By Stephen Yin
Neanderthals and modern humans diverged from a common ancestor about half a million years ago. Living in colder climes in Eurasia, Neanderthals evolved barrel chests, large skulls and strong hands. In Africa, modern humans acquired shorter faces, a prominent chin and slender limbs. Then, roughly 50,000 years ago, the two species encountered one another and interbred, as modern humans spread out of Africa.
The legacy of this interbreeding has been the subject of much scientific inquiry in the past few years. Today, up to 4 percent of the genes of non-Africans are Neanderthal in origin.. These may have influenced a diverse range of traits, including keratin production, disease risk and the propensity to sneeze after eating dark chocolate. Where did all the other Neanderthal DNA go? Why did a Neanderthal-human hybrid not prevail?
Two recent studies converge on an explanation. They suggest the answer comes down to different population sizes between Neanderthals and modern humans, and this principle of population genetics: In small populations, natural selection is less effective.
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