November 18, 2018

This ancient girl was half Neanderthal and half Denisovan

25 August 2018, 11:28 | Rodolfo Wallace

Image The cave contained evidence of both Neanderthal and Denisovan occupation. File pic

The cave contained evidence of both Neanderthal and Denisovan occupation

It is the first time a direct offspring of the two groups has ever been found. This is the first to find an offspring of such a mixing.

"Neanderthals and Denisovans may not have had many opportunities to meet", Svante Pääbo, director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, tells Briggs.

"An interesting aspect of this genome is that it allows us to learn things about two populations - the Neandertals from the mother's side, and the Denisovans from the father's side", explained Fabrizio Mafessoni from the MPI-EVA who co-authored the study.

They died out around 40,000 years ago, possibly as a result of competition following the exodus of homo sapiens (modern humans) from Africa between 60,000 and 40,000 years ago, although DNA analysis shows interbreeding between the two species.

Neanderthals and Denisovans inhabited Eurasia until about 40,000 years ago when they were replaced by modern humans (Homo sapiens).

The girl's story has been pieced together from a single fragment of bone found in the Denisova cave by Russian archaeologists several years ago.

Neanderthals lived in Europe and Asia, while fossils of Denisovans have so far only been uncovered from the Siberian cave where the fragment was found. Since mitochondrial DNA is only inherited from the mother, it means that the mother was Neanderthal, which means that the father was a Denisovan.

Considering that there are only a few Denisovan individuals known, the discovery of the hybrid indicates that such mating events were not rare.

Dr Slon and her colleagues analysed DNA extracted from a fossil known as Denisova 11, which was unearthed in the Denisova Cave in 2012.

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Ninety thousand years ago, in a remote cave in cold Siberia, a very special baby was born.

During DNA sequencing of the bones discovered at the site, the researchers noticed that half of the chromosomes in Denisova 11 were similar to those of the other Denisovans and half of them were closer to those of the Neanderthals.

"The picture that is emerging is that all groups of humans interbred when they met", says Slon. "But when they did, they must have mated frequently - much more so than we previously thought".

In fact, analysis of the genome revealed that the girl's Denisovan dad had at least one Neanderthal ancestor further back in his family tree.

"I think they convincingly showed that genetically this individual falls halfway between the Neanderthal and Denisovan fossils found in the same cave", he said.

Among their genetic legacy to some modern humans is a variant of the gene EPAS1 that makes it easier for the body to access oxygen by regulating the production of haemoglobin, according to a 2014 study.

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. People with non-African ancestry have fragments of Neanderthal DNA in their genomes, and Denisovan DNA is present in East Asians, Aboriginal Australians and other populations.

"Maybe Neanderthals and Denisovans were absorbed into the modern human populations", said Paabo.

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