Neanderthals were fair-skinned redheads
12 November 2007, Hamburg (dpa) - Neanderthals tended to be fair-skinned redheads, distinct from darker complexioned early humans, according to new genetic research in Germany. While there is no evidence to support the popular urban myth that all red-haired humans are direct descendants of Neanderthals, the scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig said there is compelling evidence that a larger percentage of Neanderthals had red hair than did early humans. The new genetic breakthrough confirms the
12 November 2007
Hamburg (dpa) - Neanderthals tended to be fair-skinned redheads, distinct from darker complexioned early humans, according to new genetic research in Germany.
While there is no evidence to support the popular urban myth that all red-haired humans are direct descendants of Neanderthals, the scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig said there is compelling evidence that a larger percentage of Neanderthals had red hair than did early humans.
The new genetic breakthrough confirms the theory that Neanderthals, who left Africa earlier than their modern human cousins, had a longer period of time adapting to cold and cloudy conditions, resulting in the loss of the dark skin pigment inherited from sunny Africa.
Researchers analysed DNA samples extracted from the bones of two Neanderthals from Spain and Italy.
They focused on the MCIR gene, which helps skin cells to make the "sunscreen" pigment melanin.
The gene has its origins in Africa, where the sun's ultraviolet rays pose a real risk of burning and cancer.
Both Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis, and our own species, Homo sapiens, evolved from African hominids.
Neanderthals or their forebears, moved out of Africa first between 400,000 and 250,000 years ago. Our ancestors joined them in Europe and Asia at least 130,000 years later.
The two co-existed for tens of thousands of years, but the Neanderthals eventually died off - possibly because they could not compete with the more adaptable modern humans.
In northern climates, there is no evolutionary advantage in having melanin as there is in Africa. In addition, being fair would have assisted the production of vitamin D in the skin, which is driven by sunlight.
The DNA analysis, reported in the journal Science, identified a new variant of the MC1R gene. Although this was different from mutations seen in modern humans, it had the same effect of reducing melanin production.
This was tested by inserting the Neanderthal gene into human cells in the laboratory.
Dr Michael Hofreiter, one of the European scientists from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, told Science: "If you have a variant with this low action in modern humans, you get classically Irish-looking red hair and pale skin."
The researchers calculated that at least one in 100 Neanderthals would have had two copies of the "red hair" gene, similar to the frequency of redheads in modern populations.
One of the Neanderthal specimens whose DNA was extracted was 43,000 years old and from El Sidron, Spain. The other was a 50,000- year-old specimen from Monti Lessini, Italy.
Whether our own ancestors interbred with Neanderthals is still a matter of hot debate. Some experts believe they were too far apart genetically for this to have occurred. Others point to "mosaic" features in ancient human fossils bearing both Neanderthal and modern traits.
Modern humans with red hair possess a variant of just one gene, but there is no truth to the commonly held belief that that gene was inherited directly from interbreeding with Neanderthals.
"Of course, everyone likes to say that their boss is a Neanderthal because he has red hair," says Dr Bryan Sykes of Oxford University's Institute of Molecular Medicine.
"That is a myth which cannot be substantiated by genetic science. We and the Neanderthals both descended from common hominid ancestors in Africa. But your red-headed boss is not a Neanderthal any more than you are," says Sykes, one of the world's best-known paleo-geneticists and author of the bestselling book "Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry."
Subject: German news