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Our DNA Harbors Genetic Contributions from Extinct Relatives Like Neanderthals, Revealing a Complex Genetic Inheritance

by Gabriel Martinez
7 comments
Neanderthal Genetics

The genetic echoes of Neanderthals persist within our very being.

This is coded into our DNA, and emerging scientific evidence is beginning to shed light on the extent to which this ancient lineage influences our contemporary selves.

By employing cutting-edge techniques to analyze fragments of ancient DNA, researchers are discovering that genetic traits passed down from our extinct relatives continue to manifest in various aspects of our lives—be it our reproductive health, immune response, or even our susceptibility to diseases like COVID-19.

Mary Prendergast, an archaeologist at Rice University, remarks, “We are in possession of these ancestral genetic imprints and are beginning to comprehend their implications for our physiology and well-being.”

Further Developments in Science

Innovative research endeavors are painting an enriched portrait of a distant past when Homo sapiens interbred with distinct human species. Recent studies have connected Neanderthal DNA to a host of human attributes, including the configuration of facial features and susceptibility to particular diseases. Researchers have even incorporated Neanderthal and Denisovan genes into mice to examine their biological impact, finding enlarged craniums and an additional rib among the subjects.

Hugo Zeberg of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute emphasizes that ongoing technological and scientific collaborations are enabling answers to age-old questions about our origins and shared genetic ancestry. Such inquiries reveal a profound truth—that we share an unexpectedly rich genetic heritage with our extinct relatives.

Insights from Ancient DNA

Previously, our understanding of these extinct human groups was constrained by what could be deduced from bone morphology. Yet, ongoing advancements in the study of ancient DNA—pioneered by Nobel Laureate Svante Paabo, who initially assembled a Neanderthal genome—are providing intricate details about genetic evolution and the diversity of archaic genetic material in contemporary human populations.

Research indicates that while some African communities possess negligible amounts of Neanderthal DNA, those of European or Asian descent carry 1% to 2% of it. In regions extending from New Guinea to Fiji Islands, Denisovan DNA comprises 4% to 6% of the human genome.

“It may appear insignificant, but the impact is substantial,” states Zeberg, who collaborates extensively with Paabo. “Approximately half of the Neanderthal genome is disseminated in fragments among modern humans.”

Ambivalent Impact on Health

While the complete scope of this ancient genetic influence remains undefined, it has become evident that these genetic components can be both advantageous and detrimental. Genes linked to Neanderthals have been implicated in conditions such as Graves’ disease and rheumatoid arthritis. Chris Stringer, a researcher in human evolution at London’s Natural History Museum, points out that interbreeding with Neanderthals provided an immediate boost to the immune systems of early Homo sapiens but resulted in autoimmune susceptibilities today.

Concluding Thoughts

The narrative of modern human survival, once glorified as a triumph over less sophisticated hominins, is being revised. Research reveals that Neanderthals, far from being unsophisticated, exhibited complex social behaviors and technological competencies. Moreover, our survival may be more a testament to our adaptability and range than to any innate superiority.

Ultimately, each new scientific discovery deepens our understanding of the intricate tapestry of human evolution. “It’s not solely about the survival of the fittest; it’s about complex interactions and genetic blending,” says John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

As the scientific community continues to unearth new knowledge from increasingly scarce traces of ancient existence, there is ample room for exploration and new discoveries. Biobanks of biological samples are expected to become more prevalent, facilitating further research. Our continually evolving understanding emphasizes that the demarcation lines between us and our ancient cousins may be far more blurred than once believed.


The Health and Science Department of Big Big News is supported by the Science and Educational Media Group of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The Associated Press holds sole responsibility for the content.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Neanderthal Genetics

What is the main focus of the article?

The main focus of the article is to explore how Neanderthal and Denisovan genetics continue to influence various aspects of modern human traits, including immunity, fertility, and even the response to diseases such as COVID-19.

How has modern science helped in understanding our genetic relationship with Neanderthals?

Advancements in DNA technology have enabled scientists to piece together fragments of ancient DNA. This has led to a more thorough understanding of how traits inherited from our ancient cousins, such as Neanderthals, continue to affect us today.

What are some specific traits influenced by Neanderthal and Denisovan genetics?

Traits influenced include fertility, immune system functionality, the shape of people’s noses, and even susceptibility to certain diseases like Graves’ disease and rheumatoid arthritis. Some studies have also linked Neanderthal DNA to a major genetic risk factor for severe COVID-19.

Do all human populations have the same amount of Neanderthal or Denisovan DNA?

No, research shows that African populations have almost no Neanderthal DNA, while those from European or Asian backgrounds may have between 1% and 2%. Denisovan DNA is particularly prevalent in Melanesian populations, making up 4% to 6% of their DNA.

What theories explain the survival of Homo sapiens over other hominins?

The article discusses multiple theories, including Homo sapiens’ adaptability to different climates, their more efficient body structures, and possibly their early domestication of dogs for hunting. Neanderthals and Denisovans, by contrast, were constrained by their specialized adaptations and harsh environmental conditions.

Is there any research linking Neanderthal genetics to our response to COVID-19?

Yes, research by Dr. Hugo Zeberg and Nobel Prize winner Svante Paabo found that a major genetic risk factor for severe COVID-19 is inherited from Neanderthals. Conversely, a set of DNA variants inherited from Neanderthals was found to protect people from severe COVID-19.

What is meant by “ghost populations” in the context of the article?

“Ghost populations” refer to groups of ancient humans whose fossils have yet to be discovered but whose genetic material is evident in modern humans.

What is the future of this research?

The article suggests that as DNA technology continues to advance, scientists expect to uncover even more about our complex genetic relationship with our ancient cousins. There are plans for “biobanks” that collect biological samples in more countries to aid this research.

More about Neanderthal Genetics

  • Understanding Neanderthal Genetics: A Comprehensive Review
  • Advances in Ancient DNA Technology
  • Modern Traits Influenced by Neanderthal DNA
  • Human Evolution: Survival of the Fittest or Survival through Adaptability?
  • COVID-19 and Neanderthal Genetics: What’s the Connection?
  • The Role of Denisovans in Human Evolution
  • Ghost Populations: A Mystery Yet to Be Solved
  • Biobanks and Their Role in Genetic Research

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7 comments

Laura Nelson September 25, 2023 - 2:11 pm

The section about “ghost populations” is pretty cool. Makes ya wonder what other ancient cousins we have that we don’t even know about yet.

Reply
Robert Kline September 25, 2023 - 3:21 pm

this is a deep dive! Always thought of Neanderthals as completely separate, but turns out we’re more alike than different.

Reply
Kevin O'Brien September 25, 2023 - 4:50 pm

Love how the article gives credit to Neanderthals and Denisovans for their contribution to our gene pool. They were smart, just specialized, and that’s why they didn’t make it. Eye-opener for sure.

Reply
Mike Williams September 25, 2023 - 8:53 pm

Its intriguing how even a small percentage of Neanderthal or Denisovan DNA can have such a big impact on us. Genetics is crazy, man.

Reply
John Smith September 25, 2023 - 11:59 pm

Wow, I had no idea our genes were so tied up with Neanderthals and Denisovans. This kinda changes the way you look at human evolution, doesn’t it?

Reply
Samantha Green September 26, 2023 - 5:06 am

So are we saying that Neanderthal DNA is the reason for my seasonal allergies? Haha, but seriously, this is mind-blowing stuff.

Reply
Emily Davis September 26, 2023 - 6:09 am

The bit about how Neanderthal genes affect our immune response to COVID is fascinating. I wonder how much more we’ll learn as technology gets even better.

Reply

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