A new study coming out of Howard Hughes Medical Institute has found that humans bred with Neanderthals in Europe. It was previously known that the two closely related hominids had already interbred on several occasions in Asia but this is the first evidence of this occurring in Europe.
Geneticists discovered this by analyzing the DNA of a 40,000 year-old human jawbone found in Europe. They compared the DNA of the jawbone with the Neanderthal DNA and found some of the DNA matched.
According to David Reich, a researcher, there were only Neanderthals in Europe 45,000 years ago but in only 10,000 years, the Neanderthals became extinct and humans ruled Europe. This is a big transition and it is surprising that it only took about 10,000 years for it too occur.
Archaeologists found the jawbone used in the study in a cave in Romania on 2002. Radiometric dating was used to determine the age, which is between 37,000 and 42,000 years old. This time period corresponds to about the midpoint when Neanderthals were present in Europe, 45,000 years ago, and when humans took over by about 35,000 years ago. The age of the jawbone makes sense considering this was about the time humans began to emerge in Europe.
The researchers also said that the jawbone found might not have been ‘completely human.’ Most of the features seen were in fact human but there were also some Neanderthal features as well. It is though the jawbone came from an individual that was very recently descended from a Neanderthal.
Researchers in this study say they are very lucky to have come across a bone that is so close to the interbreeding event that occurred between humans and Neanderthals. They estimate that this individual had a Neanderthal ancestor only 4-6 generations back. Most other human bones found have much shorter segments of Neanderthal DNA indicating they are not as closely related to Neanderthals.
There is archeological evidence that that humans interacted with Neanderthals in Europe. Researchers have found interactions of culture between the two species. These include changes in tool making, burial rituals and body decoration. With this evidence of interaction between humans and Neanderthals in mind, it is not surprising interbreeding occurred. It is clear there was a lot of interaction and they were geographically close to each other.
This research was published in the journal Nature.