UW–Madison anthropologist, students featured in NOVA Neandertal documentary

Jan. 8, 2013

by Jill Sakai

Perched on a corner of a table in his biological anthropology lab, John Hawks is surrounded by an array of human skulls, jaws and skeletons – and a film crew complete with lights, camera and a microphone dangling over his head.

Photo: John Hawks

Hawks

Last spring a crew for the public television series NOVA visited Hawks, a University of Wisconsin–Madison anthropology professor, and some of his students to talk Neandertals and find out what modern genetics can tell us about these ancient human cousins – and about ourselves.

The resulting documentary will air Wednesday, Jan. 9, at 8 p.m. central on Wisconsin Public Television.

“Neandertals have the mother of all image problems,” Hawks says in the trailer for the show. “They’re brooding, they’re stupid-looking, they have no personality.”

But ongoing research is painting a very different picture, suggesting that Neandertals and their society were more advanced – and possibly more like us – than they are often portrayed in popular culture, Hawks says. Markings on teeth suggest that about 80 percent were right-handed, similar to modern human populations, and evidence from archaeology, genetics and morphology all indicate that Neandertals could speak and likely had developed language.

Genetic evidence also shows that modern humans interbred with Neandertals after leaving Africa more than 60,000 years ago, and that their legacy lives on in each of us. For the most part, Neandertal genes still exist, Hawks says. They are rare but present to some extent in most people, comprising about two to three percent of our DNA on average – approximately the same amount as from one great-great-great-grandparent.

Six undergraduates from Hawks’ Introduction to Biological Anthropology class helped test these findings for the NOVA documentary. The six, who represent a range of ethnicities and ancestries, submitted DNA samples for sequencing and analysis of their Neandertal roots. Their Neandertal percentages were revealed on camera as Hawks and the students made predictions and discussed what the test results might mean.

“The testing can tell you about your ancestry which I thought would be interesting because I don't know exactly where my ancestors are from,” says sophomore Arielle Martin. “I knew that they were from somewhere in west Africa, which the test confirmed, but I also have some European ancestry which I thought was a cool thing to find out.”

Though the students’ ethnic backgrounds span the globe, Hawks points out that their reported percentages are remarkably similar. In fact, the extent of Neandertal ancestry varies much less around the world than one might expect, with somewhat more among people of European and Asian descent and less among those with primarily African roots.

“We're much less biologically diverse than we think we are… It's so interesting how much we can tell about human history from individual biological details,” says Brittany Estrada, a senior.

The results also play into Hawks’ current research to learn which Neandertal genes are most prevalent, why, and what they’re doing in modern humans. To date he has found interesting clues in genes involved in immunity and metabolism.

Even with the incredible advances in genetic techniques, Hawks says scientists are still learning how to use the information those techniques provide. “You can look at a skull and interpret something about it,” he says. “With genes you can’t do that – yet.”