Do You Have the Personality of a Neanderthal?

Almost all of us have some Neanderthal in us. So what?

Posted Apr 26, 2015

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Model of an adult Neanderthal male in the Hall of Human Origins in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
Source: Wikimedia Commons by Tim Evanson (Flickr: http://goo.gl/9Dqwv5)

I just got back from Boston and the annual conference of NEEPS, the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society. Besides being climatically whipsawed by freezing rain the first day and gloriously warm sun the next two days, I saw presentations of some really cool research.

One of the most interesting presentations—heck, I’ll go as far as saying it was fascinating—was by Glenn Geher, a professor at SUNY New Paltz and fellow PT blogger (“Darwin's Subterranean World”). Glenn and his team are trying to identify some of the personality and psychological characteristics of Homo neanderthalensis, a.k.a. Neanderthals, our ancient cousins who first appeared about 250,000 years ago then went extinct about 40,000 years ago.

HOW?

How do smart researchers like Glenn figure out how people who died out 40,000 years ago acted and thought? Glad you asked, because I hope you’ll help him figure it out.

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Chemist reads a DNA profile. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons by James Tourtellotte (http://goo.gl/qv55fr)

The Neanderthal genome has been completely mapped, and analyses show that Neanderthal and modern human DNA differ by about 0.1% (compared to 1.2% for modern humans v. chimps, 10% v. cats, and 40% v. fruit flies). So DNA analysis companies like 23andMe and Mapmygenome can offer “Neanderthal DNA overlap reports,” which compare a client’s DNA to the Neanderthal genome to show what percentage of the client’s DNA is Neanderthal. Most people have from 1% to 4% Neanderthal DNA, with an average of 2.5%. If I heard correctly, though, one conference participant said she had 10% Neanderthal DNA.

HERE’S HOW YOU CAN HELP

If you’re willing to get or if you’ve gotten a percent Neanderthal overlap report and will share your result, Glenn (me, too!) asks you to complete a 45-minute survey being conducted by his Evolutionary Psychology Lab. From there, Glenn’s team will measure how variation in your and others’ levels of “Neanderthalness” varies on average with your and others’ levels of a variety of psychological and behavioral measures. This is a really smart idea. And with enough participants, the team will be able to start sketching a picture of how our ancient cousins thought.

NEANDERTHALS DID WHAT?

Although their sample is still small, some interesting tidbits are beginning to emerge from this research. Our more Neaderthal-like modern friends who have higher percent Neanderthal overlap:

  • Exhibit more introversion
  • Demonstrate less emotional stability
  • Receive less emotional support from others
  • Have a poorer relationship with their father
  • Report lower religiosity
  • Do not enjoy reading fiction

On the other hand, those who have a lower overlap:

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Skeleton and restoration model of Neanderthal in the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo, Japan.
Source: Wikimedia Commons by Photaro (http://goo.gl/TpgB46)

BEING A NEANDERTHAL AIN’T BAD

My wife also participated at the conference, and Glenn had not even finished his presentation before she announced to me that I must be high percent Neanderthal. While I have not received the results of my overlap test yet, I will remind her that I’m proud of any Neanderthal lineage that I share.

Contrary to popular myths, Neanderthals were not short, hairy, and stooped over—they looked a lot like modern humans but a few inches shorter and with more muscles and thicker bones. Neanderthals didn’t grunt and growl to communicate—they probably spoke much like we do today. Further, they actually had larger brains or “cranial capacities” (about 15%) than modern humans (how do you like them apples, honey?). They ate more than just meat—evidence suggests they also ate cooked vegetables and medicinal plants. They were artistic—archaeologists have found rock art and musical instruments attributed to Neanderthals. They were not savages—they cared for their sick, young, and elderly. And finally, important to know for loyal “Caveman Politics” readers, only some Neanderthals lived in caves—most lived in fairly complex teepee-like structures.

HELP!!

I hope you’ll help Glenn and his team construct an even more detailed profile of Neanderthals, so we can understand more about the psychology of our ancient cousins and, therefore, our own psychology.  

If you’ve had your personal genome mapped and have your “percent Neanderthal overlap” information, or are willing to do the testing needed to get the information (it looks like this type of testing starts around $99), I hope you’ll complete Glenn’s New Paltz Neanderthal Project survey. It’s a great idea and cool research.

Now, back to my teepee.

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For more information:

Glenn Geher. “Why are There More Homo Sapiens than Neandertals These Days?: Or the Good and the Bad of Ingroup/Outgroup Reasoning.” Darwin’s Subterranean World, February 8, 2015.  

Glenn Geher. Academic Minute podcast

In addition to writing the "Caveman Politics" blog for Psychology Today, Gregg is the Executive Director of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas Tech University. You can find more information on Gregg at GreggRMurray.com.

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