Find Your Inner Neanderthal

They had bigger brains and muscles, but for some reason Neanderthals —thick boned humans who thrived for hundreds of thousands of years in Europe and parts of Asia— died out about 30,000 years ago, while we modern humans survived.

Why we, Homo sapiens, flourished and our Homo neandertalensis cousins died out is an evolutionary mystery that biologist are trying to unravel.

In the last few years, scientists have uncovered clues not just to what the lives of Neanderthals may have been like, but also clues that tell us more about what it means to be a modern human.

Most interesting of all is that, although Neanderthals disappeared long ago, their DNA lives on in all non-African people.

23andMe now offers a lab allowing customers to connect with their prehistoric roots. The lab, developed by one of our resident computational biologists, Eric Durand, compares two modern human genomes with the Neanderthal genome to determine what percentage of your own DNA is Neanderthal. Before coming to 23andMe, Eric worked on the first draft of the Neanderthal genome and on analysis of the Denisova genome, another of our early human cousins. The method we use to determine the percent of Neanderthal DNA a person has is similar to the one Eric  helped develop while working at the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. See Eric’s white paper for a technical explanation of the methodology.

Most people have Neanderthal DNA, on average about 2.5 percent, but there are outliers, who have much more.

What it means to have a higher percentage of Neanderthal DNA — whether you’re hairier, or brutish or short, for instance — isn’t known. There are some theories, however, of how Neanderthals contributed to modern humans, including that they gave us some sort of “hybrid vigor,” according to Peter Parham, a geneticist at Stanford University School of Medicine.

At the very least research appears to support the theory that at some point during the tens of thousands of years Neanderthals and modern humans lived side by side, a few of them may have shacked up.

Or as Elizabeth Kolbert deftly phrased it in the New Yorker:
“Before modern humans ‘replaced’ the Neanderthals, they had sex with them.”

Provocative to say the least, but it’s actually an idea that’s floated around for some time. Anybody who ever read Jean M. Auel’s saucy prehistoric romance books beginning with “Clan of the Cave Bear” could tell you that. But the notion that modern humans and Neanderthals got way past first base, hooked up and even had children together still doesn’t tell us much about what it means now to have a smidgen of Neanderthal in your DNA.

Svante Pääbo, the Swedish geneticist behind the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome, explains that from an evolutionary point of view comparing the modern human’s genome to that of the Neanderthal has great value.

Humans and Neanderthals share a common ancestor with chimpanzees — our next closest mammalian relative — that goes back between five and seven million years. Comparing the human genome with that of chimps tells us a lot about evolution over millions of years. But by having the Neanderthal genome sequence — now 55 percent completed — and comparing that with modern humans, we can learn much more about evolutionary changes over the last 30,000 years.

It may be that the DNA of other prehistoric human groups also are intermixed in our own DNA. Much like with Neanderthals, scientists extracted ancient DNA from the skeletal remains of another ancient cousin known as the Denisovans. The remains — a finger bone — were found in a cave in Siberia and showed that Denisovans were cousins of Neanderthals. They lived in Asia and disappeared about 40,000 years ago. Their DNA is found today in Melanesians.

As for the comparisons with the Neanderthals, so far, Pääbo’s team has found almost 80 genetic variants that are unique to modern humans. The function of these variants could help us understand what distinguishes us from Neanderthal.

Apparently Pääbo’s work has also resonated beyond the scientific community as well. At a talk late last year, Pääbo told a group of neuroscientists that for months he’s been keeping emails from people who have claimed that they were Neanderthal and should be included in his study. Several women have written to him volunteering their husbands as subjects for study.

Got Neanderthal DNA?

23andMe customers can find their inner Neanderthal or at least how much Neanderthal DNA they have at 23andMe Ancestry Labs. Not yet a customer? Visit our store!






