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.