Student investigates social networking of Neandertals

2 May 2013

Wollongong resident and third-year medical biotechnology student Annabelle Caspersz spent her Christmas holidays studying Neandertal DNA in a summer research project at The University of Queensland.

Neandertals died out around 28,000 years ago and are perhaps the closest relatives to modern humans but their ability to form complex social networks is unknown.

Ms Caspersz joined Professor Mark Ragan’s laboratory at UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) to investigate the genetic evidence behind Neandertal socialisation.

“The original view of Neandertals as stereotypical violent cave men is gradually changing as newer discoveries suggest they performed more complex tasks such as building complex shelters, controlling fire, using tools, engaging in ritual burial, and perhaps even fashioning musical instruments,” Ms Caspersz said.

“In 2007 researchers demonstrated that Neandertals and modern humans share a version of a gene, FOXP2, which has been linked to the capability to speak.

“This is an example of how genetics has provided evidence that Neandertals had some level of socialisation.”

Comparison of the Neandertal genome sequence, published in late 2010, with genomes of modern humans has identified 78 significant DNA changes that occurred after modern humans split from Neandertals.

Some of these are in genes important to cognitive development in modern humans, and if mutated contribute to schizophrenia or autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Ms Caspersz delved into the Neandertal genome in a hunt for additional genes that have been linked to ASD in modern humans.

“If a gene is linked to autism, then it likely plays a role in social development,” Ms Caspersz said.

“Unfortunately we’ll never be able to run brain scans on Neandertals, or measure the levels of gene activity in their brains.

“But by understanding the genetic tools Neandertals had for cognitive development, we may be able to learn more about their capacity for social development.

“Perhaps Neandertals went extinct because they lacked the adaptability and interpersonal skills they needed to cope with their changing environment.”

Annabelle’s curiosity was piqued by the unusual nature of this project, on which the Ragan laboratory is assisting Florida anthropologist Julie Cobb, and the opportunity to gain research skills.

“The IMB is a fascinating place to be able to work and this project got me excited about filling in the gaps in our knowledge,” she said.

“It was out of my field of medical biotechnology so I learnt a lot, especially about critical thinking and bioinformatics, which is a really useful tool.”

You can support a student like Ms Caspersz at the IMB by calling (07) 3346 2132 or donating directly online at:

If you are interested in joining the IMB as a summer research student, please visit

Applications for the next summer research program open on June 1, 2013.

The Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) is a research institute of The University of Queensland that aims to improve quality of life by advancing personalised medicine, drug discovery and biotechnology.


Media contact:
Bronwyn Adams, IMB Communications Officer – 0418 575 247 or 07 3346 2134 or