Reflecting on the Nobel prize for Svante Pääbo for his revolutionary work on Neanderthal genomics (which I've been covering for nearly 20 years), it struck me that there is now a lot more Neanderthal DNA walking around than there ever was when being a Neanderthal was still a thing. Back of the envelope calculation: if we have 2% Neanderthal genes on average in 5 billion non-African people, that gets you easily to the equivalent of 100 million Neanderthals alive today. Before they became extinct, there never were as many as 100,000 of them alive at the same time, so we're talking a 1,000-fold rise. If you have to become extinct, that's not the worst way to go.
Those Neanderthal genes are still around for reasons, as they were beneficial to our sapiens ancestors, and science is now beginning to understand in which ways our Neanderthal heritage shapes our physiology, which of course has implications for medicine. Which explains why Pääbo got the prize for physiology or medicine even though his patients have been dead for 30k years.
Moreover, Neanderthals are also coming back to life in the sense that paleogenomic studies are now revealing details of family relations, diet etc.
All of which was a welcome excuse to write another feature on Neanderthals (I even have a tag for them), which is out now:
Neanderthals come to life
Current Biology Volume 32, Issue 22, 21. November 2022, Pages R1245-R1247
NB: as the 2022 features move into the open archives, I will add them to this thread on Mastodon.
Around 100 non-African humans: that's two Neanderthals right there. (Photo: Ryoji Iwata/Unsplash.)