Before being outbred by Wise man, Neanderthals may have been many things: including the world’s first weavers, artists, and even crab cooks. Their contributions may even reach deeper—even to modern faces. Genetic material from this now-extinct crew influences the shape of human noses today, according to new research.
In a study published May 8 in the journal Biology of CommunicationsAn international team of researchers has found that a particular gene that results in a taller nose (from top to bottom) may be the product of natural selection when intelligent humans adapted to colder climates after leaving the African continent.
[Related: Humans and Neanderthals could have lived together even earlier than we thought.]
“In the last 15 years, since the Neanderthal genome was sequenced, we have been able to learn that our own ancestors apparently interbred with Neanderthals, leaving us small bits of their DNA,” Kaustubh Adhikari, co-author and statistical geneticist at University College London, said. said in a statement. “Here we find that part of the DNA inherited from Neanderthals influences the shape of our faces. This may have been useful for our ancestors as it was passed down through thousands of generations.”
The research team used data from over 6,000 volunteers from Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Mexico and Peru of mixed European, Indian and African ancestry. They compared their genetic information to photographs of their faces and examined the distances between points on the face, such as the edge of the lips to the tips of the nose, to see how different facial features might be associated with different genetic markers.
“Most genetic studies of human diversity have examined the genes of Europeans; the diverse sample of Latin American participants in our study broadens the scope of genetic research findings, helping us to better understand the genetics of all people,” Andres Ruiz-Linares, co-author and geneticist at University College London, said in a statement.
They found 33 new regions of the genome that are associated with face shape, and could replicate 26 of them compared to data from other ethnicities using participants in East Asia, Europe or Africa.
[Related: Europeans looked down on Neanderthals—until they realized they shared their DNA.]
They looked at an area of the genome called ATF3, and found that many of those in the study of Native American ancestry had genetic material inherited from Neanderthals that contributed to the height of the nose. They compared the same region of the genome with those of East Asian ancestry from a different cohort and saw the same genetic material. This gene region also has signs of natural selection, suggesting that there is an advantage for those who carry the genetic material.
“It has long been speculated that the shape of our noses is determined by natural selection; because our noses can help us regulate the temperature and humidity of the air we breathe, noses with different shapes may be better suited to the different climates our ancestors lived in,” Qin Li, co-author and scientist at the Chinese Fudan University, said in a statement. “The gene we identified here may have been inherited from Neanderthals to help humans adapt to colder climates when our ancestors moved out of Africa.”
In 2021, this same team also found that genes influencing facial shapes were inherited from another extinct human species called the Denisovans. In this study, they found 32 gene regions that influence facial features such as the nose, lips, jaw, and eyebrow shape.