DNA Reveals that Neanderthals may have been Redheads

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany have been working on the genetic profile of Neanderthals, their latest research published in the journal “Science” reveals that at least some of these hardy, ancient people had red hair.  Indeed, the leader of the research team, evolutionary biologist Michael Hofreiter has stated:

“Our calculations suggest that at least 1% of Neanderthals had red hair.  They would have had lighter hair all over their bodies, like today’s Irish red-headed people”.

This is the latest revelation in a long study of Neanderthal DNA taken from fossil bones.  The team published research earlier on in the year linking a specific gene found in the fossils with the human gene thought to be associated with speech development.  These findings provided further evidence that the Neanderthals may have been capable of developing a language.  The team’s work indicates that the gene linked to speech processes appeared much earlier than previously thought – in the ancestors of humans and Neanderthals with Homo heidelbergensis being a likely candidate.

It is ironic that the German research team have likened Neanderthals to the Irish; as although these early people are strongly associated with Germany (named after the Neander valley near Dusseldorf where the first remains were found), Neanderthals were named by an Irish scientist.  It was Irishman William King who named Neanderthals as a separate species (H. neanderthalennsis), in a presentation to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1863.

A variant in DNA taken from Neanderthal bones behaves in a similar way to one associated with red hair and light skin in humans.  This study provides another link between our species and Neanderthals, but as to the exact relationship scientists still remain uncertain.

The proportion of humans with red hair is similar to that expected in the Neanderthal population, about 1%.  It the least common natural hair colour. Red hair is almost always linked to light skin, and experiments with a Neanderthal gene variant suggest it behaves similarly to a human gene variant that cuts down on skin pigment.  Palaeontologists had predicted that the Neanderthals would have light skin as they evolved in Europe at higher latitudes than Homo sapiens and therefore their skin did not need as much protection from sunlight.

The Neanderthals were very well adapted to the European climate at the time. Their squat bodies kept them warm and their powerful muscles helped them cope with the very tough life that they led.  Many Neanderthal skeletons bare witness to their tough lives, with the fossil bones carrying many injuries, the sort of injuries associated with modern rodeo riders.

The last of the Neanderthals died out 27,000 years ago, they held on in the Iberian peninsular before finally going extinct.  When they had gone they left the world with one single hominid species  – us; (not withstanding any surprises we don’t know about).

Children are fascinated with cave people, and we stock an Ice Age Play tube with Neanderthals and animals from the Ice Age such as Giant Sloths, Woolly Rhinos and Sabre Tooth Cats.  All the Neanderthals have light skin and red hair, did the designer know something that the scientists didn’t?

Ice Age Play Tube

Ice Age Play Set.

Picture credit Everything Dinosaur.

Sales help support the Natural History museum in London so perhaps the palaeontologists had an input into the look of the cave people featured.  The set also features a fire place and a stone monolith with a cave painting, there is little evidence that Neanderthals indulged in cave art, but perhaps like the red hair and fair skin, the DNA study will reveal that they too were capable artists.

To view a range of prehistoric animal themed play sets available from Everything Dinosaur: Dinosaur Toys and Gifts.