No more blaming our parents for the shape of our noses. Researchers found humans have inherited genetic material from Neanderthals that alters how our nose is shaped. The team found that a particular gene, which leads to a longer nose, could have been the product of natural selection as ancient humans adapted to colder weather after leaving Africa.
Neanderthals lived across Europe, southwest, and central Asia from about 400,000 to 40,000 years ago. This means that they may have shared the same time and space with Homo sapiens, from whom they diverged genetically 500,000 years ago. There’s debate about their cause of extinction, but it’s possible competition with Homo sapiens played a role.
“Since the Neanderthal genome has been sequenced, we have been able to learn that our own ancestors apparently interbred with Neanderthals, leaving us with little bits of their DNA,” Kaustubh Adhikari, study author, said in a media statement. “Here, we find that some DNA inherited from Neanderthals influences the shape of our faces.”
The shape of our noses
Using data from more than 6,000 volunteers with mixed European, Native American, and African ancestry from Latin America, the researchers analyzed the connection between genetic markers and facial traits. They compared the participants’ genetic information to photographs of their faces, focusing on the distances between different points on the face.
The researchers identified 33 genome regions related to face shape, out of which 26 were successfully replicated when comparing against data from other ethnic groups in Asia, Europe, and Africa. In one of these genome regions, individuals with Native American and East Asian ancestry were found to have inherited genetic material from Neanderthals.
Scientists have long speculated that the shape of our noses is determined by natural selection. Our noses help regulate the temperature of the air we inhale, and different nose shapes may be better adapted to different climates. The gene recently identified by the team could have helped humans adapt to colder climates as they migrated out of Africa.
“Most genetic studies of human diversity have investigated the genes of Europeans; our study’s diverse sample of Latin American participants broadens the reach of genetic study findings, helping us to better understand the genetics of all humans,” Andres Ruiz-Linares, co-corresponding author of the study, said in a media statement.
This discovery marks the second instance of DNA from archaic humans, other than Homo sapiens, impacting the shape of our faces. The same group of researchers made a previous discovery in 2021 that a gene inherited from the Denisovans influences lip shape. Along with Neanderthals, Denisovans are recognized as one of the closest extinct relatives of modern humans.
The study was published in the journal Communication Biology.