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News - April 2001

Scots may be directly descended from Neanderthal man.

By Tom Peterkin.

FROM William Wallace to the goalposts at Wembley, Scots have a fearsome reputation for causing trouble.

Now, a team of scientists may have discovered the explanation-we inherited Neanderthal genes.

Experts in evolution from Oxford say the key lies in the red hair for which Celts are famous.

The team studied the origins of the gene which causes red hair and discovered it is older than the first Homo Sapien settlers to come to Europe from Africa around 30,000 years ago.

This strongly suggests the gene must have been present in Neanderthal man, who was living in Europe long before the arrival of Homo Sapiens. The Oxford team says this points to interbreeding between Neanderthals and the new settlers, an idea which has previously been dismissed. It was originally believed that Homo Sapiens, because they were more sophisticated, simply drove out the Neanderthals to the point where they became extinct. The conclusion the team draws is that the red hair, freckles and pale skin which characterise Scots are most likely the genetic legacy of a long-dead species, known for being hairy and having prominent brows and receding foreheads. Around 10% of Scots are redheads, while an additional 40% of the population with other hair colourings carry the gene responsible for red hair.

Dr Rosalind Harding, of the Institute of Molecular Medicine at the John Radcliffe Hospital, in Oxford, calculated the age of the ginger version of the gene, known as the melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R), by using a complex model that looked at its mutation rate.

She found that the gene was present 100,000 years ago-at least 70,000 years before Homo Sapiens' migration into Europe from Africa. Harding maintains that the gene could not have originated in the sweltering heat of Africa, because natural selection would not have allowed the survival of a trait that predisposes humans to skin cancer.

Studies have revealed that carriers of the gene are five times more sensitive to ultraviolet light than others and therefore far more likely to contract skin cancer. Given that the gene is so much older than the earliest anthropological records of Stone Age Homo Sapiens, who were responsible for the spectacular cave paintings produced around 30,000 years ago, Harding believes that MC1R must have originated in the Neanderthals.

"The gene is certainly older than 50,000 years and it could be as old as 100,000 years," she said. "An explanation is that it comes from the Neanderthals-the other people that were here before modern man came out of Africa."

Harding believes that the prevalence of the ginger gene in so many of today's population provides evidence that early Homo sapiens bred with the Neanderthals and that many of today's humans are descended from unions between the two species.

So does that mean it is possible that Scottish redheads are directly descended from the Neanderthals? "It seems to be the logical conclusion to what I am saying," said Harding. "But I don't know if people are going to like me for saying that."

The Scotsman Publications Ltd.

Source: SCOTLAND ON SUNDAY 15/04/2001