Neanderthal DNA: A Historical Fossil Resurfaces

cellWho were the Neanderthals, and how were they related to humans? These are questions that have plagued paleoanthropologists since the first Neanderthal fossil was found over a century and a half ago. On July 11, 1997 a very important paper appeared in the journal Cell that shed light on this issue. It was titled “Neanderthal DNA Sequences and the Origin of Modern Humans,” and it detailed first ever retrieval and deciphering of Neanderthal DNA.

For a long time, it was unclear if ancient DNA was even a thing. Could DNA exist in organic matter after a creature died? And if so, wouldn’t it be terribly partial and difficult to read? After years of failed attempts and frustrations, a team led by Dr. Svante Pääbo in Munich used new technology to make it happen.

Why was this SO cool?

cropped-neanderthal-440.jpg

Illustration from 1860s, in Huxley’s Man’s Place in Nature

While this was a truly amazing feat any way you look at it, there’s one thing that strikes me as a historian. Look at the Cell cover, the one used to announce the find. Do those brow ridges look familiar to followers of this blog? They should. That is the brow of the first very first Neanderthal ever found and recognized by science in 1856. The fossilized skeleton found in the Neander Valley, giving the creature its name. It was this fossilized Neanderthal (not the skull, but part of an arm bone) that the scientists pulled the DNA from. Let’s let that sink in for a minute: 150 years after it was found, the very fist recognized Neanderthal yielded the first DNA.

This is truly a historian’s dream. A fossil that was so controversial, powerful, influential in the 1860s was essentially reborn and repurposed in the 1990s. They could have (and in fact tried) to pull DNA from any old Neanderthal fossil, we have tons! But it’s hard to convince people to cut bones apart to sequence DNA, and in a coincidence of history it ended up being this fossil. I find it very symbolic and I love it.

Other facts about this Neanderthal study:

  1. Dr. Pääbo and his team were very concerned with their methodology. This is part of why they published their work in Cell, rather than a journal like Science–Cell specializes in rigorous molecular biology.
  2. Mitochondrial DNA can be tricky, and this mtDNA led us a bit astray. mtDNA is only pased down by women, so it doesn’t always represent the population terribly well. Based on the data, it appeared Neanderthals did not interbreed with modern humans, which we know know was false. We now have abundant nuclear DNA that has painted a very different picture.

 

A book (or twelve) could be written about all the advances and new findings Svante’s team has developed since 1997. For example, we now know that modern humans interbred with Neanderthals, and we have DNA of some Neandertal ancestors from Sima de los Huesos, retrieved from bones almost half a million years old! You can find the original Cell paper here, as well as a news article about it. Also I highly recommend Svante Pääbo’s book Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes.

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