LONDON (Reuters) - Some Neanderthals may have had fair skin and red hair, giving them an appearance resembling modern Europeans, an international team of researchers said on Thursday.
The researchers homed in on the MC1R gene linked to hair and skin colour and used DNA analysis to find a variation that produced the same kind of pigmentation changes as in humans with red hair and pale skin.
The study, published in the journal Science, comes a week after another set of researchers looking at a different gene said Neanderthals may have been capable of sophisticated speech.
“The papers make Neanderthals more like modern Europeans, with light skin and hair colour and language abilities, and yet there are no signs of interbreeding with modern humans,” Carles Lalueza-Fox, a molecular biologist at the University of Barcelona, said in a commentary in Science.
Taken together, the two studies are the first to extract nuclear DNA from Neanderthal remains and represent a new way to learn more about the extinct early humans, the researchers said. Nuclear DNA is the DNA in the nucleus of the cell that makes up nearly all the genetic information people carry.
Neanderthals were a dead-end offshoot of the human line who inhabited Europe and parts of west and central Asia. Research indicates they were expert tool-makers, used animal skins to keep warm and cared for each other.
Most researchers believe Neanderthals survived in Europe until the arrival of fully modern humans about 30,000 years ago although controversial findings last year suggested they might have survived until as recently as 24,000 years ago.
The team produced a DNA sequence from the fragmented Neanderthal MC1R gene to make a modified copy they could study in a test tube, the researchers said.
This allowed the team to determine that the gene produced the same level of the chemical melanin as in people with red hair and light skin. The variation itself was different than in modern humans but the result was the same.
Light skin would have been an evolutionary advantage for Neanderthals by allowing them to soak up more vitamin D from the sun in cloudy Europe, the researchers said.
The findings also provide important clues about Neanderthal and human evolution, and represent the first of many such experiments likely to use the same DNA technique to learn far more than could be gleaned from fossils alone, researchers said.
“We have always had a bottleneck on the number of fossils we can work on,” Michael Hofreiter, an evolutionary biologist at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, said in a telephone interview. “There will be more studies looking at specific genes that are interesting.”