Neanderthals may have given the modern humans who replaced them a priceless gift -- a gene that helped them develop superior brains, U.S. researchers reported Tuesday.
And the only way they could have provided that gift would have been by interbreeding, the team at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of Chicago said.
Their study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provides indirect evidence that modern Homo sapiens and so-called Neanderthals interbred at some point when they lived side by side in Europe.
"Finding evidence of mixing is not all that surprising. But our study demonstrates the possibility that interbreeding contributed advantageous variants into the human gene pool that subsequently spread," said Bruce Lahn, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute researcher at the University of Chicago who led the study.
Lahn's team found a brain gene that appears to have entered the human lineage about 1.1 million years ago, and that has a modern form, or allele, that appeared about 37,000 years ago -- right before Neanderthals became extinct.
They noted that this D allele is very common in Europe, where Neanderthals lived, and more rare in Africa, where they did not. Lahn said it is not yet clear what advantage the D allele gives the human brain.
"The D alleles may not even change brain size; they may only make the brain a bit more efficient if it indeed affects brain function," Lahn said.
But remember - Neanderthals are extinct. Sometimes being smarter is not enough.
Personally, I think we could use a bit more of the same though.