SUNY New Paltz Neanderthal Project seeks ancient answers

Glenn Geher. (photo courtesy of SUNY New Paltz)

Glenn Geher. (photo courtesy of SUNY New Paltz)

A man with a pronounced forehead stands before you, holding a makeshift bludgeon. He’s slouched, muscular and a little crude. Uncouth and covered in hair, he wears a simple garment made from animal hide. When you look at him, he’s familiar — but not quite totally human. He’s something other.

When most people hear the word “Neanderthal,” it’s that cartoonish, caveman image that comes to mind. But for professor Glenn Geher and his research team at SUNY New Paltz, decades of stereotypes and speculation weren’t cutting it. They wanted answers.

The New Paltz Neanderthal Project had its genesis back in 2013 following a lecture from well-known New York University Anthropology professor Todd Disotell — an expert in Neanderthal genetics.


Less than a decade ago, scientists discovered that modern humans — more so in those of European and Asian ancestry — sometimes have up to four percent of Neanderthal DNA. When the discovery was made, it ended the debate about whether or not homo sapiens had mated with Neanderthals.

Geher was in the audience with his students, listening to Disotell’s guest lecture at SUNY. “It just blew us away,” he said.

As a specialist in evolutionary psychology, it gave Geher an idea — if researchers at SUNY New Paltz combined psychology with genetics it would give them “a unique way of getting at what the Neanderthals were like.”

Websites that do genetic testing, like 23andMe, already tell people their percentage of “Neanderthal overlap.” Geher and his students started searching social media, Reddit and Craigslist for people who’d already had the genomic testing done.

They devised a survey to collect information from people with zero to four percent Neanderthal DNA. In two years of research, a picture is emerging.

According to the New Paltz Neanderthal Project’s findings, people with high levels of Neanderthal shared personality traits:

  • They were introverted.
  • They were more neurotic than an average person.
  • They liked reading non-fiction more than fiction.
  • They were more promiscuous.
  • They had a poor relationship with their biological fathers.
  • They felt that others did not support them socially or emotionally.
  • They had bipolar tendencies and were more likely to be on the autism spectrum.

The picture that this paints of Neanderthals — and why they suddenly died out around 40,000 years ago — seems clear. They weren’t as adept at forming large social groups as humans.

Where they both appear in the fossil record, Neanderthals and modern man differ in crowd sizes. Neanderthals are usually found in groups of seven or ten — “probably their groups were mostly kin groups.” Humans lived in tribes of up to 100 people, the professor explained.

As a more social animal, humans likely outcompeted Neanderthals by banding together to form civilizations, nationalities and religions — non-family ties that bound us together, he said.

With approximately 200 participants, the New Paltz Neanderthal Project still has more data to collect — and existing numbers to crunch — to gain a more authoritative picture.

But already the research is getting attention. Earlier this month, professor Geher spoke about their work on WAMC’s “The Academic Minute.”

For grad students and undergrads involved in Neanderthal research, the project has given them a chance to be on the cutting edge.

“No one’s ever studied that kind of stuff before — from a psychology perspective,” Geher said.

Andrew Shimkus is a grad student who’s helped out on the Neanderthal Project. It’s a project that’s bigger than one group of students — it’s been passed on from one semester to the next, from student to student, he said.

Listen to Geher’s full “Academic Minute” spot by heading here.

Learn more about the work of SUNY New Paltz’s Evolutionary Studies program by heading to SUNY’s website.

There are 22 comments

  1. Dave Davies

    Very interesting observations, particularly for someone with 3.0 Neandertal in his DNA.

    Assuming that sample size is critical to validity of observations, have you hit a credibility threshold with 200 ?

    1. Mary

      Well, I supposedly have 2.8% and not one of the characteristics listed is anything like me. Am I the “exception” to the rule, or is there something off in the project?

  2. Brad Foley

    I read the first paragraph while looking at Geher’s picture. I was a little confused by “makeshift bludgeon”, but the physical description was surprisingly apt. I didn’t realise what was going on until “simple garment made from animal hide.”

  3. Crystal

    I have 2.9% and have none of the listed attributes and in some….on the opposite side of the spectrum

  4. Pat Weiss

    I am 2.7 which is about average. I am not introverted, but do prefer smaller groups of close friends. I am not neurotic. I do prefer non-fiction. I take the fifth on number four. Loved my Dad. I feel supported by those who should support me. I am not bi-polar. Maybe was a little bit yesterday, but definitely not today…I am just kidding (about the bi-polar part).

  5. Fmartin

    Per 23andme I am 2.9% Neanderthal and do not have any of the qualities listed. My conclusion is 200 people do not make a study.

  6. Eric M

    I think releasing preliminary findings poisons the well unless they start doing the psych questions before the genetic testing.

  7. gwern

    Seems like self-selection is a problem here: the correlations mentioned are, effectively, portraits of nerds, who are likely to find high Neanderthal ancestry interesting and respond to surveys. Have the researchers considered getting access to 23andMe? They claim to have something like 500k samples with associated survey data, and since their surveys aren’t explicitly about Neanderthal percentage, selection would be much less of an issue.

  8. Mona Ledoux

    Wow! I find this very exciting. I’ve identified a few family members, incuding myself, with most of these characteristics, and have wondered why we are different. I have 3%. I will encourage the others to get tested.

  9. Paula

    I am 2.9% and agree with the introversion only. Had a wonderful relationship with my father and adore reading fiction. A really immature, generalized perspective on his part.

  10. John D

    According to 23andme, the average European user at their site has 2.7% Neanderthal DNA.

    As far as the list of traits, one wonders how typical the users of the 23andme product are. One might guess that they’re a little nerdier and introspective than the general population at large in the first place.

  11. Mary

    Further studies need to be done. Agree with John D about whether the population of 23andme might be skewed in that direction.

  12. Risë

    according to 23andme an estimated 3.1 % of my DNA is from Neanderthals!

    six out of the seven on the list apply!

    explains why I like drawing on walls!

    I participated in the 23andme Parkinsonson’s study. wonder if there are any dots there!

  13. Cosmicbluezz

    4% here. One way or the other I can’t escape how accurate that list is…..Never diagnosed as Autistic, but the diagnosis wasn’t around in my day. I realized long ago that I was high functioning and wasn’t just odd

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