A shocking study reveals that humans and neanderthals began mating 50,000 years earlier than we once thought.
Ah, the wonders of DNA analysis. It has long been assumed that Neanderthals and early humans shared the Earth for some time, and mated with each other for a brief period. According to a report from the Washington Post, however, a recent study has shown that the inter-species romance lasted as much as 50,000 years longer than once believed.
DNA evidence has drastically changed our views of the Neanderthal species in recent decades. Unearthed Neanderthal skulls suggested that they were simple, hunched over beings – “Neanderthal” even became quite an effective insult for a while.
But recent discoveries have changed our opinions of our ancient distant cousins. Some studies have even suggested that Neanderthals were capable of producing art, and the recent finding, published in Nature, confirms that early homo sapiens and Neanderthals had quite an eye for one another.
Based on certain Neanderthal DNA signatures found in our own genomes, scientists believe that our ancestors used to mate with Neanderthals roughly 50,000 to 60,000 years ago. But a recent discovery suggests that this could have been going on way earlier than anyone thought.
The discovery of a Siberian Neanderthal’s toe fragment, from what researchers have dubbed the “Altai Neanderthal,” has completely shifted the timeline for when these two species first made contact. The same bone fragment offered the first opportunity to fully sequence the Neanderthal genome, and a recent analysis reveals a fascinating story of migration and potential encounters between the two species.
“I think our idea of these being really separate and highly distinct groups that had relatively little interaction, that is starting to change,” said Adam Siepel, one of the study’s lead authors and researcher at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Using updated computer algorithms, they discovered that the Altai Neanderthal had traces of modern human DNA within its genome.
As Neanderthals and early humans migrated around the planet, scientists believe it is more than likely that the two species had some close encounters. “When you look at a modern European genome, you have to wonder whether mutations were passed down through early humans, or whether they were brought in by Neanderthals,” Siepel said. “Now we have to do the same thing with Neanderthal genomes as well.”