What would a modern Neanderthal look like?
Human Longevity Inc. founded by J. Craig Venter recently published an article in PNAS titled: “Identification of individuals by trait prediction using whole-genome sequencing data”. This manuscript asserts the California genetics company could use DNA samples to identify over 80% of individuals in an ethnically mixed cohort, from their physical appearance. To some degree, their models could predict 3D facial structure, voice, biological age, height, weight, BMI, eye color, and skin color. This suggests that your DNA can be used to render a fairly accurate 3D model of your face.
What does this have to do with Neanderthals? Succinctly: we don’t know what Neanderthals looked like, and prevailing artistic portrayals of Neanderthal are probably way off. And that matters!
Here I’ve taken a screenshot of the top Google image search results for “Neanderthal”. As you can see there is little consensus, aside from having a beard. But this article got me wondering… if we are able to use DNA to reconstruct photorealistic human faces, perhaps Neanderthal DNA could be used to reconstruct a photorealistic Neanderthal face. Neanderthals and modern humans are extremely similar genetically, with a 99.7% DNA overlap. That’s merely a 0.3% genetic difference — 4x closer than chimps, our closest living relative. Given that Human Longevity tech can identify subtle differences between human faces, surely it could generate a crudely prototypical Neanderthal face. Even a low quality guess would probably be much better than our current (artistic) take on what Neanderthals looked like.
What is there to gain, scientifically, from a high precision physical model of Neanderthal? I’m not sure, but probably not much. However maybe it would add something to the discussion about why humans and Neanderthals suddenly ceased to coexist (the emergence of anatomically modern humans happened some 200,000 years ago, but Neanderthals went extinct only about 40,000 years ago).
For example, what if it turns out Neanderthals were incredibly sexy?
What if Homo sapien women saw Neanderthals as big dumb hunks. How would a group of Homo sapien men react if they found out human woman were straying into the Neanderthal colony? Probably not good. Probably they would murder their entire species.