Neanderthals, woolly mammoths shared genetic material, say TAU researchers

They both adapted to the cold and research indicates a molecular resemblance in mammoths and Neanderthals, according to a new paper from Tel Aviv University experts.

April 8, 2019 11:45
1 minute read.

Skeleton of a mammoth, in the George C. Page Museum, Los Angeles, California. (photo credit: WOLFMANSF / WIKI COMMONS)


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A new research study by Tel Aviv University seems to show a genetic connection between Neanderthals and woolly mammoths.

“It is now possible to try to answer a question no one has asked before: Are there genetic similarities between evolutionary adaptation paths in Neanderthals and mammoths?” asked Prof. Ran Barkai of TAU’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures.
Barkai, together with Meidad Kislev, published the report, titled "Neanderthal and Woolly Mammoth Molecular Resemblance: Genetic Similarities May Underlie Cold Adaptation Suite" in the Human Biology journal. “The answer seems to be yes. This idea alone opens endless avenues for new research in evolution, archaeology and other disciplines," Barkai said. 

“They say you are what you eat. This was especially true of Neanderthals; they ate mammoths but were apparently also genetically similar to mammoths," he explained. "Neanderthals and mammoths lived together in Europe during the Ice Age. The evidence suggests that Neanderthals hunted and ate mammoths for tens of thousands of years and were actually physically dependent on calories extracted from mammoths for their successful adaptation,” noted Barkai. “Neanderthals depended on mammoths for their very existence."

The archaeologists reviewed three case studies of relevant gene variants to ascertain the connection between Neanderthal and mammoth genetic components. They found evidence of the same material that allows mammoths to survive in cold climate to exist in the genes of Neanderthals. 

"The first case study outlined the mutual appearance of the LEPR gene, related to thermogenesis and the regulation of adipose tissue and fat storage throughout the body," TAU's Department of Archaeology reported. "The second case study engaged genes related to keratin protein activity in both species. The third case study focused on skin and hair pigmentation variants in the genes MC1R and SLC7A11."

Mammoths and Neanderthals "coexisted in similar geographic and environmental European settings during the Middle and Upper Pleistocene," according to a synopsis of the paper. "Both were direct descendants of African ancestors, although both fully evolved and adapted in Europe during the Middle Pleistocene."

The woolly elephant-like species has long been extinct and Barkai fears that modern species of elephants could follow. “At a time when proboscideans are under threat of disappearance from the world due to the ugly human greed for ivory, highlighting our shared history and similarities with elephants and mammoths might be a point worth taking into consideration," he said.

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