Neanderthals live on in modern man | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 07.05.2010
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Science

Neanderthals live on in modern man

Using genome sequencing, German researchers have made a breakthrough discovery that proves that Neanderthals didn't die out some 30,000 years ago - at least not completely. Their DNA lives on.

Wax statue of a Neanderthal man hodling a spear

The youngest known Neanderthal specimen is over 30,000 years old

Analysis has shown that Neanderthal DNA still lives on in modern man, disproving the long-held belief that the more primitive homo species never interbred with humans and had in fact died out some 30,000 years ago.

German scientists announced their findings on Friday in a paper published in the US journal Science, which shows that between 1 and 4 percent of the DNA in people living in Europe, China and New Guinea has Neanderthal origins. The rest is attributable to the main Homo sapiens line with its roots in Africa. Previous laboratory tests had missed the hard-to-find clues and assumed the two species forked 500,000 years ago, never to rejoin.

Ralf W. Schmitz, a University of Bonn scientist who took part in the study, said that now that they have uncovered the whole picture, they've proven that Neanderthals are a part of our ancestry.

"This is an incredible breakthrough for paleogenetics, and incredible breakthrough for archeology and for anthropology. This paper is an absolute milestone," he told German television station ZDF.

A scientists wearing a face shield, gloves and a breathing mask drills into a Neanderthal bone

Researchers in Leipzig spent years analyzing data

Living side by side

Historians have speculated that Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis hunter-gatherers made war with one another, but the finding shows they made love too, and could have produced children. That probably happened in the Middle East, where archaeological excavations show the populations existed side by side between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago. The mixed children spread to Asia and Europe.

The finding comes from a first draft of the Neanderthal genome, using partly rotted material from the bones of six individuals, sequenced at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Two Neanderthal wax busts, one with hair and one without

Though some people may carry Neanderthal DNA, scientists say physical traits are no longer visible

"More than 95 per cent of the DNA in the samples came from bacteria and micro-organisms that had fed on the remains after the Neanderthals died," said institute chief scientist Svante Paabo.

Past studies had concentrated only on mitochondrial DNA, a type where no intermixing was found. "It was another surprise that even the Chinese carry Neanderthal genes, although Neanderthals never lived in China," said Schmitz.

Multiple bones examined

Neanderthal bones have been discovered down the years at 300 places in Europe and Asia. The species was named after a valley, the Neandertal, which lies in western Germany near the city of Dusseldorf, where the first officially recognized bones were found by men digging in a quarry in 1856.

The most famous collection of Neanderthal bones resides at the North Rhine Westphalia state museum in the former German capital, Bonn. The collection consists of 16 pieces, including a skull cap, two femurs, three right arm bones and two left arm bones.

It was these bones, which have been carbon dated at 42,000 years old, that supplied some of the genetic material examined by the scientists in Leipzig. They also used samples from Croatia, the Caucasus and Spain, dated from 42,000 to 70,000 years old.

The skullcap of a Neanderthal

One of the most famous collection of Neanderthal bones belongs to the Landesmuseum in Bonn

The youngest Neanderthal bones ever found were unearthed in the United Kingdom and Croatia. All of these specimens were dated between 32,000 and 33,000 years old. No verifiable specimen has been found that was younger than 30,000 years old, leading scientists to declare that to be when they died out.

Of course the exact circumstances that led to humans reproducing with Neanderthals are up for debate, though the scientists said they weren't concerned with who was having sex with whom.

"What's interesting to me is how that influenced who I am today," said Paabo.

Author: Mark Mattox
Editor: Stuart Tiffen

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