The Loneliest Neanderthal

Neanderthals are in the news again! This is good for me personally, as my company is selling Neanderthal trait analysis. Ooga-booga!

In any case, the two papers which have triggered the current wave of Neandermania are The Contribution of Neanderthals to Phenotypic Variation in Modern Humans, and A high-coverage Neandertal genome from Vindija Cave in Croatia. They are somewhat different. The first publication looks at introgressed archaic variants within modern populations. The second gets some results out of a much higher quality European Neanderthal which lived ~50,000 years ago.

The cool thing about the first paper is that it combined UK Biobank data, 100,000+ individuals, with hundreds of thousands of markers, and Neanderthal genomic data. Note that: a paper comparing ancient genomes with over 100,000 individuals and hundreds of thousands of markers. Now that’s 2017!

To find archaic alleles they:

  1. Looked for variants fixed in Yoruba (no Neanderthal), and homozygote or heterozygote in the alternative state in the Altai Neanderthal, which also segregated (varied) in the UK Biobank population. Basically, an allele not found in Africans but found in Neanderthals, and also found in appreciable fractions in the UK Biobank data set.
  2. They then took the SNPs above, and only retained ones confidently embedded in tracts of Neanderthal ancestry. Haplotype was consistent with admixture ~50,000 years ago (the length), and exhibited lower distance to Neanderthal than African genomes.

They did some stuff with tag-SNPs though. Overall they found a lot of the usual suspects. Pigmentation. Chronotype. But this passage jumped out at me:

In fact, for most associations, Neanderthal variants do not seem to contribute more than non-archaic variants. However, there are four phenotypes, all behavioral, to which Neanderthal alleles contribute more phenotypic variation than non-archaic alleles: chronotype, loneliness or isolation, frequency of unenthusiasm or disinterest in the last 2 weeks, and smoking status.

What they are saying is that for a lot of traits Neanderthals don’t really change the direction of the trait in humans, they just add more variants. This seems to be the case in pigmentation. Entirely unsurprising, Neanderthals were around for hundreds of thousands of years. Of course they had a lot of variation amongst themselves.

But the behavioral traits above shifted the modern humans in the aggregate who had the archaic allele somewhat. That is, being Neanderthal derived made a difference.

There have long been speculations about the sociality (or lack thereof) of Neanderthals. It would not be surprising if small population sizes meant that Neanderthals were less gregarious than modern humans, and that their lack of gregariousness did not redound to their benefit when they encountered the last wave of moderns.

Which brings us to the second paper. The big deal here is that it gives us a very high quality ancient genome of a European Neanderthal that lived ~50,000 years ago (the Vindija sample). Before this we had a high quality ancient genome of an Asian Neanderthal that lived ~125,000 years ago (Altai sample).  ~75,000 years is a long time. It’s so long that almost all the ancestry of modern non-Africans would have converged to a common population that long ago. Additionally, all the available data indicate that most of the admixture into modern humans from Neanderthals occurred around 50,000 years ago. So this new sample is definitely welcome.

It is not surprising that the Vindijia sample seems to be closer to the Neanderthal admixture population than the Altai sample. First, it is likely geographically closer, since all non-African populations have some Neanderthal ancestry West Asia is probably the top candidate, and southeastern Europe is not that far from West Asia in comparison to Mongolia. Second, it is basically contemporaneous with the Neanderthals who contributed ancestry to modern humans who left Africa. This means that the Neanderthal admixture percentage in non-Africans goes up moderately.

To me this is the most important paragraph:

It has been suggested that Denisovans received gene flow from a human lineage that diverged prior to the common ancestor of modern humans, Neandertals and Denisovans (2). In addition, it has been suggested that the ancestors of the Altai Neandertal received gene flow from early modern humans that may not have affected the ancestors of European Neandertals (13). In agreement with these studies, we find that the Denisovan genome carries fewer derived alleles that are fixed in Africans, and thus tend to be older, than the Altai Neandertal genome while the Altai genome carries more derived alleles that are of lower frequency in Africa, and thus younger, than the Denisovan genome (20). However, the Vindija and Altai genomes do not differ significantly in the sharing of derived alleles with Africans indicating that they may not differ with respect to their putative interactions with early modern humans (Fig. 3A & B). Thus, in contrast to earlier analyses of chromosome 21 data for the European Neandertals (13), analyses of the full genomes suggest that the putative early modern human gene flow into Neandertals occurred prior to the divergence of the populations ancestral to the Vindija and Altai Neandertals ~130-145 thousand years ago (Fig. 2). Coalescent simulations show that a model with only gene flow from a deeply diverged hominin into Denisovan ancestors explains the data better than one with only gene flow from early modern humans into Neandertal ancestors, but that a model involving both gene flows explains the data even better. It is likely that gene flow occurred between many or even most hominin groups in the late Pleistocene and that more such events will be detected as more ancient genomes of high quality become available.

These results seem to support earlier work indicate that Denisovans were admixed with an ancient hominin group which diverged very early on (probably the descendents of East Asia erectus?). And, that Neanderthals received gene flow from a lineage of modern (African?) humans 150,000 or more years ago. Since the latest work suggests that modern humans in some form have existed between from 200,000 to 350,000 years ago, this is entirely plausible.

But, it brings us the take-home message that the emergence of Pleistocene humanity was to a some extent characterized by reticulate gene flow, rather than a bifurcating tree.