How Neanderthal genetic material could influence nose shapes to this day

Taller noses could've helped ancient humans survive the chilly climates of Europe.
The cast of a Neanderthal skull on display at the Chemnitz State Museum of Archaeology in Germany on January 24, 2023.
The cast of a Neanderthal skull on display at the Chemnitz State Museum of Archaeology in Germany on January 24, 2023. Hendrik Schmidt/picture alliance via Getty Images

Before being outbred by Homo sapiens, Neanderthals could have been many things: including the world’s first weavers, artists, and even crab chefs. Their contributions may even go deeper—even to modern day faces. Genetic material from this now extinct crew  influences the shape of human noses today, according to new research. 

In a study published May 8 in the journal Communications Biology, an international team of researchers found a particular gene that leads to a taller nose (top to bottom) might be the product of natural selection when sentient humans adapted to colder climates after leaving the African continent.

[Related: Humans and Neanderthals could have lived together even earlier than we thought.]

“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,” Kaustubh Adhikari, a co-author and statistical geneticist at University College London, said in a statement. “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.”

The research team used data from over 6,000 volunteers from Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Mexico, and Peru with mixed European, Native American, and African ancestry. They compared their genetic information to photographs of their faces, and examined the distances between points on the face, like the edge of the lips to the tips of the nose to see how different facial traits might be associated with different genetic markers.

Modern human and archaic Neanderthal skulls side by side, showing difference in nasal height
Modern human and archaic Neanderthal skulls side by side, showing difference in nasal height.
CREDIT: Dr. Kaustubh Adhikari, UCL.

“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,” Andres Ruiz-Linares, co-author and geneticist at University College London, said in a statement.

They found 33 new genome regions that are associated with face shape, and they could replicate 26 of them in comparisons with data from other ethnicities using participants in east Asia, Europe, or Africa.

[Related: Europeans looked down on Neanderthals—until they realized they shared their DNA.]

They looked at a genome region called ATF3, and found that many of those in the study with Native American ancestry had genetic material inherited from Neanderthals that contributes to nasal height. They compared that same genome region with those of east Asian ancestry from a different cohort and saw the same genetic material.  This gene region also has signs of natural selection, suggesting that it has an advantage for those carrying the genetic material.

“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,” Qing Li, a co-author and scientist at China’s Fudan University, said in a statement. “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.”

In 2021, this same team also found that genes influencing facial shapes were inherited from another extinct human species called the Denisovans. In that study, they found 32 gene regions that influence facial features like nose, lip, jaw, and brow shape.