Are we descended from Neanderthals?

22nd July 2009
Are we descended from Neanderthals? (iStock)

Asked by: Ben Johnson, Glasgow

The Neanderthals lived in Europe and Asia from over 200,000 years ago until (in some areas) less than 30,000 years ago. If this question had been asked 20 years ago, the majority of experts would probably have answered yes, but new data and research have shown that our species Homo sapiens originated in Africa during the last 250,000 years from non-Neanderthal ancestors. Our species spread from Africa during the last 60,000 years, and apparently replaced other human lines such as the Neanderthals. How this replacement happened - through conflict or competition - is still unclear, as is what happened when populations of our species encountered the Neanderthals.

Although I regard Homo neanderthalensis as a separate species - based on their distinctive anatomy - the Neanderthals were clearly closely related to us. Thus, as may occur with other closely-related species, interbreeding might have happened. Then the question takes on a different meaning, at a much finer level of resolution. While we didn't descend from the Neanderthals through an evolutionary transformation, if there was interbreeding, some of us today (particularly in Eurasia) might have Neanderthal-derived genes. However, my reading of the fossil and genetic data (the latter including some Neanderthal DNA) suggests that any Neanderthal contribution was vanishingly small. So I would still say that the answer, in any meaningful sense, is no.


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