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Neanderthals weren’t as tough as they seemed and had a LOWER pain threshold than most humans today

Neanderthals went extinct around 40,000 years ago but have a reputation as being hulking, brutish beings who were tough and fearless. 

But a new study has found this belief to be at least partly incorrect, as Neanderthals likely had a pain threshold lower than the majority of modern-day humans. 

Genetic analysis found almost all Neanderthals had a gene which made them more sensitive to pain.

Prehistoric trysts between humans and Neanderthals saw this variant passed into our gene pool and today one in 250 people possess this painful mutation. 


The mutated gene affects a ‘gatekeeper’ protein, known as an ion channel, that initiates pangs, twinges and throbs and amplifies feelings of pain by seven per cent.

Lead author Hugo Zeberg, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and Karolinska Institutet, says: ‘The biggest factor for how much pain people report is their age.

‘Carrying the Neanderthal variant of the ion channel makes you experience more pain similar to if you were eight years older.’

People who have the Neanderthal version of the gene inherit an ion channel which is different to the normal version by three amino acids. 

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and integral in how the human body grows and operates.  

A single amino acid difference in this gene would not alter how it works, but three is enough to cause heightened pain sensitivity. 

The three amino acids were enough to change the shape and function of the key pain-controlling pathway and made it more easily triggered by stimuli.   

This then propagates through the nervous system and causes a cascade in a host of neurons, telling the body something is wrong.  

Pain threshold appears to be heavily influenced by genetics. 

A recent study on women in labour found one per cent of people have a genetic variant which significantly raises a person’s pain threshold. 

This rare gene variant, called KCNG4, is believed to inhibit how pain is processed by the nervous system.

Svante Pääb, co-author of the latest study, said: ‘Whether Neanderthals experienced more pain is difficult to say because pain is also modulated both in the spinal cord and in the brain. 

‘But this work shows that their threshold for initiating pain impulses was lower than in most present-day humans.’

While it is impossible to directly compare pain levels between the extinct hominins and modern-day people, we do know that the two species were very similar. 

Humans and Neanderthals interbred and much of their DNA lives inside humans today. 

Neanderthals are not ancestors of modern-day humans as both species evolved from the same ancestors. It is more accurate to refer to them as a cousin or sister species to Homo sapiens.  

The study is published in the journal Current Biology. 

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