Fossil DNA Tells Tales of Red-Haired Neanderthals

By Robert C Cowen Columnist | The Christian Science Monitor, November 8, 2007 | Go to article overview

Fossil DNA Tells Tales of Red-Haired Neanderthals


Robert C Cowen Columnist, The Christian Science Monitor


Scientists probing Neanderthal remains find important clues in DNA. One recent study suggests some of our extinct cousins had pale skin and red hair. Another investigation finds Neanderthals ranged much farther from Europe into Asia than paleontologists have thought. The key fact is that at least some Neanderthal fossils yield DNA of high enough quality to tell such tales. Last month, members of an international research team led by Carles Lalueza-Fox at the University of Barcelona in Spain explained in the journal Nature why they think recovering specific DNA sequences from extinct species "can potentially provide information" as to what the species looked like. They backed up this hypothesis with analysis of DNA from two Neanderthal fossils. They found genetic information similar to, but distinct from, the genes governing skin and hair color in modern humans. They say this "suggests that Neanderthals varied in pigmentation levels" just as we do. That includes the pale skin and red hair that evolved largely in Europe. The team adds that the data suggest this potential "evolved independently in both modern humans and Neanderthals." Meanwhile, Svante Paabo at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and colleagues have traced Neanderthals far into Asia. Professor Paabo's team hit pay dirt as far east as Uzbekistan and the Altai region of southern Siberia. They reported last month in Nature that DNA sequences from hominid fossils found there "fall within European Neanderthal [DNA] variation." They note that this shows "the geographic range of Neanderthals is likely to have extended at least 2,000 km [1,200 miles] farther to the east than commonly assumed. …

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Fossil DNA Tells Tales of Red-Haired Neanderthals
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