Modern humans had sex and produced offspring with Neanderthals, as analysis of an ancient jawbone shows. The artifact was found in Romania, and turns previous wisdom about inter-species relations on its head.
The modern human (Homo sapiens) had sex with the Neanderthal - and not just when the two groups first collided in the Middle East, but later on in Europe as well. That's the result of research that an international team of scientists has now published in "Nature" magazine.
The researchers analyzed a human jawbone they found in a cave in Romania in 2002. Now genetic sequencing has revealed that the bone, which is roughly 37,000 to 42,000 years old, belonged to a person who was part Neanderthal. Around 6 to 9 percent of the jawbone owner's DNA came directly from the extinct human species.
To say it rather unromantically: the two different species of humans indeed produced offspring.
"We are so fantastically lucky to find a person who was this closely related to a Neanderthal," Svante Pääbo from the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology told the news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA), adding that the person the jaw bone belonged to could have been a great-great-grandchild of a Neanderthal."We almost caught them red-handed."
Location proves sexual relations in Europe
That's somewhat of an overstatement. The jawbone is one of the oldest artifacts of a modern human ever discovered. But what's special about the insight is the location of the find.
Previously, researchers had believed that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens had mixed when the modern humans first started to spread from Africa to Asia and the rest of the world - and that the two different species only had sex when they first encountered each other in the Middle East.
The Neanderthal great-great-grandchild's jawbone that surfaced in Romania has nixed that theory. Modern humans were apparently still going at it with their predecessors when they had already settled in Europe.
Pääbo believes that inter-species encounters like this one were the exception, however, and not the rule. Otherwise, today's humans would carry more than the 1 to 3 percent Neanderthal DNA that has been proven to exist in us.
What is unclear is the nature of the relationship between the jawbone owner's great-great-grandparents.
"We don't know whether the ancestors of this human were living together, or whether it was just a one-night-stand," Pääbo said.
Since no one can ask the Romanian about his family's sexual history anymore - and the Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens didn't update their relationship status on Facebook - we will unfortunately never find out.