  • Alan M. Smith

    The notion that Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons wouldn’t have interbred is absurd, racially motivated that anything else. Excuse me, but there is zero record to tell us what they might have been thinking, but common sense should tell us that Cro-Magnon and Neanderthals were getting it on. Truth is, modern men have always been somewhat guilty of jumping anything that walks, breaths, and speaks; I think Neanderthal women would have fit that description to a T. Beside, some men like knuckle walkers– short, husky, and hairy. Go figure. Sure, we know that Neanderthals were dying from blunt trauma to the skull, but do we really know that it wasn’t from Neanderthal on Neanderthal violence? Why does it have to be assumed that it was caused by modern humans?

    • kun tewk

      Precisely. How do we know the Neanderthal was more violent ? Talk about racism ! Though Neanderthal hunted large game and were stronger, their large brains suggest greater sophistication. Seems to me one can make some judgements of the truth by examining behaviors of modern day inheritors.

      • ARIA

        You’re ridiculous. There is no such thing as race. But go ahead and keep being brainwashed.

    • Doug

      Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons did not interbreed. They lived together for thousands of years in Europe and remained distinct until Neanderthals died out for various reasons. All Y-chromosome lineages lead back to one source. All MtDNA lineages lead back to the one source. There are no neanderthal lineages in the modern human population. They assertion of neanderthal admixture is based on some genes that are so evenly dispersed in the non-African population that they could not be the result of admixture which would produce a very uneven dispersal.

  • c square

    Homer Simpson is 95.2% Neanderthal.

    • kun tewk

      Ignorance on display. Can’t you read ? They had bigger brains ! It’s most likely “sapiens” are the stupider part of our inheritance.

    • thelernre

      Humor received at this end :).

  • Alferie Nadderbottum

    It seems to me that Neanderthals were the perfect match for modern man. If we have learned anything at all, it is that scientists are pretty absurd and myopic. What about the fossil mixing discovered in South Africa?
    They found human bones with 55,000,000 year old protovertebrates…what a mystery?
    And the large human bones found in the Valley of Eschom, near Jeroboam, Israel? Those human femurs were such that the human who had that femur was 10 feet tall….a great basketball player..if he also weighed 500 lbs and could jump 22 feet straight up

    • Jan

      No doubt that was Goliath or one of his relatives. :-)

      • ARIA

        LOL

  • Wayne

    I imagine that Neanderthal men would have found dainty human women to be very attractive. It could just well be that Neanderthals were bred out of existence by natual selction based upon beauty.

    Look up Nikolai Valuev, the 7-foot tall Siberian Russian boxer. That guy is heavily Neanderthal – no queston. There are accounts from the last century of a Russian man with a tremendous jaw that could pick up people in chairs using only his mouth. And there were reports, not too long ago, of a reclusive group of people that lived deep in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, an area that is snowed in about eight months of the year. They leave out furs, hides and horns in a meadow, and then retreat back into the woods.. Fur traders then leave axes, knives, etc in exchange. The two groups never see each other. Some have speculated that they may have been the last band of Neanderthals. Perhaps they still live.

    • Doug

      Oh gee, well that’s conclusive.

    • William

      Neanderthals were about 5 feet tall. How does a 7-foot human relate to Neanderthals?

  • Mary Walterman

    I have not gotten my 23andme results back yet but I had another genetic analysis done and I have both Neanderthal and Denisovan ancestry. Not much of it but I found it interesting. I believe as well that to think that there was no mating going on between Cro Magnon and Neanderthal hominids is nuts! Neanderthals were not stupid – you do not survive for as long as they did by not adapting. I think the 2 species just simply blended and became the best of both. I am proud of my Neanderthal DNA and it does explain a few things! :-))

  • Lagoon Power

    Quote “Most interesting of all is that, although Neanderthals disappeared long ago, their DNA lives on in all non-African people.” Excuse me? I am black African and according to my 123andMe genetic test, I have Neanderthal genes? What gives?

    • ScottH

      Lagoon,
      Thanks for your comment. Indeed it would be unusual for someone with 100 percent Sub Saharan African ancestry to have a substantial amount (>1%) of Neanderthal DNA. The test has a standard error associated with it so it’s unlikely we predict exactly 0 percent for anyone. So to answer your question it would be helpful to know a few things. What is the predicted percentage? Also do you have have any European Ancestry and/or is his Ancestry from Somalia, Ethiopia or Sudan?

