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Our Neanderthal ancestors
March 22, 2013 - Andrea Johnson
How much Neanderthal are you? There's a site online called 23andme.com that says it can tell you.
Scientists now say that Asians and Europeans have around 1 to 4 percent of their genes in common with the Neanderthals, which would tend to suggest our human ancestors hooked up a few times over the years with some of the Neanderthals, but didn't do it often enough to cause widespread mixing. Other human groups probably did some breeding with other archaic human cousins who were related to the Neanderthals and humans but were distinctly different species.
Neanderthal fossils show some physical differences between humans: a heavy eyebrow ridge, a long, low, bigger skull than humans, a prominent nose. Humans who lived at the same time would have been taller than the Neanderthals, with a higher brow and more narrow shoulders. Some of this is interesting because a group of scientists have decoded the Neanderthal genome and have just put it online for other scientists to study.
Knowing more about the Neanderthals and what genes we inherited from them could conceivably lead to better treatment for disease as well as to a better understanding of ancient human history. We might owe something in our immune system to Neanderthal genes, for instance.
I doubt I will be paying $500 for the privilege of learning whether I have a many times great-great Neanderthal grandfather but it's still interesting to think about. If nothing else, it tells us something about the continuing evolution of the human species.
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