Neanderthals weren't as tough as they looked

Neanderthals weren’t as tough as they seemed: Ancient species had a LOWER pain threshold than most modern-day humans – and the one in 250 people who carry their genes today are still more sensitive, study shows

  • Genetic analysis found almost all Neanderthals had a specific gene mutation
  • This mutation is also found in around one out of 250 modern-day humans
  • These people have a pain threshold 7% lower than people without the mutation 
  • Scientists say Neanderthals likely had a lower pain threshold than Homo sapiens 

Neanderthals went extinct around 40,000 years ago but have a reputation as being hulking, brutish beings who were tough and fearless. 

But a new study has found this belief to be at least partly incorrect, as Neanderthals likely had a pain threshold lower than the majority of modern-day humans. 

Genetic analysis found almost all Neanderthals had a gene which made them more sensitive to pain.

Prehistoric trysts between humans and Neanderthals saw this variant passed into our gene pool and today one in 250 people possess this painful mutation. 

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Neanderthals went extinct around 40,000 years ago but have a reputation as being hulking, brutish beings who were tough and fearless. But a study has found they likely had a pain threshold lower than modern humans (file)

The mutated gene affects a ‘gatekeeper’ protein, known as an ion channel, that initiates pangs, twinges and throbs and amplifies feelings of pain by seven per cent.

Lead author Hugo Zeberg, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and Karolinska Institutet, says: ‘The biggest factor for how much pain people report is their age.

‘Carrying the Neanderthal variant of the ion channel makes you experience more pain similar to if you were eight years older.’

People who have the Neanderthal version of the gene inherit an ion channel which is different to the normal version by three amino acids. 

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and integral in how the human body grows and operates.  

Around one in 100 women carry a gene that raises their pain threshold and allows them to give birth without any anaesthetic, a study has revealed. 

The rare gene variant, called KCNG4, is believed to inhibit how pain is processed by the nervous system and acts as a ‘natural epidural’. 

Researchers from the University of Cambridge found that it was present in women who had carried their first-born child to full term and did not request any pain relief during an uncomplicated vaginal delivery. 

It remains unknown whether some men also have the pain-resistant genetic variant, as the study only looked at women during the severe stress from childbirth.   

A single amino acid difference in this gene would not alter how it works, but three is enough to cause heightened pain sensitivity. 

The three amino acids were enough to change the shape and function of the key pain-controlling pathway and made it more easily triggered by stimuli.   

This then propagates through the nervous system and causes a cascade in a host of neurons, telling the body something is wrong.  

Pain threshold appears to be heavily influenced by genetics. 

A recent study on women in labour found one per cent of people have a genetic variant which significantly raises a person’s pain threshold. 

This rare gene variant, called KCNG4, is believed to inhibit how pain is processed by the nervous system.

Svante Pääb, co-author of the latest study, said: ‘Whether Neanderthals experienced more pain is difficult to say because pain is also modulated both in the spinal cord and in the brain. 

‘But this work shows that their threshold for initiating pain impulses was lower than in most present-day humans.’

While it is impossible to directly compare pain levels between the extinct hominins and modern-day people, we do know that the two species were very similar. 

Humans and Neanderthals interbred and much of their DNA lives inside humans today. 

Neanderthals are not ancestors of modern-day humans as both species evolved from the same ancestors. It is more accurate to refer to them as a cousin or sister species to Homo sapiens.  

The study is published in the journal Current Biology. 

A close relative of modern humans, Neanderthals went extinct 40,000 years ago

The Neanderthals were a close human ancestor that mysteriously died out around 40,000 years ago.

The species lived in Africa with early humans for millennia before moving across to Europe around 300,000 years ago.

They were later joined by humans, who entered Eurasia around 48,000 ears ago.  

The Neanderthals were a cousin species of humans but not a direct ancestor – the two species split from a common ancestor –  that perished around 50,000 years ago. Pictured is a Neanderthal museum exhibit

These were the original ‘cavemen’, historically thought to be dim-witted and brutish compared to modern humans.

In recent years though, and especially over the last decade, it has become increasingly apparent we’ve been selling Neanderthals short.

A growing body of evidence points to a more sophisticated and multi-talented kind of ‘caveman’ than anyone thought possible.

It now seems likely that Neanderthals had told, buried their dead, painted and even interbred with humans.   

They used body art such as pigments and beads, and they were the very first artists, with Neanderthal cave art (and symbolism) in Spain apparently predating the earliest modern human art by some 20,000 years.

They are thought to have hunted on land and done some fishing. However, they went extinct around 40,000 years ago following the success of Homo sapiens in Europe.  

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