      • Lagoon Power

        Scott, here is the breakdown according to 23andMe. I am from the Sahel part of Nigeria and as far as I know, I have no European relatives.
        1.5% Neanderthal DNA on a 66th percentile (I have no idea what the percentile means)
        88.6% Sub-Saharan African
        2.3% European
        0.9% Middle Eastern & North African
        8.2% Unassigned

        • ScottH

          Lagoon, Thank you for sharing. It appears that we’ve assigned some non-African ancestry to you in your ancestry composition — European, Middle Eastern and possibly in the Unassigned percentage. That may explain the Neanderthal percentage.

        • Lagoon Power

          One more thing Scott, according to 23andMe, the average Sub-Saharan African user is 1.3% Neanderthal. So the statement in the article “although Neanderthals disappeared long ago, their DNA lives on in all non-African people” is problematic for all practical purposes.

          The average Sub-Saharan African (black African) has Neanderthal DNA, so in my mind, Neanderthal DNA is in most people, except in “some” Sub-Saharan Africans. Which brings me to the question, is there a pure 100% Sub-Saharan African, with no genes from any other group? If so, how large, percentile-wise, is that group.
          It appears to me a highly evolved DNA classification of the groups is necessary, so that the average reader has a baseline guide in interpreting such articles.

          Thanks for chiming in.

        • Doug

          Lagoon Power

          There is R Y-chromosome lineage in Cameroon. It is a very primitive strain of R. This means that there was a prehistoric migration of non-Africans to Africa. Today, R is the primary Y-chromosome lineage of Europe. This is not to say that these R lineages in Cameroon came from Europe because R is found (as a minority lineage) all over Eurasia.

  • SQR

    The Middle-East is full of Neanderthals!

  • Elmer117

    I have done the 23andMe test and have a higher percentage of Neanderthal that average. I am also a member of MENSA, the high-IQ society. I’m wondering if people with higher IQs all have higher percentages of Neanderthal in their genes.

    • ScottH

      Elmer117, We haven’t seen an association between intelligence and Neanderthal percentage.

      • Dean

        hahahah! that is a funny response!

    • Inestine

      Elmer – Great to hear that you’re a MENSA. I am one two, and would like to think I’ve at least got a few more points on the IQ scale than you. Jut saying.

      • testine In

        inestine: you are one two. Amazing. I am Juan Too. Jut out.

      • Johann Cock-a-boom-boom

        You spelled “too” wrong.

    • Donna

      To Elmer117:
      My father has a large percentage of Neanderthal and also has a very high IQ. They found most of the Neanderthal DNA in Tuscany, home of the Renaissance. Something to think about.

    • ARIA

      oooh you’re biologically destined to be intelligent with a high iq as a member of mensa! and tuscany is home of the renaissance and home of the moors…something to think about

  • Diane Lynn

    1)
    Bonobos are nearer in DNA to humans than chimpanzees and bonobos are physically much more like humans than chimpanzees.
    2)
    I am a portrait painter and notice the heavy brow ridge on some men of European ancestry that I do not recall seeing on men of African ancestry.

  • Doug

    Problems with the claim that modern humans are part Neanderthal.
    1. No Neanderthal Y-chromosomes has been found in the modern human population.
    2. No Neanderthal MtDNA has been found in modern humans.
    3. Why would only one small set of Neanderthal genes survive in modern humans as opposed to bits and pieces from all over the Neanderthal genome?
    4. The dispersal of this “Neanderthal” gene group is so universally and evenly distributed that is suggests that all the people who first came out of Africa had it rather than that it was the result of admixture.

    • Brad Foley

      Good points, and I’m sure that some of the numbers will change with more genomic sequencing, and more Neanderthal genomes. However, there are good (technical} reasons we would expect to see the patterns you point out. It has to do with incompatibilities between different species (Dobzhansky-Mueller incompatibilities).

