Paying A Heavy Price For Loving The Neanderthals

Male and female Neanderthals in the Neanderthal Museum, Mettmann, Germany (montage: background rock from original different location). Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Danielle Andrew 19 Oct 2016, 17:14

Genetic studies of body lice suggest that one of the two species that infects us today evolved more than a million years ago, in association with another human-like species.

What’s the implication here? Yet again, we probably got body lice because our ancestors engaged in the pants-off dance off with an evolutionary cousin.

Now a new study has found that a particular human papillomavirus (HPV16), one of the most common sexually transmitted infections with 14 million new cases each year in the US alone, was also inherited from the Neanderthals.

The amazing diversity of HPV16 variants across Asia and Europe - compared with low diversity in Africa - has long puzzled researchers.

You’d expect the opposite situation because we evolved in Africa and presumably carried HPV16 out with us when we left there 100,000 years ago or more.

This new study solves the mystery by showing that modern humans brought only a small subset of HPV16 variants out of Africa, picking up most of the other strains after they (ah, we) bonked the Neanderthals.

Technically, this is known as a host-shift, where sexual contact with archaic populations led to the transmission of new variants of HPV16 to us.

With time, even more diversity was generated as modern humans spread across the rest of the Old and New Worlds.

High risk human papillomaviruses are a serious global health issue. They’re associated with around 5 percent of all cancers worldwide.

The choice our ancestors made to interbreed with the Neanderthals, Deniosvans and probably numerous other archaic cousins have left us with profound legacies that we’re only beginning to learn about.

What else might they have done that had profound consequences for us today?

Makes me wonder just how the decisions we make today - the changes we’re wreaking on the planet - will shape the evolution of Homo sapiens in 1,000, or even 10,000, years from now? One thing’s for certain, they will.


Darren Curnoe, Director of the Palaeontology, Geobiology and Earth Archives Research Centre (PANGEA), UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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