WASHINGTON -- The image of Neanderthals may be in need of a makeover: scientists say at least some of these extinct hominids could have had fair skin and red hair.
Researchers studying the DNA of Neanderthals found a mutation in two individuals that can affect skin and hair pigmentation, they reported in Thursday's online issue of the journal Science.
The mutation reduces the function of a gene known as MC1R. In modern humans, when a slightly different mutation reduces the function of that gene the result is red hair and fair skin, according to the team led by Holger Roempler of Harvard University and the University of Leipzig, Germany; Carles Lalueza-Fox of the University of Barcelona, Spain and Michael Hofreiter of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.
Neanderthals lived in Europe and Asia about 400,000 years ago. They were replaced by early modern humans. Researchers have long debated whether the two groups mixed together, though most doubt it. The last evidence for Neanderthals dates from at least 24,000 years ago.
Scientists are working to analyze Neanderthal DNA -- the blueprint of life -- taken from ancient remains. They hope it will help them better understand these ancient people. As part of this process, last year researchers discovered that Neanderthals also had the gene known to influence speech in modern humans.
The two fossils studied in the hair-color research were found in Italy and Spain.