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See Inside Scientific American Volume 308, Issue 5

Finding My Inner Neandertal

Consumer genetic-testing companies report how much of one's DNA comes from archaic human species, but what do the results really mean?

But on to the Neandertal business, because that’s what got me interested in these tests in the first place. Well, I’m pleased to report that both tests determined that I do, in fact, have Neandertal DNA. But interestingly, the tests differed rather significantly on how much I have. According to the Genographic Project, I’m 2.1 percent Neandertal (average for non-Africans, their site informed me). In contrast 23andMe found 2.9 percent Neandertal content. So what gives? Why the different results? As I pondered the results, other questions came to mind. Is there any way of knowing which stretches of one’s DNA have Neandertal origins? Will scientists eventually be able to tie one’s Neandertal DNA to observable traits? Might it be possible some day to pinpoint when and where my H. sapiens ancestors mated with Neandertals?

Genographic also found that I am 1.4 percent Denisovan, but they note on their site that they are still refining their approach to assessing Denisovan contributions. Frankly, I think it’s amazing that they assess this at all, given that the mysterious Denisovans were only discovered in 2010. I wonder how good they think their estimate is, and how it can be improved in the future. And I’d love to know how data from these personal genetic testing services are driving bigger research questions about the rise of modern humans (Hammer’s article includes a cool example of this.)

I’ll be reaching out to both 23andMe and the Genographic Project with these and other questions about their ancestry tests. Have you had your DNA tested for insights into your deep ancestry? Do you have general questions about how these tests work or what the results mean? Let me know in the comments below and I may pose them to the experts along with my own queries.

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