The analysis of a jawbone from an individual who lived between 37,000 and 42,000 years ago in modern day Romania has revealed some interesting secrets. Genetic tests have revealed that the individual in question had at least one Neanderthal ancestor as little as four generation prior – in other words a Neanderthal great-great parent if you will. This finding is important because it demonstrates an idea that has been gaining traction in the scientific community, namely that humans interbred with Neanderthals.
The study’s co-author, Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, could hardly contain his excitement describing the findings to National Geographic:
“We found seven huge pieces of chromosomes that seemed to be purely of Neanderthal origin. That means pieces had to come from a relatively recent ancestor, since they hadn’t yet been broken up by the reshuffling that happens in each generation as parents’ chromosomes combine.”
Increased interest in human-Neanderthal relations in recent years led to the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome, as well as research to look into whether modern humans have any Neanderthal DNA. While interbreeding had been suspected for sometime, the exact time-frame was unknown, as humans and Neanderthals coexisted for thousands of years in Eurasia.
It is important to note that the common image of Neanderthals as beetle-browed, knuckle-dragging brutes is a false one. While Neanderthals had far stronger bones and were more physically hardy than humans, they had larger brains (in absolute terms) than modern humans, and possessed sophisticated social and cultural ties. Neanderthals made tools, and other fabrications, and may even have had language.
Indeed for the majority of the tenure of Homo sapiens on Earth, we have shared the world with fellow hominids, or human-like animals. That we remain the sole survivors of this family, is evolutionarily a relatively recent occurrence. Given this long time-frame, genetic intermingling is not unsurprising, and perhaps somewhat comforting; we may not in a sense be alone – our close cousins continue to live-on, in part in us.