A female Neanderthal who lived in what is now Croatia 52,000 years ago is revealing that our “caveman” relatives may have passed on genes that play roles in cholesterol levels, eating disorders, arthritis and other diseases today, the researchers who sequenced her genome say.
And some modern humans are carrying around more Neanderthal DNA than scientists had thought: The study found that the genomes of modern human populations that originated outside Africa hold between 1.8 and 2.6 percent Neanderthal DNA. That’s much higher than previous estimates of 1.5 to 2.1 percent.
Neanderthals were the closest extinct relatives of modern humans. Research over the past decade has revealed that Neanderthals interbred with the ancestors of modern humans who migrated out of Africa, contributing variants of genes that play a wide variety of roles in modern human biology, such as in depression, heart attacks, nicotine addiction and obesity.
By extracting DNA from Neanderthal fossils, researchers sequenced the genomes of five Neanderthals. However, until now, just one of these yielded high-quality data — that of a woman found in Denisova Cave, in the Altai Mountains in Siberia. The fossil of the woman, who lived about 122,000 years ago, is known as the Altai Neanderthal. [Denisovan Gallery: Tracing the Genetics of Human Ancestors]