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Were Neanderthals Wimps?

illustration of prehistoric man hunting with spear

You’d think that people who could hunt woolly mammoths would be a tough lot. Yet new genetic research on modern humans suggests that Neanderthals likely had a lower tolerance for pain than most humans.

Although there is some debate surrounding the topic, Neanderthals are generally considered to be a species distinct from Homo sapiens. They lived between 400,000 and 40,000 years ago on the Eurasian continent, making them a hardy group that survived about 200,000 years longer than modern man has currently been on the planet. While they have a reputation for being more like grunting apes than human beings, archaeology has proven otherwise. They made sophisticated tools, harnessed the power of fire, were adept hunters, and were even the first group to begin the practice of burying their dead.

While the Neanderthals might have had many talents, resisting pain may not have been one of them, says a new study published in the journal Current Biology.

Looking Through Modern Humans to See the Past

Interestingly, to come to this conclusion, the researchers examined the genes of present-day humans. Because H. sapiens once interbred with the Neanderthals, nearly all humans have some Neanderthal DNA in them, which allows today’s scientists to look back in time at the genetic makeup of our ancestral cousins.

In this study, the researchers found a Neanderthal variant of a gene that initiates the pain response by encoding a sodium ion channel. These channels are proteins that form porous, cellular membranes and control the flow of ions in and out of a cell. Because in the Neanderthal variant, three different amino acids were found that differ from the conventional variant, the channel is more likely to be in a ready-to-open state than usual.

By using data from a large population study in the UK, they were able to determine that whoever had this sodium channel variant today had a lowered pain threshold, meaning that they began to feel pain before others in the same demographic.

Maybe Tougher Than We Think?

“The biggest factor for how much pain people report is their age,” says lead author Hugo Zeberg, referring to the fact that we tend to feel more pain as we age. “But carrying the Neanderthal variant of the ion channel makes you experience more pain similar to if you were eight years older.”

While the researchers know that Neanderthals had this ion channel that caused them to feel pain more quickly than modern man, they’re not entirely sure that this equates to the population being more pain-sensitive than us.

“Whether Neanderthals experienced more pain is difficult to say because pain is also modulated both in the spinal cord and in the brain,” said Svante Pääbo, a co-author of the study. “But this work shows that their threshold for initiating pain impulses was lower than in most present-day humans.”