Neanderthals, or Homo neanderthalensis, are our closest extinct human relative. Some defining features of their skulls include angles cheek bones, and a large nose, useful for humidifying cold, dry air. Neanderthals had a smaller and stouter body structure than ours, but their brains were just as large, often larger. A discovery in 2010, showing that Neanderthals interbred with ancestors of living humans, led scientists to research this history of Neanderthal DNA and how it affects people today. Studies of such DNA have shown a link to the evolution of human skin and fertility, and the exposure to various diseases. But more importantly, they have revealed the enduring legacy of Neanderthals, surviving thousands of years after their extinction.
Before their extinction 30,000 years ago, Neanderthals lived among the closest relatives of modern humans, and shared a common ancestor with us that lived 600,000 years ago. By 2010, researchers had reconstructed most of the Neanderthal genome, comparing it with the genomes of five living humans. After finding similarities in the DNA, researched concluded that Neanderthals and modern humans must have interbred. The reconstructed Neanderthal genome, however, was not precise enough to allow for further conclusions. In 2012, a more accurate, high-quality Neanderthal genome was sequenced, and scientists were able to identify specific segments of Neanderthal DNA from each person’s genome.
Two independent studies suggested that Neanderthal genes associated with skin and hair survived as species evolve, and thus, were favored by natural selection in humans. The skin performed vital jobs, shielding us from pathogens and helping Neanderthals adapt to cold climates. Scientists also discovered that extensive lengths of the living human genome existed where Neanderthal DNA was absent. Neanderthal genes that have survived until today may influence people’s health, raising or reduce the risk of several diseases – including diabetes and lupus.
This discovery impacts my life and society as a whole because Neanderthals, who became extinct about 30,000...