      When two near-species cross, some of the genes are incompatible, and diversity in these regions will be lost (they’ll be uniformly one of the parent species). So admixture will be highly uneven. Again for technical reasons, the Y chromosome and the mitochondria are highly susceptible to this process (elevated effects of serial selection on the Y, rapid mutation in the mitochondria). I’d expect the X to have a reduction in Neanderthal genres, too – I’m curious to check if that is the case.

      We see these patterns all the time in contemporary admixed populations (think hybrid cats, e.g.)

  • nooneherebutme

    My fahter was a neandrathol. so my family must come from the that line. i was not. i dont get along with them. alot of people to me looko neandrathol. and are still running down anything .. they cant get hold of.. that is part of the ndrthl make up.. and shreck looking features. hairy chest, and other… wait till they make the little home DNA test for this…

  • Dean Nyffeler

    I have a totally different take on this. Why is always stated that our closest common ancestor is the Chimpanzee. Why is it never our closest ancestors are the Chimpanzees and the Bonobos. Is it just that a peaceful branch of our ancestorial tree is of little note or that so new in our studies that it is forgotten. I hope the latter because we need to study why they turned peaceful while the Chimps will eat their own. Is it truly just the accident that the Congo isolated them from food competition or is there more we need to learn about their behavior to better understand our own.

    • qwerty

      peaceful…don’t think so…

  • Marcia Patterson

    23andme tells me that 2.5% of my DNA is from Neanderthals, a little less than average. I am short however (5’2″), my IQ was tested at 150, and I’m probably a little boorish…hehe. UGH!

  • SamP

    I don’t see how someone can be given the percentage Neanderthal they are if only just over half of the Neanderthal genome has been completed? They may have genes from the currently unknown part of the genome which would surely mean that they could have much more Neanderthal in their DNA than the test shows? Or have I got the wrong idea?

  • Jean-Paul

    Hi,
    I’ve recently obtained 23andme results establishing the percentage of neanderthal genes I have in the part of my sequenced genome. Curiously, having obtained results for my parents as well, I learned that while they both have 2.7%, my sequencing revealed 2.9%. How is this possible ?

    • Scott23H

      Jean-Paul, You inherit 50 percent of your DNA from your mother and 50 percent from your father. We use several different SNPs to calculate your Neanderthal percentage. It’s likely that you inherited different Neanderthal SNPs from each parent, resulting in a percentage that is higher than either parent individually.

  • Paul Rigano

    chimpanzees — our next closest mammalian relative

    Bonobos are closer relatives than Chimps.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonobo

  • liberty4all

    Very interesting site and thanks for a lot of information!

    Please clarify an issue for me. I started out asking Google about the genetic-DNA overlap between human beings and bonobos. Under your link was this fragment of a sentence: “Bonobos are nearer in DNA to humans than chimpanzees and …”

    On the other hand , your article above said, “Humans and Neanderthals share a common ancestor with chimpanzees — our next closest mammalian relative — that goes back between five and seven million years.”

    That seems contradictory to me. If Bonobos share more genes/DNA with us , wouldn’t that make Bonobos closer to us than chimps? Please explain/clarify. Thanks you.

  • Steven Brian Sikes

    I’m quite the mutt. 3% Neanderthal. And: Celtic, Scandinavian, Ashkenazi, Asian. Tested at high IQ (over 160), but I think they made a mistake — it has to be lower. I’m proud of my Neanderthal roots — explains a lot :(

  • Mike

    It seems to me that Neanderthals come from a smallish family group that migrated to Europe and became isolated, the familial interbreeding causing a fairly rapid physical change to the small society over many generations. The harsh climate, scarcity of resources during winter and probably severe tribalism, kept the population down. Upon the lessening of conditions after thousands of years, homo sapien sapiensis also migrated, only these new groups were larger and there was continuous immigration and the eventual contact and cross-group sexual congress eventually diluted the neanderthal lineage, though the DNA of course still exists and in isolated groups (the Basques) exists at a higher level.

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