Cave people have suffered from depression

Human - The Legacy of Neanderthals: Depression and Nicotine Addiction

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Sex between Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals - that was the science sensation of 2010. We now know that Neanderthal genes make up between one and four percent of the genome of people of Eurasian descent. This has far-reaching consequences.

Author: Madeleine Amberger

Some conditions have long-term consequences. 50,000 years ago, modern people from Africa pushed forward to Europe and Asia, where they promptly got involved with Neanderthals. In terms of evolutionary strategy, a clever move in itself, explains Tony Capra of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, USA. The prehistoric humans, always portrayed as coarse and clumsy, were perfectly adapted to the northern environment - from the climate to the pathogens. "I would put it this way: A night with a Neanderthal man is bearable if you have learned to adapt to the environment for thousands of years."

Neanderthal genes with health consequences

So far, it has been speculative whether Neanderthal genes were useful or harmful. The evolutionary geneticist Tony Capra and his team therefore approached the matter systematically for the first time with the help of a medical database. DNA data were also available from 28,000 anonymized patients. In people with Neanderthal genes, the researchers analyzed which diseases were associated with them. At the annual meeting of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) in Washington they presented their surprising results.

Neanderthal genes can have far-reaching health consequences. They affect the skin or the immune system, for example. "By far the biggest surprise for us was the connection between Neanderthal DNA and depression and nicotine addiction." Nobody expected that.

Melancholy cavemen?

It is of course unlikely that the Neanderthals sat gloomy in their caves. And if they smoked, it was certainly not tobacco. Because this is a plant originally native to South America, which only came to Europe with Christopher Columbus. "Even if the genes of the Neanderthals are associated with depression, people need not have suffered from it back then," explains Tony Capra. One has to consider one thing: just because something represents a risk factor for us, in our industrialized world, does not necessarily have to apply to the Neanderthals.

Among other things, the researcher identified Neanderthal genes that promote blood clotting, which is considered a risk factor for heart attacks. But if you live in an environment where you get injured a lot, fast wound closure protects the body from bacterial infection. But what advantage could a tendency towards depression have had 50,000 years ago? The evolutionary geneticist doesn't even want to speculate about that.

“So far, unfortunately, we have to say that the Neanderthal genes appear to do us more harm than good,” says Capra. He admits that doing so may do our ancestors injustice. Because it is relatively easy to identify genes in relation to diseases. But what about positive traits such as, for example, resilience to cold? A particular efficiency when running? Complex activities or characteristics are always related to many genes. It will probably never be known whether one or the other Neanderthal DNA piece is involved in a positive way.

Quiz: How much prehistoric man are you?

The topic on the radio:

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In the “Wissenschaftsmagazin” on Saturday, February 13th at 12:40 pm on SRF 2 Radio Kultur.

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  • Comment from Kobol Kasirang, lucerne
    It's all speculation. Some "scholars" do not even agree whether humans descend from apes. Are we animals at all? Furthermore, there is not simply a gene for depression. Which ancestor is responsible for the internet, cocaine and alcohol addiction? Overall a weak article.
    Agree agree to the comment
    1. answer from Andreas Knoblauch, gold roof
      Kobol does not know with which method science searches for truth and sometimes finds it. First a hypothesis is established and tested. Then other scientists pounce on that hypothesis and seek evidence that it is not true, and so on. Hypothesis and counter-hypothesis are then discussed at congresses until the best heads are red ...... at last there is a new, corrected, improved knowledge. Impressive, isn't it?
      Agree agree to the comment
    2. Show answers

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