Neanderthal and Denisovan Genes – and Covid-19

The media reported last week that genes from Neanderthals protect many of us against severe Covid-19. Those genes actually come from Denisovans too: another early human species. Unfortunately, a different set of Neanderthal genes increases our chances of serious Covid. This post goes behind the news and looks at our connection to these two prehistoric creatures, as well as their genes’ impact on Covid risk. It also looks at those genes’ frequency among modern ethnic groups.

Neanderthal woman
Neanderthal woman (from the Neanderthal Museum)

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Coronavirus Would Not Have Disrupted Our Ancestors’ Lives

A virus circles the world, killing 1% of the population or more, particularly the elderly … and people just go about their business. Even in countries that understand contagion, no one healthy stops working, and neither do most of the sick. In fact, if you suggest staying home, most people think you’re crazy. Why manufacture an economic disaster? That’s how our ancestors would react to coronavirus, from the ancient world through early modern times. Their lives already involved a steady risk of death from acute, fast-acting disease, so this comparatively mild new illness would hardly set them back.

Europe's history of pandemic inspired Breugel's famous painting
The Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. c. 1562. Click for a closer view of death’s regular assault on our ancestors.

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