Hugh Thomson

How Neanderthal are you?

Alamy

My brother recently decided to get a DNA test. He discovered that our family were all descended from a mix of the usual British suspects — a bit of Viking, Anglo-Saxon and Celt — and were predisposed to standard diseases and health risks. But there was one surprise. My siblings and I had double the normal amount of Neanderthal in our genes.

Reactions were mixed. My girlfriend declared she had suspected something of the sort for some time. My mother announced that it must come from my father’s side of the family. And it took us a while to digest.

It’s now well established that all humans have a small quantity of Neanderthal genes: the result of contact that occurred largely in the Middle East and Europe when Homo sapiens arrived more than 40,000 years ago to find Neanderthals already there. And seeing as that’s a fair while, there must been a great deal of what scientists genteelly call ‘interbreeding’ for even some evidence of it to survive today. The amount my siblings and I had, though, was way, way above average. It was impossible to ignore.

But then came help. I stumbled on an attractive scholarly thesis which proposed that the Neanderthal element within Homo sapiens was the part that added interest —that was, so to speak, the little spike of mustard in the mix. It can give a creative spark and has allowed us as a species to think outside the box. According to this thesis, the Neanderthal is the Mac component, with the design flair, while standard Homo sapiens is the boring old PC. Neanderthals were wilder, improvisational, free — and, the palaeontologists have shown, had bigger brains. The more Neanderthal you have within you, the more likely you are to break loose.

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