What Did Neanderthals Leave to Modern Humans? Some Surprises

Jan 20, 2017

By Claudia Dreifus

Geneticists tell us that somewhere between 1 and 5 percent of the genome of modern Europeans and Asians consists of DNA inherited from Neanderthals, our prehistoric cousins.

At Vanderbilt University, John Anthony Capra, an evolutionary genomics professor, has been combining high-powered computation and a medical records databank to learn what a Neanderthal heritage — even a fractional one — might mean for people today.

We spoke for two hours when Dr. Capra, 35, recently passed through New York City. An edited and condensed version of the conversation follows.

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2 comments on “What Did Neanderthals Leave to Modern Humans? Some Surprises

  • One question I haven’t yet seen asked or answered in articles and TV programmes about our Neanderthal DNA is how much if any of this shared DNA could be the result of horizontal gene transmission by retro-viruses rather than vertical gene transmission by mating. I understand we have quite a few genes in common with some animals which must be due to such horizontal transmission because we can’t mate with them and can’t have inherited them from a common ancestor because the shared genes are only found in particular geographical locations.

    Another question is how many of these shared genes may have been acquired by Neanderthals from us rather than by us from Neanderthals.

    Finally, how can we be sure that Africans have no Neanderthal DNA? After all we share about 99% of our genes with chimps due to inheritance from a distant common ancestor; so we presumably share even more of our genes with Neanderthals due to inheritance from a distant common ancestor. So any genes inherited by all humans (including Africans) from Neanderthals might be hard to distinguish from the far more common genes inherited from a distant common ancestor. And if you go back far enough we almost all have some ancestry from other continents, so I would expect almost all Africans have some European and Asian ancestry, and should therefore have inherited some Neanderthal DNA from those European and Asian ancestors.

    Maybe some of your readers who know more about this than I do might be able to supply answers for some of my above three questions.

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  • Meanwhile – research into fossils takes ancestry WAY further back in time!


    Researchers have discovered the earliest known ancestor of humans – along with a vast range of other species.

    They say that fossilised traces of the 540-million-year-old creature are “exquisitely well preserved”.

    The microscopic sea animal is the earliest known step on the evolutionary path that led to fish and – eventually – to humans.

    Details of the discovery from central China appear in Nature journal.

    The research team says that Saccorhytus is the most primitive example of a category of animals called “deuterostomes” which are common ancestors of a broad range of species, including vertebrates (backboned animals).

    Saccorhytus was about a millimetre in size, and is thought to have lived between grains of sand on the sea bed.

    The researchers were unable to find any evidence that the animal had an anus, which suggests that it consumed food and excreted from the same orifice.

    The study was carried out by an international team of researchers, from the UK, China and Germany. Among them was Prof Simon Conway Morris, from the University of Cambridge.

    He told BBC News: “To the naked eye, the fossils we studied look like tiny black grains, but under the microscope the level of detail ws jaw-dropping.

    “We think that as an early deuterostome this may represent the primitive beginnings of a very diverse range of species, including ourselves. All deuterostomes had a common ancestor, and we think that is what we are looking at here.”

    Degan Shu, from Northwest University in Xi’An, Shaanxi Province, where the fossils were found, said: “Saccorhytus now gives us remarkable insights into the very first stages of the evolution of a group that led to the fish, and ultimately, to us.”

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