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Mom was Neanderthal: Fossil shows mix of humankind's cousins

25 August 2018, 11:28 | Melissa Porter

Mom was Neanderthal: Fossil shows mix of humankind's cousins

Mom was Neanderthal: Fossil shows mix of humankind's cousins

Researchers reported Wednesday in Nature that DNA from a bone fragment found in a Siberian cave revealed the first direct offspring from a mix of these two groups.

"We knew from previous studies that Neandertals and Denisovans must have occasionally had children together", Viviane Slon, study author and researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, said in a statement.

Palaeogeneticists Viviane Slon and Svante Paabo at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology carried out genome analysis on a bone taken from the Denisova cave in the Altai Mountains of Russian Federation. Neanderthals and Denisovans are closely related, but distinct groups of ancient humans.

The bone fragment in fact came from a girl who had a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father, The Independent reports.

Neanderthals and Denisovans, the closest extinct relatives of modern human, are hominins that separated from each other more than 390,000 years ago.

"When you find a needle in a haystack, you have to start wondering if what you're really looking at is a needlestack", John Hawks, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who was not involved in the study, tells The Atlantic's Zhang. She began by hunting for a special set of genes found in the fuel-generating factories of the cell, called mitochondria.

Scientists have been aware of breeding between different human groups, including between Denisovans and Homo Sapiens, thanks to variation among humans. The very first Denisovan fossil we discovered was just 10 years ago, and consisted of one pinkie finger.

The bone fragment shaking up the world of science was discovered there in 2012 and it has helped scientists understand that not only was interbreeding happening, it was happening a lot. Since mitochondrial DNA is only inherited from the mother, it means that the mother was Neanderthal, which means that the father was a Denisovan.

This might be because we only discovered the Denisovans in 2010, and have so few fossils to work that we don't even know what they looked like.

While Neanderthals were found across Europe, the Near East and central Asia, the Denisovans are thought to have lived in East and South Asia, although there was clearly some overlap in their ranges.

That fragment came from an arm or leg bone - it is impossible to say which.

Dr. Slon, Dr. Viola and their colleagues performed six DNA extractions from bone powder collected from the Denisova 11 specimen, produced ten DNA libraries from the extracts, and sequenced her genome.

The girl, thought to be aged around 13, is an example of interbreeding between now-extinct human groups.

The most recent analysis compared Denny's DNA to genomes of a Neanderthal and a Denisovan. And this occurred 20,000 years later than the Neanderthals living in the cave.

But their dalliances with modern humans left their mark. Most people of European or Asian descent have some Neanderthal DNA.

Both groups disappeared by about 40,000 years ago.

While Neanderthals lived in the western part of Eurasia and Denisovans in the eastern region, the two were known to have mingled-but there was no first-generation sample found yet.

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.

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