Just think — how many reconstructions of Neandertals have you seen in the last few years that weren’t red-headed? Gurche’s new one isn’t, but almost all have been. The red-headed Neandertal clearly conveys the information about the genomics of MC1R,
and yet the color itself is just a hypothesis. As I discussed upon the
discovery, even if the variant has the postulated functional effect on
melanocortin reception by melanocytes, there may well have been
modifier genes that made Neandertal hair blonde. The convention
of the red-headed Neandertal follows the needs of museums and textbook
authors, all of whom need to tell the story about genetics. But in that
sense, it’s rather like the convention of a bearded Jesus — making the
Neandertal iconic triggers our recognition, but may subtract the need
to scrutinize closely, to experience the form anew.
Kennewick Man is a great example (see above pic). Based on the skull morphology it is highly likely that he looked like Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Enterprise. But, had the artist put a giant afro on his head, we may not have seen the connection. The real Kennewick man could have had an afro, we don’t know for sure. Maybe he had dreadlocks. Long black hair? It’s hard to say for sure. But, the act of leaving the skull unadorned made him an icon.