Neanderthals: the New Red-Heads

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It’s a common caricature in textbooks, movies, and—more true than ever today—TV shows: a brow-ridged, (often) club-carrying Neanderthal, covered in thick, messy red hair.

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Wait a second—red hair? Contrary to nearly all artists’ interpretations of Neanderthals as dark-haired, a DNA study published in the journal Science has shown that some Neanderthals (sometimes spelled Neandertals) were “probably redheads,” reports BBC News.

A DNA study published in the journal Science has shown that some Neanderthals were “probably redheads.”

The team, led by University of Barcelona geneticist Carles Lalueza-Fox, found a variant of the gene MC1R in Neanderthals that “is not present in modern humans, but which causes an effect on the hair similar to that seen in modern redheads,” Fox explains.

What’s more, this helps confirm that Neanderthals likely sported “the whole range of hair colour we see today in modern European populations, from dark to blond right through to red.” All modern humans have MC1R, with redheads possessing a mutated version of it that alters cells’ chemistry—producing red hair and pale skin.

To test the Neanderthal variant of MC1R, the scientists inserted the gene into a melanin-producing human cell called a melanocyte. The DNA was taken from the remains of two Neanderthals, one found in Italy and the other in Spain.

The researchers observed “the same loss of function in the Neanderthal form of MC1R as they did in modern variants of the gene which produce red hair.”

The result adds to the evidence that Neanderthals, while having some relatively trivial distinctions from mainstream “modern” humans, were nonetheless descendants of Adam and therefore created in the image of God. Lalueza-Fox argues that the Neanderthal variant of the gene suggests Neanderthals and modern humans did not interbreed.

This news complements last week’s announcement that Neanderthals have the same language gene modern humans have—a gene found nowhere else in nature. See “Speak Like a Caveman” for more information on how the “caveman” Neanderthal looks more and more like a modern human every day.

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