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article imageSome Neanderthals were redheads, fair and with freckles

By Chris V. Thangham     Oct 25, 2007 in Environment
Studies of Neanderthals bones find that they may have had pale skin, with red hair similar to modern humans and some had freckles in their hair. They also speculate they may have had a spectrum of red hair, from auburn to red to strawberry blonde.
German and European scientists are using genetic and physical evidence founds in fossils of Neanderthals to see what characteristic they might have possessed when they roamed freely for more than 230,000 years in the regions belonging to current Europe and some parts of Asia. They analyzed bones from two Neanderthals and found genetic information that exhibits their hair and skin characteristics.
Michael Hofreiter of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, one of the researchers said they can’t say precisely about the fossil they were examining but could predict the general population from the gene pool found in the fossil. He said among the Neanderthal there must have been a part of them (1 percent) who were redheaded.
Holger Rompler of the University of Leipzig, Carles Lalueza-Fox of the University of Barcelona, Spain extracted the mc1r gene variant from bones from two different regions, one was 43,000 year old Neanderthal from El Sidron, Spain and a 50,000 year old specimen from Monti Lessini, Italy. It is a unique gene responsible for producing a protein that helps regulate the balance between the red and yellow pigment pheomelanin and the black and brown eumelanin.
Modern people with inactive mc1r receptors tend to have red hair and pale skin. There are also other pigmentation genes that contribute to hair and skin coloring.
A previous study by Rompler found a variant of the same gene in woolly mammoth bones, indicating they might have a light colored coat skin.
In the current study, the researchers tweaked a human mc1r gene so that it matched the variant found in Neanderthals. When they put the gene into modern human cells, it functioned in melatonin production as the modern variants do, suggesting some Neanderthals had fair skin and red hair.
The Neanderthals bones were found at high latitudes, the scientists say the UV radiation might have been minimal there, as a result they might have more fair skin. The fair skin when it has little protection from the sunny rays, the individual will absorb enough of UV radiation to produce Vitamin D in sufficient amounts according to Hofreiter.
Lighter skin is adaptive because vitamin D production depends on UV radiation,"
And since there is wide variation of redheads in humans, the researchers think Neanderthals could also have featured a spectrum of shades, from auburn to brilliant red to strawberry blonde.
The results are show in detail in the journal Science available for subscribers.
Earlier this month, other scientists reported genetic evidence that Neanderthals may have spoken similar to humans.
Neanderthals disappeared 20,000 years ago.
What will they find next? That they favor redheads over others just like humans.
More about Neanderthals, Gene, Redheads
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