Mailbag: Neandertal colors

Regarding that cool new app from Apple/Smithsonian... I know it's really all just for fun, but seeing that there is only one Neandertal face for everyone to use, I began to wonder about adaptations they may have gone through in their 400,000 year reign. Seems to me that from France to China to the Levant that skin shades and certain facial features would arise (probably not the right word there) and that to keep the app really interesting that they should have a couple different Neandertal faces to choose from. Otherwise everyone will start to look too much alike. Please know I know you have nothing to do with the app... just was curious about your thoughts on Neandertal adaptations and if what I'm griping (lightheartedly) about is reasonable?

I agree completely. It is characteristic for artist reconstructors to use skin tones and hair shades that reflect present-day people – so the Near Eastern Neandertals are tanner and black-haired; the European ones light-haired and pale.

But that assumes a lot about the nature of the present variation. Now that we know that the genes with the largest effects on pigmentation are in fact very recently selected, there’s really no reason to think that we fit our environments very well now (or in recent pre-industrial history). We might be stopped in the middle of going to even more extreme differences; or we might have gone much farther because of the availability of more adaptive variation to work with.

The variation in a long-adapted population like Neandertals might well be more than ours. Or less – because they were a much smaller population with fewer chances at adaptive changes. It’s really hard to predict .