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Archaeo News 

28 October 2007
Some Neanderthals were 'flame-haired'

Evidence from ancient DNA indicates that at least some of the Neanderthals who roamed Europe until around 30,000 years ago had fair skin and red hair. It has long been thought that Neanderthals, who spent longer than their modern human cousins adapting to cold and cloudy conditions, might have lost the dark skin pigment inherited from sunny Africa. Now scientists have found proof that some Neanderthals were red heads.
     Researchers analysed DNA samples extracted from the bones of of two Neanderthals from Spain and Italy. They focused on the MCIR gene, which helps skin cells to make the 'sunscreen' pigment melanin. The gene has its origins in Africa, where the sun's ultraviolet rays pose a real risk of burning and cancer.
     "We found a variant of MC1R gene in Neanderthals which is not present in modern humans, but which causes an effect on the hair similar to that seen in modern redheads," said Carles Lalueza-Fox, assistant professor in genetics at the University of Barcelona.
     DNA is notoriously difficult to obtain from very old specimens such as these. "This was a bit like finding a needle in a genomic haystack. I couldn't believe we found it the first time. I asked my friends to repeat the results. Eventually the variant was found in two separate Neanderthals in three different labs," said Dr Lalueza-Fox. "We were lucky we found a variant that had not been described in modern humans," says co-author Michael Hofreiter of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. "That made it unlikely to be human contamination."
     "In Neanderthals, there was probably the whole range of hair colour we see today in modern European populations, from dark to blond right through to red," Dr Lalueza-Fox said. Itís impossible to determine the precise frequency of pallid, red-haired Neanderthals that once populated Europe. But the researchers estimate that at least 1% of the population would have carried two copies of this less-active gene, giving them roughly the same pigmentation seen in modern red-heads.
     Dr Clive Finlayson, director of the Gibraltar Museum, commented: "The study suggests there may be a propensity towards the reduction of melanin in populations away from the tropics. If the Neanderthal and modern variants are different, it may be a good example of parallel, or convergent evolution - a similar evolutionary response to the same situation."
     Though once thought to have been our ancestors, the Neanderthals are now considered by many to be an evolutionary dead end. They appear in the fossil record about 400,000 years ago and, at their peak, these squat, physically powerful hunters dominated a wide range spanning Britain and Iberia in the west, Israel in the south and Siberia in the east. Our own species, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa, and displaced the Neanderthals after entering Europe about 40,000 years ago. The last known evidence of Neanderthals comes from Gibraltar and is dated to between 28,000 and 24,000 years ago.
     
Sources: BBC News, Nature News, Science (25 October 2007), Channel Four (26 October 2007)

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