Well, this is awkward. Some of our Homo Sapien ancestors had sex with Neanderthals. We know this because a curious bunch of palaeontologists at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany decided to spool through Neanderthal genomes in 2010. However, we never quite understood the implications of such filthy, prehistoric debauchery.
That’s where John Capra and his cronies at the Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee come in. These fellows studied a database of medical records and genetic data from around 28,000 people of European descent. They did this knowing that Europeans retain various parts and amounts of Neanderthal DNA.
Using the information from the Neanderthal genomes, Capra and co. hoped to identify segments of Neanderthal DNA in each person’s genetic data. Their goal was to understand whether or not particular portions of Neanderthal DNA in their genomes were associated with an array of neurological, psychiatric, immunological and dermatological health conditions.
The Neanderthal is to blame for your smoking habit.
And they were. Research showed that remnants of this prehistoric interbreeding still exist within the genome’s of many humans today. Specifically, the research found that people carrying certain Neanderthal segments were 2 percent more likely to develop depression and 1.4 percent more likely to have a heart attack than their purely Homo-Sapien counterparts.
Boy, lucky us. On top of this, they also passed on some neat traits like addiction to nicotine, obesity, and skin lesions from sun exposure. Those of you out there with Neanderthal DNA who suffer from hypercoagulability may have received that nice gift from your Neanderthal ancestors, which can lead to strokes and embolisms (blood clots throughout the body).
And while it may seem rather frightful and detrimental to one’s health in the modern age, it very well could have been an advantageous trait to hominin living in a climate of unpredictability and peril.
“It’s possible that this hypercoagulation was good for us back then in healing wounds and fighting off pathogens. And now, when that’s not such a problem for us, it’s bad to have thicker blood in many cases,” says Capra.
The researchers made these connections by carefully examining various Neanderthal genetic variants. For example, they found a variant that significantly increased the modern human risk for nicotine addiction. However, this does not imply that Neanderthals were smoking the tobaccy.
Considering tobacco was not found outside of the Western Hemisphere until pesky Europeans took a trip to the Americas makes it difficult to suggest Neanderthals were kicking back with a Camel. It’s quite possible the trait that causes nicotine addiction today was advantageous and even beneficial 50,000 years ago to a Neanderthal (in one way or another).
What does it all mean?
Well, as we discussed earlier, it’s not all bad. Capra suggests that while some Neanderthal DNA may expose its lineage to depression, other parts may indeed decrease the risk of depression and other diseases.
Speaking with Vanderbilt University, Capra says that better understanding of these findings and their implications may indeed be beneficial in helping us avoid these diseases in the future.
“We’re now working towards understanding at the molecular level, how these bits of Neanderthal DNA are influencing these associations with diseases we’ve found,” says Capra.
“The most important finding is that Neanderthal DNA influences a broad range of traits relevant to disease risk,” explains Capra. “It is exciting to demonstrate these effects in living populations.”
In space and time, overlapped. Modern man on foreign shore, an archaic home 60,000 years in the making. Breathing hard and frightful in a blur of green shrubbery and dusty haze, Hominin watches on.
Dazed from travel, resting close to a blazing highfire, Modern man sleeps beneath a cerulean sky and Hominin watches on. She breathes and grunts and within her stirs a peculiar lure.
In a nightstruck confusion, Modern man awakens and Hominin is there twisted in the flames watching on. A series of mumbles and groans roll from between her teeth and Modern man watches on.
They howl together in that inescapable darkness like mad, choking dogs.
For more on our prehistoric ancestors and what they chewed the fat over, head here.