“The Neanderthals’ extinction has been, according to modern biological anthropologists, greatly exaggerated.” (Geher et al., 2017)
While my students and I, who comprise the New Paltz Evolutionary Psychology Lab, have many projects that we get excited about, few across my career have been as exciting as the New Paltz Neanderthal Project. I’m pleased to say that the results of this project have just been published in Human Ethology Bulletin.
This study emerged when we had a visit from world-renowned biological anthropologist Todd Disotell, who spoke in our campus-wide Evolutionary Studies Seminar Series. Todd talked about his research, which documented the fact that ancient Ancestrally Modern Humans (Homo Sapiens) had, at multiple locations and times, “hybridized” with ancient Neanderthals. This fact is betrayed by patterns found in modern genomic analyses (see Hodgson, 2010).
What’s more, based on the comparison of one’s particular genome with an estimate of the Neanderthal genome based on a conglomeration of DNA found in three different ancestral specimens, we can approximate the percentage of one’s DNA that overlaps with the genome of our ancient cousins.
The Neanderthal Quotient (NQ)
Some personal genome companies, such as 23AndMe, actually provide an index of how much overlap one has with the DNA of the Neanderthals. The average found in the population of those who have had their genomes mapped, according to research cited by 23AndMe, is about 2.5 percent. And this variable tends to be normally distributed — so a good proportion of individuals are near the mean, and scores that are very much above or below the mean are rare. So pretty much everyone in the world can be assessed in terms of his or her NQ (Neanderthal Quotient).
Reconstructing the Personality of the Ancient Neanderthals
My students and I, inspired by Todd’s presentation and an “aha” moment by my colleague Alice Andrews, designed a study to explore the personality correlates associated with NQ. In short, this study was designed to see if there were some personality dimensions that tended to be associated with very high versus very low NQ scores.
Based on past anthropological work on the nature of Neanderthals (e.g., Wynn & Coolidge, 2004), we have some sense of how they behaved. We know that they lived in relatively small groups compared to the groups of Ancestrally Modern Humans (AMHs). We know that they lived mostly with kin and interacted little with non-kin or strangers. We have reason to believe, based on their tools, that they were not as creative as AMHs. And it seems like they fought with one another a lot, suggesting a generally aggressive and unstable manner.
Putting it all together, we predicted that it would be difficult to be a Neanderthal in this day and age. Specifically, we predicted that those high in NQ would score as having certain problems in social interactions, and that they might be anxious and depressed. In our study, about 200 participants, including adults from around the world who had had their genomes mapped, reported their NQ and then completed a battery of psychological surveys for us to test these predictions.
Importantly, this study truly is the first of its kind, and we hardly claim that the methodology is perfect. Our results should be considered a bit preliminary. This said, here are some of the highlights of what we found.
People who scored high in NQ were found to be significantly high on the dimensions of:
We also found NQ to be negatively related to an index of imaginativeness. Significantly so. (See Table 4 from our paper, below.)
Why are you the way you are? If you are a student of psychology, then you learn all about multi-factorial causation. You learn that our behavioral patterns are the result of a complex interaction of factors — genes, early environments, localized norms, broader cultural norms, physiological mechanisms, and more. The research here suggests a newcomer to the field. Based on our work, we think it’s fair to say that one factor that underlies our behaviors may be our NQ. Your DNA overlap with the ancient Neanderthals may unconsciously, but importantly, play a role in determining how you act on a daily basis.
We hope that the methods included in this study, which combine biological anthropology, personality psychology, evolutionary psychology, and genomics, will open the door to new fields of study to shed light on what it means to be human.
Welcome the new evolutionary personality psychology!
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Geher, G., Holler, R., Chapleau, D., Fell, J., Gangemi, B., Gleason, M., Rolon, V., Shimkus, A., & Tauber, B. (2017). Using Personal Genome Technology and Psychometrics to Study the Personality of the Neanderthals. Human Ethology Bulletin, 3, 34-46.
Hodgson, J. A., Bergey, C. M, & Disotell, T. R. (2010). Neanderthal genome: The ins and outs of
African genetic diversity. Current Biology, 20, 517-519.
Wynn, T., & Coolidge, F. L. (2004). The expert Neanderthal mind. Journal of Human Evolution,