Turns out we have a lot more in common with Neanderthals than we thought. In a stunning breakthrough, researchers at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology have mapped the Neanderthal genome. After comparing it with the genomes of five modern humans, they found that 1 to 4 percent of the DNA in Eurasians was inherited from Neanderthals. This suggests that interbreeding occurred after early humans departed from Africa. Important takeaways:
- Time to Rethink Our Origins, writes Jennifer Pinkowski at Time: "The new finding may prompt a tweaking of the well-known Out of Africa theory, which in its strictest interpretation says that a small group of early modern humans left Africa, and outcompeted and replaced all other hominids without any interbreeding. The alternate theory, known as multiregionalism, argues that distinct populations of modern humans developed simultaneously around the world and along the same evolutionary lines by swapping genes."
- Who Were These Neanderthals, Anyway? Chris Stringer at the Times of London provides background: "They were actually highly evolved humans who walked as upright as we do, and whose brains were as large as ours... We have a good idea of their bodily form: they were relatively short, wide-shouldered and hipped, and barrel-chested. Their physique looked more suited to short powerful bursts rather than endurance running, and it’s thought they were mainly ambush hunters, armed with thrusting spears. Their stocky body shape may also reflect their evolution through the Ice Ages, although they probably actually preferred temperate weather and environments."
- How Did Scientists Determine That Interbreeding Happened? John Timmer at Ars Technica explains: "The genome sequence does provide evidence that humans and Neanderthals have interbred. This became apparent when the Neanderthal genome was paired against human genomes from different parts of the globe. The Neanderthal DNA consistently matched European and Asian samples better than it did African; the difference was small, but consistent. It suggested that the Neanderthals, which were restricted to Europe and Asia at the time modern humans originated in Africa, had interbred with humans once they began migrating out of Africa. Because African human populations are older, they tend to have more divergent genomes. But the human-Neanderthal split is older still, so the authors figured that any areas of the genome where variation was larger in populations outside of Africa may have entered the human genome through interbreeding. If they did arise through interbreeding, then the non-African segments should match Neanderthals. Researchers found at least 10 regions that fit these predictions."
- They Mated in the Middle East, suggests the study as reported by Boing Boing: "All non-Africans - be they from France, China or Papua New Guinea - share the same amount of Neanderthal DNA, suggesting that interbreeding occurred before those populations split. The timing makes the Middle East the likeliest place where humans leaving Africa and resident Neanderthals did the deed. "
- Why This Matters for Mankind John Hawks, a University of Wisconsin anthropologist, paints the big picture:
These scientists have given an immense gift to humanity.
I've been comparing it to the pictures of Earth that came back from Apollo 8. The Neandertal genome gives us a picture of ourselves, from the outside looking in. We can see, and now learn about, the essential genetic changes that make us human -- the things that made our emergence as a global species possible.
And in doing so, they've taken a forgotten group of people -- whom even most anthropologists had given up on -- and they've restored them to their rightful place in our heritage.
Beyond that, they've taken all of their data and deposited it in a public database, so that the rest of us can inspect them, replicate results, and learn new things from them. High school kids can download this stuff and do science fair projects on Neandertal genomics.
This is what anthropology ought to be.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.