesterol, increased belly fat, rheumatoid arthritis and schizophrenia, researchers learned from analysis of the new Neandertal DNA.

An increased risk of sunburning as a child and a propensity to be an evening person may also be Neandertal legacies, Kelso and Max Planck colleague Michael Dannemann report in a separate study published October 5 in the American Journal of Human Genetics. Their analysis — which used DNA data from a Neandertal woman from the Altai Mountains in Siberia (SN: 1/25/14, p. 17) and 112,338 present-day British people — confirmed some links between Neandertal heritage and human diseases made by previous studies (SN: 3/5/16, p. 18), but didn’t find evidence that Neandertal gene variants contribute to obesity.

FEELING THE BURN People who inherited two copies of a Neandertal genetic variant (NT) — one from mom and one from dad — near the BCN2 gene are more likely to sunburn as children than people who have two copies of the modern human variant (MH) or one copy of each gene variant. M. Dannemann and J. Kelso/American Journal of Human Genetics 2017

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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