Uncharted Territory: How Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA Shapes Modern Humans


The remnants of our early human cousins, the Neanderthals and Denisovans, persist within us to this day. The mingling and procreation of these ancient clans with Homo sapiens did not result in their extinction; rather, it wove fragments of their existence into our genetic makeup. It’s an enthralling revelation of just how much our forebears shaped us as we are today.

With the advancing ability to decipher sections of ancient DNA, scientists are delving deeper into our genetic history. Traits transferred from our primordial ancestors have been determined to still subtly influence facets of our modern life – from fertility to immunity and our physiological response to diseases such as COVID-19.

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This exploration into our past has directed fresh light onto various human traits thus far considered mysteries. Researchers, in recent months, have discovered links between Neanderthal DNA and a severe hand disease, the structure of human noses among other traits. In an experiment, a gene shared by Neanderthals and Denisovans was incorporated into mice, resulting in enlarged head sizes and an extra rib.

As technology propels our understanding forward, we inch closer to answering the questions that have always loomed over us: Who are we? Where did we originate from? Each layer of discovery peels back to reveal one indisputable truth – we share far more with our extinct relatives than we ever envisaged.

Scientific advancements are allowing us to trace our genetic history accurately. Research suggests that while African populations contain negligible Neanderthal DNA, European and Asian descendants carry one to two per cent. The presence of Denisovan DNA is mostly negligible globally, but is found in remarkably larger proportions – four to six per cent – in the DNA of Melanesian individuals. It becomes evident that these comparatively small numbers carry a significant impact on our physical health and other indicators.

From enhancing our ancestors’ immunity to European and Asian diseases to contributing to modern affine diseases like Graves’ disease and arthritis, our predecessors’ genetic imprints have a dual effect. Similarly, a gene believed to originate from Eurasian Neanderthals that dictate blood clotting, helpful in Pleistocene turmoil proved risky in the contemporary world, increasing the risk of stroke in adults.

The thread of our genetic relationship with ancient relatives extends to many more traits like skin and hair colour, skull shape, certain behavioural patterns, and even diabetes. The research even suggests a correlation between individuals who report higher pain levels and the inherited Neanderthal pain receptor.

In spite of the accumulating evidence, large parts of our shared genetic legacy with ancient humans remain enigmatic. However, the murkiness does not dull the radiance of understanding, that quite contrary to the hitherto believed story of Homo sapiens triumphing over their ‘inferior’ cousins, we endured owing significantly to our ability to adapt to diverse climates and travel.

From hypothesising about the role of dogs in our survival to the lessons we learned about our genetic makeup, the puzzle of human evolution grows more nuanced. Against the setting of evolution as a brutal contest, the narrative of interaction and mixture appears more fitting.

With the exploration into our genetic legacy advancing at an unprecedented pace, scientists are sure to uncover even more evidence of how deeply we mixed with our ancient cousins. The lines of difference that once separated us appear to blur – perhaps we weren’t that different, after all.

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