If you are of European or of Asian ancestry, there is a big chance that your human ancestors from around 50,000-80,000 years ago exchanged genetic material (read: had sex) with neanderthals somewhere in the middle east, before migrating out to rest of Europe or westward to China and other parts of Asia. Results of sequencing of fragments of neanderthal genome found in fossilized material compared with those of modern humans from different population groups suggest that Eurasians carry around 2.5% of the Neanderthal genome.
These are what I learned last week in a seminar by Svante Pääbo, the scientist at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology who led the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome a year ago. Not only was the talk very eloquently delivered, it was also injected with humour not so common in scientific meetings.
Svante Pääbo quipped, “We screwed a lot of Neanderthal bones!” while showing a slide of some fossilized bones full of holes; from many attempts of grinding bones to extract sufficient amount of DNA for sequencing.
Another funny moment was when he showed this figure, about the number of people calling the institute claiming that they are neanderthals, or they are married to a neanderthal. The breakdown of the phone calls were shown as bar graphs:
What would be interesting to know is whether those men who are claiming to be neanderthals are the same men who were reported by their wives as neanderthals. For I’m pretty sure that men who voluntarily reported themselves as neanderthals are somewhat proud of their ancestry, while those reported by their wives are probably not so flattered by this label.
Anyway, jokes aside, for me it does not matter what kind of genes we have in us. What matters most is whether we as human beings are fulfilling the potential of our genetic make-up for the benefit of human kind. Once again, I’d like to quote Leo Tolstoy who once wrote, “To serve humanity alone is the sole purpose of life.”