The influence of Neanderthals is evident right in the center of the faces of modern humans.

New research finds that genetic material inherited from Neanderthals affects nose shape. A particular gene made the nose taller from top to bottom.

This may have been necessary as ancient humans adapted to colder climates.

“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. He is from the University College London (UCL) Genetics, Evolution & Environment and The Open University, in England.

“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,” Adhikari said in a UCL news release.

For the study, the researchers worked with data from more than 6,000 volunteers across Latin America of mixed European, Native American and African ancestry. Those participants are part of the UCL-led CANDELA study, which recruited from Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Mexico and Peru.

To study how different facial traits were associated with the presence of different genetic markers, the scientists compared genetic information from the participants to photographs of their faces. They looked at distances between points on their faces.

This led to identifying 33 genome regions associated with face shape. They were able to replicate 26 of these in comparisons with data from other ethnicities using participants in east Asia, Europe or Africa.

In a genome region 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, which contributed to increased nasal height. This was also seen in people with east Asian ancestry from another cohort.

“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,” explained first author Dr. Qing Li, of Fudan University in Shanghai.

This is the second study finding DNA from archaic humans other than Homo sapiens that affects face shape. In 2021, this team found evidence of a gene influencing lip shape inherited from the Denisovans.

“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,” said co-corresponding author Andres Ruiz-Linares, of UCL Genetics Institute in London, and Aix-Marseille University, in France.

The latest findings were published online May 8 in the journal Communications Biology.

More information

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has more on ancient DNA and Neanderthals.

SOURCE: University College London, news release, May 8, 2023