In search of an inner Neanderthal

There had to be some kind of genetic explanation for my husband's atrocious table manners. It would just take a DNA test kit and some saliva to find it.

Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in Longreads.com. Reprinted with permission.

A couple of years ago I purchased a pair of 23andMe kits for myself and my husband, Tomer. I intended to scientifically prove that Tomer's most irritating behaviors were genetic destiny and therefore unchangeable. I'd grown tired of nagging him — oftentimes, I'd hear my own voice rattling inside my brain in the same way a popular song might get stuck in my head. I needed an out, something to push me toward unconditional acceptance of my husband.

My constant complaining yielded zero behavior modification on his part; on the other hand, it was changing me into a nasty micromanager. I briefly considered marital therapy, but that's an expensive undertaking, costing much more than the $398 one-time fee for both DNA kits. Plus, couples' therapy could take a long time, requiring detours through our shared history.

In much appealing contrast, 23andMe promised to launch us straight back to our prehistoric roots, and might provide Tomer with something akin to a formal pardon note, thereby permitting me to stop fighting against him, once and for all. I imagined we could help others by way of example too, for what long-married woman has not suffered her husband's most banal tendencies — the socks and underwear on the floor, the snoring? Not me, because my husband puts his used clothes in the hamper and I'm the snorer. Really, I'm probably blessed as far as masculine disgustingness goes. But my husband is flawed in one repulsive way: his barbaric table manners.

I have no doubt this is a genetic situation, for even back when we were first dating I'd shuddered upon seeing my future father-in-law poke through the serving bowls of a family-style meal with his bare hairy hands. My husband's father has also been caught eating ice cream directly from the carton (the thought of which I now appreciate for its built-in binge deterrent). Moreover, my father-in-law eats like a caveman-conqueror, reaching across dinner plates to pluck a taste of this or that from his mortified tablemates.

A family dinner looks like a scene straight out of Game of Thrones, minus any crowns. And so, when my husband first began to exhibit similar behaviors, I had to wonder: Had I suffered some rare form of blindness previously? Did some barrier of unconscious denial gently shield my eyes each day, year after year, but only at mealtimes? It was as if a blindfold suddenly fell from my face, or as if Tomer had finally removed a mask from his own. My gentleman turned into a beast, seemingly overnight.

I watched with horror, one Sunday evening, as my husband served himself a plate of meat and vegetables with his hands. His fingers ripped skirt steak in lieu of cutting it with a knife. He abandoned his fork altogether, and I lost my appetite.

Around the same time Tomer stopped liking forks, he'd adopted the Paleo diet (versions of which are known as the caveman diet). He'd cut all processed foods from his intake, eating nothing but meat, nuts, vegetables, and fruit.

"My stomach is no longer a quivering idiot," Tomer said, and he said it more than once, to countless friends and family members, until he'd worked up a complete narrative on how he'd triumphed over his very own stomach. And each time he told this story, he lifted his shirt, pounding his fists upon his midsection. His proud smile began to appear, well, wild and hungry, as if he'd tamed his digestive system but in doing so had activated a primitive gene and sacrificed his own civility.

Shortly thereafter, I came across an article pertaining to Neanderthal DNA. According to modern science, the Neanderthals and our prehistoric ancestors mated, leaving many of us with a small percentage of Neanderthal DNA. I did more Googling and learned that 23andMe can tell you how much Neanderthal DNA you carry. Although they do mean different things, in my mind's eye, the words "Neanderthal" and "caveman" summoned identical images: that of savage meat-eating maniacs ripping raw meat from bone with fat fingers and jagged teeth.

And this was it — the thing that sold me on 23andMe: the chance to determine one's degree of Neanderthal-ness. Without any consideration of all the possible consequences of submitting one's DNA to a global database, I ordered two kits, grinning and convinced that my husband's result would show a statistically significant and above-average number of Neanderthal variants in his genome. Since Father's Day was only a month away, I decided I'd gift wrap the kits upon arrival too. I'd kill two birds with one stone.

On Father's Day, Tomer unwrapped the kits with feigned enthusiasm, poor guy. I'm sure he would have preferred a drone or a new barbecue, but my selfish interests had interfered with those wishes. The kits ended up on the bottom shelf of a bedroom nightstand, collecting dust for a month until Tomer and I finally got around to collecting our spit.

We watched a YouTube video on the proper collection technique, and I started to spit first, and then one of our children screamed from the other room, something about spilled lemonade, pulling Tomer away from our mutual undertaking. By the time he returned to our bedroom, he'd "accidentally" eaten something and drunk a glass of water — the directions specifically state not to do this.

"Forget it," Tomer said. "I'm too tired. I'll do mine tomorrow."

I ended up packaging my DNA sample all by its lonely self for the outgoing mail. Tomer's kit went back on the nightstand, where it sat for another six months, at least.

My results arrived rather quickly. An email from the company announced that my reports were available online for viewing. I cannot lie — it all felt a bit like Santa had arrived, like I was a child once again, stumbling, half-awake, into a living room overflowing with sparkling ribbon-wrapped gifts. Who am I? Now I would know.

