Few people today would take kindly to being called a Neanderthal. The name of this extinct human species has become synonymous with “stupid and rude,” and it’s not hard to see why. When we stand in front of museum dioramas depicting Neanderthals wearing little or no clothing, their hairy bodies crouched in caves, they seem so distant from us “modern” humans. They’re a different species after all, right?
Yet the truth is, Neanderthals, like us, are humans. We’re related—distant cousins, you might say. Most modern humans have bits of Neanderthal in every one of our cells. Within the last decade, advances in genetic sequencing technology have allowed scientists to detect traces of Neanderthal DNA—remnants of mating between our ancestors and Neanderthals—in the genomes of people who are alive today. People of European ancestry, for example, are typically 2 to 3 percent “Neanderthal,” in DNA terms.
In this episode of Base Pairs, we explore how genetic information can help us learn about human history. We go from the scale of a single individual who was murdered on a snowy mountain in Europe 5,000 years ago to interactions between large groups of humans and Neanderthals who lived 100,000 years ago. Along the way, you’ll find out whether you’re likely to have traces of Neanderthal in your own DNA—and maybe even gain a new perspective on what it means to be human.
Extras for Episode 3:
The replica of the 5,000-year-old mummy called Ötzi that is on display at CSHL’s DNA Learning Center took a CT scanner, a giant 3D printer, and a lot of hard work to create! This video shows the whole process in just a few minutes. Earlier this year, PBS aired a NOVA special about Ötzi that follows the making of the Ötzi replica that’s now on display at the DNA Learning Center.
The students who were visiting the DNA Learning Center on the day that we recorded this episode were thrilled that Ötzi seemed to be stuck doing a popular dance move: the dab.
Watch Adam Siepel give an overview of how he and an international research team used several different methods of DNA analysis to find what they think is strong evidence of mating between a Neanderthal and the ancestor of a modern human—a mingling that occurred tens of thousands of years earlier than any other such event previously documented.