A new study conducted by Tel Aviv University proposes that Neanderthals and woolly mammoths shared the same climate adaptation traits. The elephant-like animals from around 600,000 years ago and the early humans from approximately 400,000 years ago seem to have the same molecular characteristics that helped them adapt to cold environments.
The relationship between the ancient Neanderthals and woolly mammoths from the Pleistocene epoch is that they shared the same living environments in Europe during the Ice Age. Ran Barkai and Meidad Kislev from TAU’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures led the study.
“Neanderthals and mammoths lived together in Europe during the Ice Age. The evidence suggests that Neanderthals hunted and ate mammoths for tens of thousands of years and were actually physically dependent on calories extracted from mammoths for their successful adaptation,” explained Barkai, adding, “Neanderthals depended on mammoths for their very existence. They say you are what you eat. This was especially true of Neanderthals; they ate mammoths but were apparently also genetically similar to mammoths.”
In order to determine just how genetically similar they were, archaeologists studied three case studies of gene variants and alleles that are connected to the adaptation of cold climates and that were found in the genomes of both Neanderthals and woolly mammoths.
The first case study showed that they had the same appearance of the LEPR gene which is connected to thermogenesis as well as the fat storage and adipose tissue regulation in their bodies. Keratin protein genes in the species were examined in the second case study, while their skin and hair pigmentations in the MC1R and SLC7A11 genes were studied in the third case.
Kislev explained the studies, “Our observations present the likelihood of resemblance between numerous molecular variants that resulted in similar cold-adapted epigenetic traits of two species, both of which evolved in Eurasia from an African ancestor.” He went on to say, “These remarkable findings offer supporting evidence for the contention regarding the nature of convergent evolution through molecular resemblance, in which similarities in genetic variants between adapted species are present.”
The research also suggested that both species more than likely came from ancestors who left Africa to go to Europe and had to adapt to the frigid cold temperatures during the Ice Age. They also became extinct around the same time period.
Barkai offered a new theory about the connection between the two species, “Are there genetic similarities between evolutionary adaptation paths in Neanderthals and mammoths? The answer seems to be yes. This idea alone opens endless avenues for new research in evolution, archaeology and other disciplines.” He then added, “At a time when proboscideans are under threat of disappearance from the world due to the ugly human greed for ivory, highlighting our shared history and similarities with elephants and mammoths might be a point worth taking into consideration.”