I calmed down soon enough. My ancestry, it turns out, was hardly surprising: mostly Italian and Polish framed by a mosaic of numerous other European countries. Exactly 1 percent of my DNA was attributed to Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, half a percent from each side, and I proudly posted this in a Facebook update for my Jewish husband's family to see. I was a real member of the tribe, if only by a mere drop.

It was later that night, after celebrating my newfound Jewishness, that I remembered to look for Neanderthal DNA. I quickly found the link and clicked it with the casual ease of someone who does not think of herself as a Neanderthal at all. The reality seeped in like a slow poison, because when I first viewed my number of Neanderthal variants — 297 — I had no context for knowing what significance this number held, if any. It took a moment to locate that information and when I did, I discovered, to my horror, that 297 Neanderthal variants placed me in the 81st percentile of all 23andMe users. I'm well above average for Neanderthal-ness; only 19 percent of other 23andMe customers can claim worse.

I almost kept this unfortunate fact to myself, but in search of immediate consolation, I told Tomer.

"I have terrible news," I said. "I'm highly Neanderthal. Which means you must be, like, ultimate-level Neanderthal." Tomer, I imagined, would be in the 99th percentile for Neanderthal variants.

"Who cares? I love you just the way you are," he said, referencing our wedding song with a wink.

I went online to read more about Neanderthal traits. Surprisingly, my idea of a super-hairy Neanderthal was all wrong. One of my Neanderthal variants, for instance, is associated with having a decreased amount of body hair on one's back. This was my consolation prize: a lower annual expense for body waxing.

Finally, and almost a full year after Father's Day, Tomer collected his spit because he couldn't take my nagging anymore. By the time his results came in, the passage of time had rendered me numb to my own degree of Neanderthal-ness, though I still looked forward to welcoming Tomer into the club. Tomer himself showed zero interest in his results.

"I don't care. You can log into it. Let me know what you find out," he told me.

I clicked onto his reports with the disappointment one feels after reading a lengthy novel that never delivers its climactic moment. I saw that Tomer is 82 percent Ashkenazi Jewish — no surprise there — and likely yawned. Then I clicked the link for Tomer's Neanderthal information and, in an unforeseen plot twist, to my great shock, learned that Tomer carries less Neanderthal DNA than 88 percent of all other users on the site. I quickly checked my own account — perhaps I'd previously misread my report.

But no — on my personal list of DNA relatives on the site, I'm in first place for Neanderthal-ness. Next to my name and No. 1 rank, 23andMe features an illustration too: a blue cartoon-like image of a caveman's profile alongside what appears to be a prehistoric tool of some kind, maybe a spear.

For Father's Day this year, I purchased Tomer a drone through Amazon. He practically tore open the box, then called his brother and father, who immediately drove over to help him assemble his new toy. I watched as he fit pieces together without the aid of the instruction manual, a task my own brain could never manage. My mother is quite good at this sort of thing, so I don't need 23andMe to tell me that my inferior gene for mechanical engineering is from the paternal side of the family — my father couldn't even change a light bulb. My husband, by contrast, put together a drone and flew it over our backyard, proving he is more than a meat-loving caveman, at least up until the moment the damn drone fell from the sky and refused to recharge itself, though we plugged it in numerous times.

"How much did you pay for this?" my husband asked.

"About $200," I said.

He sighed. "I love this gift. It's really the best thing you could've thought to get me," Tomer said, kissing the top of my head. "But a decent drone, even a good beginner's drone, costs at least a thousand bucks."

I offered to return it and buy him a better one. "We'll definitely return it," Tomer said, "But I'll wait for science to advance and lower the cost."

It was another Father's Day gift fail; still, I marveled that for around the same price as a crappy drone, I had uploaded human DNA to a database that in turn sent me ancestral and medical reports.

Later that afternoon, Tomer's extended family assembled in our kitchen for dinner. I prepared a salad while Tomer grilled rib eyes and sausages. The drone was a bust, but we still had to eat. Our kids and nephews grew irritable with hunger.

My husband plopped a few steaks upon our kitchen island, and I watched him tear meat from bone, then dangle it over his upturned face, catching blood-tinged drops with his tongue before dropping it all into his mouth in one giant catch. He was still chewing when he said, "At the end of the day, nothing's better than a great piece of steak."

My father-in-law and brother-in-law hustled over toward the kitchen island, grabbing a slab of meat and some sausage for themselves, too.

My sister-in-law Joanne, who's married to my husband's brother, looked at me and sighed. "We're married to cavemen," she said, rolling her eyes. "My mom warned me, but I didn't listen."

Usually, I'd enjoy adding a snarky remark or two, but with unprecedented restraint, I kept my mouth shut and resisted any linguistic impulsivity. I don't know if my prehistoric ancestors were linguistic or impulsive or neither or both, but self-control, Neanderthal or not, felt like a new achievement. And it was Father's Day, after all. I let my husband enjoy his caveman meal in peace.


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