Neanderthal man was a redhead, say scientists
By DAVID DERBYSHIRE
Last updated at 01:18 26 October 2007
Their manes of black hair and dark, thick-set features are the stuff of legend.
But some Neanderthals actually sported fiery red locks and pale skin, a study suggests.
Tests on the bones of the cavemen - who lived alongside our ancestors 30,000 years ago - show they carried the same genetic trait that makes Prince Harry, Mick Hucknall and Geri Halliwell redheads.
Neanderthals first moved to Europe from Africa around 350,000 years ago and settled across the continent.
Fossil experts have long suspected that they adapted to life in Europe by becoming paler.
A team of European researchers analysed DNA samples taken from the bones of two cavemen in Spain and Italy.
They focused on the MC1R gene which helps skin make the "sunscreen" pigment melanin.
In sunny climates, this gene protects the skin from burning.
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But in colder parts of the world, there is no advantage in having darker skin. In fact, being fair-skinned helps the body produce more vitamin D.
The tests revealed the Neanderthals had a variant of MC1R which cuts melanin production.
Researcher Dr Michael Hofreiter, from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, said: "If you have a variant with this low action in modern humans, you get classically Irish-looking red hair and pale skin."
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He believes at least one in 100 Neanderthals would have had two copies of this 'ginger gene' - similar to the proportion of redheads in modern Europe.
Despite their brutish reputation, Neanderthals did not behave very differently to us.
They used stone tools and weapons, built homes, made clothes from furs and leather and wore jewellery.
The Neanderthals went extinct around 25,000 years ago, soon after humans arrived in Europe from Africa.
Whether the two species interbred is still a matter of hot debate and no one knows why the Neanderthals died out.
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