- Lorenza Coppola Bove
- The Conversation*
The discovery made in the Guattari Cave (Rome, Italy) of the remains of nine Neanderthals – the true lords of the west (of Europe, although their range was wider) – could offer us another look at our evolutionary history.
It is a very important find, as it constitutes another fundamental piece to clarify our origins and our past, and reveals that its heritage continues to exist today.
Today, this inheritance affects many aspects of our daily lives and, as has been found in a recent study, its genes partly influence our susceptibility to covid-19.
It seems that the heritage of the Neanderthals will not end in oblivion after their disappearance 40,000 years ago. In fact, individuals of Eurasian origin carry in their ADN a 2 % coming from them.
Of this percentage, some of the genes studied influence the quality and type of dream, in the humor, in the trend to isolation and in susceptibility to infection by covid-19.
A study carried out by the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology (Germany) and the Karolinska Institute (Sweden) showed that the genes present in the chromosome 3 humans may be associated with more severe forms of SARS-CoV-2 infection, but some genes in the human chromosome 12 of Neanderthal origin They can promote the immune response and protect us from the attack of the virus.
In fact, it is estimated that the presence of these genes could reduce the probability of developing the disease by 22%. For this reason, perhaps those who have suffered the disease asymptomatically are more Neanderthals than they think.
Studies of genes that predispose to infection could lead to early identification of patients at risk, according to the researchers. In addition, they are gene variants that have a different distribution in the human population: up to 60% of the European population and 50% of the South Asian population would carry the variant that predisposes to infection.
It was not found in the African population and in the East Asian area. But the good news is that the protective variant would be in the genetic heritage of a third of the world’s population (excluding the African continent, where this variant is not present).
Sensitivity to art and language
The inheritance does not end there.
Although they had a robust physical constitution, they walked upright, they had a more elongated skull than ours in the anteroposterior sense and they did not have a chin (a typical feature of modern humans), the organization of the structures of the middle ear that allow hearing is very similar to those of humans.
This finding allowed us to consider the possibility that Neanderthals could have a system of Verbal communication human-like.
We also inherit the artistic sensibility. We can speak of them as the first artists in history: the caves of Extremadura, Cantabria and Andalusia bear the traces of groups of Neanderthals who communicated with art, the most immediate and primitive way known.
The heritage of the Neanderthals
But how well do we know our cousins? Is it true that they were ignorant and ugly as they used to be described in the 19th century?
The answer to these and more questions was obtained from studies that were carried out in bone material, not only at a morphological level, but also modern technologies were used to carry out molecular analyzes and obtain a complete picture of this species whose first Identified remains were found in 1856 in a cave in the Neander Valley (Düsseldorf, Germany).
In 2008, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology sequenced for the first time the mitochondrial DNA (a small “ring” that we inherit from our mothers) of a Neanderthal. Since then, we have learned to know our cousins even more and to reveal their secret lives, unfairly considered inferior to Homo sapiens by anthropologists of the 19th century.
For example, they were not exclusively carnivores, but rather their diet comprised variety of foods rich in starch, lentils and nuts. They also took advantage of the resources that the sea offered them (clams, in particular), as evidenced in a study carried out on Neanderthals found in the Cueva dei Moscerini (Rome, Italy).
They lived in Europe and also occupied much of West Asia. Research carried out on the fossils allows us to estimate that they were distributed in this area between 400,000 and 40,000 years ago, approximately.
After this date, the Neanderthals gradually disappeared, reaching become extinct for different reasons.
The dangers of inbreeding
One of them is surely the high inbreeding (the frequency of unions between close relatives): due to the small size of the Neanderthal groups distributed in Europe and the climatic changes they had to face, they had no other option but to mate with close relatives who made up the tribe.
This phenomenon is dangerous for individuals because it leads to the manifestation of all those diseases whose pathogenic mechanism is due to alleles (variants of the same gene) defective recessive.
Normally, we inherit one copy of nuclear DNA from our mother and one from our father. In most cases, if one allele is defective, that of the other parent will provide the correct information about the gene to prevent the disease from developing in the individual.
In the case of children of close relatives, a genetic disease is more likely to manifest itself, because it is highly likely that both parents carry an identical copy of the same allele.
This is the case of the house of Austria, the famous Hasburg family, whose prognathism (called “Hasburgic chin”) does not go unnoticed in all history books.
* Lorenza Coppola Bove is professor of Forensic Anthropology, Universidad Pontificia Comillas, Spainña.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.