Friday, October 26, 2007

Red-headed Neanderthals

A Melanocortin 1 Receptor Allele Suggests Varying Pigmentation Among Neanderthals. 2007. Carles Lalueza-Fox, et al. Science Express, Oct 25, 2007.

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From the press release:

Ancient DNA retrieved from the bones of two Neanderthals suggests that at least some of them had red hair and pale skin. The international team says that Neanderthals' pigmentation may even have been as varied as that of modern humans, and that at least 1 percent of Neanderthals were likely redheads.

The scientists extracted, amplified, and sequenced a pigmentation gene called MC1R from the bones of a 43,000-year-old Neanderthal from El Sidrón, Spain, and a 50,000-year-old individual from Monti Lessini, Italy.

"Together with other genes, this MC1R gene dictates hair and skin color in humans and other mammals," says Römpler. "The two Neanderthal individuals we studied showed a point mutation not seen in modern humans. When we induced such a mutation in human cells, we found that it impaired MC1R activity, a condition that leads to red hair and pale skin in modern humans."

With Neanderthals' surviving bones providing few clues, scientists have long sought to flesh out the appearance of this hominid species found across Eurasia some 28,000 to 400,000 years ago. While anthropologists had predicted that Neanderthals might have had pale skin or red hair, the new work by Römpler and colleagues offers the first strong evidence to support this hunch.