How our Neanderthal ancestors shaped our noses: New study reveals genetic inheritance

Research into evolutionary history sees some similarities in our ancestors, the Neanderthals' facial structure.
Abdul-Rahman Oladimeji Bello
Modern human and archaic Neanderthal skulls side by side, showing difference in nasal height.
Modern human and archaic Neanderthal skulls side by side, showing difference in nasal height.

University College London  

Have you ever wondered why your nose looks the way it does? Well, it turns out that your Neanderthal ancestors may partly determine the shape of your nose. Evolution continues to teach us new things about our past.

A new study led by researchers from University College London (UCL) found that a gene inherited from Neanderthals affects the shape of our noses. Specifically, the gene leads to a taller nose (from top to bottom), which may have been the product of natural selection as ancient humans adapted to colder climates after leaving Africa. 

"In the last 15 years, 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," said co-corresponding author Dr. Kaustubh Adhikari from UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment, and The Open University. 

He further said, "Here, we find that some DNA inherited from Neanderthals influences the shape of our faces. This could have been helpful to our ancestors, as it has been passed down for thousands of generations."

How was the study conducted?

The study used data from more than 6,000 volunteers across Latin America. They had mixed European, Native American, and African ancestry. The researchers compared genetic information from the participants to photographs of their faces—specifically looking at distances between specific points on their faces, such as the tip of the nose or the edge of the lips—to see how different facial traits were associated with the presence of different genetic markers.

The researchers newly identified 33 genome regions associated with face shape. They were able to replicate 26 in comparison with data from other ethnicities using participants in East Asia, Europe, or Africa.

How our Neanderthal ancestors shaped our noses: New study reveals genetic inheritance

In one genome region in particular, called ATF3, the researchers found that many people in their study with Native American ancestry had genetic material in this gene that was inherited from the Neanderthals. This contributed to increased nasal height. They also found that this gene region has signs of natural selection, suggesting that it conferred an advantage for those carrying the genetic material.

"It has long been speculated that the shape of our noses is determined by natural selection; as our noses can help us to regulate the temperature and humidity of the air we breathe in, different shaped noses may be better suited to different climates that our ancestors lived in. The gene we have identified here may have been inherited from Neanderthals to help humans adapt to colder climates as our ancestors moved out of Africa," said first author Dr. Qing Li from Fudan University.

Co-corresponding author Professor Andres Ruiz-Linares from Fudan University, UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment, and Aix-Marseille University added, "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."

Also, this is not the first time that DNA from archaic humans has been found to affect our face shape. The same team discovered in a 2021 paper that a gene influencing lip shape was inherited from the ancient Denisovans.

So next time you look in the mirror, take a moment to thank your Neanderthal and Denisovan ancestors for contributing to the unique shape of your nose and lips. And who knows, maybe there are other genetic traits we have inherited from our archaic human relatives that we have yet to discover.

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