'Our ancestors weren't racist': DNA of hybrid Neanderthal-human found

Ebony Scott
August 25, 2018

New analysis of a bone fragment from a Siberian cave has suggested that two very distinct groups of humans did in fact interbreed - and a few times.

"We knew from previous studies that Neanderthals and Denisovans must have occasionally had children together", says Viviane Slon, researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA) in Leipzig, Germany.

But finding an actual offspring of the two groups - which are more different from each other than any two present-day human groups - seemed like a rare stroke of luck, Mr Paabo said.

On the other hand, lead author of the study Svante Pääbo believed encounters between the two species would have been rare, since Neanderthals were known to live across western Eurasia, while Denisovans have mostly stuck to their cave in Russian Federation, as far as scientists now know. The studied remains belonged to a girl who had a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father.

Still, this scant evidence is enough to show that Denisovans and Neanderthals split from a common ancestor roughly 390,000 years ago, Wei-Haas writes, and to point toward both species' eventual decline around 40,000 years ago.

"They managed to catch it in the act - it's an wonderful discovery", said Sharon Browning, a statistical geneticist at the University of Washington who was not involved in the new study.

The bone fragment's mitochondrial DNA was initially analyzed, which is genes that's only passed from the mother to child.

The only known fossils are a finger bone, three teeth and the long bone fragment from five different individuals excavated from a single cave in the Altai Mountains.

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On the other hand, Denny's genome also revealed that her father had hints of Neanderthal ancestry as well. Until now, scientists had discovered only four Denisovans; the fifth turned out to be a first-generation hybrid. Neanderthals also lived in the cave.

Denisova 11, the rather tiresome name the researchers have given the hybrid human, is the fifth Denisovan ever found, which makes the fact she was a hybrid all the more fascinating.

The mother came from a population more closely related to Neanderthals who lived later in Europe than to an earlier Neanderthal found in the cave, suggesting that migrations of Neanderthals between eastern and western Eurasia occurred sometime after 120,000 years ago.

Scientists confirmed Denny came from two separate hominins - and not two hybrids - by looking at where the genomes between Neanderthals and Denisovans differ. Most people of European or Asian descent have some Neanderthal DNA. "But when they did, they must have mated frequently - much more so than we previously thought". The two lines split genetically almost 400,000 years ago.

Broader interbreeding may have gained momentum when modern humans emerged from Africa roughly 70,000 years ago.

Until some 40,000 years ago, Europe was home to both groups.

One expert - Professor Mark Thomas, an evolutionary geneticist at University College London who was not involved in the research, said the evidence for interbreeding can be seen in the DNA of modern people with about 5 percent of DNA in some people - most likely those from Papua New Guinea - thought to be Denisovan in origin.

It's possible that modern human ancestors killed off the others, but equally possible that a small genetic advantage simply allowed modern humans to outbreed their cousins.

Other reports by GizPress

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