Human-Neanderthal Mating Left Its Mark in the Human Genome

By Eliza Strickland | May 6, 2010 3:53 pm

NeanderthalEver since anthropologists figured out that early humans and Neanderthals coexisted for a span of prehistory, they’ve wondered–did the two species, you know, make friends? Now a fascinating new genetics study reveals that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals did indeed interbreed, and the evidence is still to be found in the human genome.

Researchers from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology first sequenced the entire Neanderthal genome from powdered bone fragments found in Europe and dating from 40,000 years ago–a marvelous accomplishment in itself. Then, they compared the Neanderthal genome to that of five modern humans, including Africans, Europeans, and Asians. The researchers found that between 1 percent and 4 percent of the DNA in modern Europeans and Asians was inherited from Neanderthals, which suggests that the interbreeding took place after the first groups of humans left Africa.

Anthropologists have long speculated that early humans may have mated with Neanderthals, but the latest study provides the strongest evidence so far, suggesting that such encounters took place around 60,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East [The Guardian].

The study, published in Science and made available to the public for free, opens up new areas for research. Geneticists will now probe the function of the Neanderthal genes that humans have hung on to, and can also look for human genes that may have given us a competitive edge over Neanderthals.

Erik Trinkaus, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, who has long argued that Neanderthals contributed to the human genome, welcomed the study, commenting that now researchers “can get on to other things than who was having sex with who in the Pleistocene” [AP].

For a much deeper dive into these issues, head to Carl Zimmer’s post at The Loom and Razib Khan’s post at Gene Expression.

Related Content:
The Loom: Skull Caps and Genomes
Gene Expression: Breaking: There’s a Little Bit of Neandertal in All of Us
80beats: We May Soon Be Able to Clone Neanderthals. But Should We?
80beats: Crafty & Clever Neanderthals Made Jewelry 50,000 Years Ago
80beats: Did Spear-Throwing Humans Kill Neanderthals?
80beats: Rough Draft of the Neanderthal Genome is Complete!
DISCOVER: Works in Progress asks whether we rubbed out Neanderthals, or rubbed off on them

Image: Max Planck Institute EVA. The researchers hang out with their Neanderthal relation.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins
  • jumblepudding

    I always had a suspicion that this was true, regardless of how mightily people tried to disprove it.

  • Mr. Owl

    Now that, is awesome.
    Strangely enough, I think I recognize the scientist on the far right.
    It’s also funny to scroll over the scientists and it tags them as “Neanderthal.” :P

  • lyllyth

    HA! TOLD YOU SO!

  • jim_in_co2002

    Well, it has always seemed pretty clear to me that some men will hop on almost anything that had a facility for sexual relief. And, some women will invite almost any man. I guess I have not heard so much about women who might be inviting for non-human men, but I guess they might have accepted the difference between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals. Then, all you need is some of those cases to produce fertalization.

  • Chut Pata

    Well since none of these men have red hair (although one of them have a pale skin), I don’t think they are neanderthals.

  • http://N/A inwholise

    I always believed in inter breeding. I stopped my paleo-anthro grad studies, because my mentor and grad advisor displayed a biased academic knowledge every time I submitted a paper defending my belief of Neanderthal/ Homo Sapiens mixture…Neanderthals seem to have always been under-rated.

    We are Neanderthals.

  • Michael

    I have no doubt this is indeed true.

    Of course, my wife has known this about me for years…

  • http://treknobabble.net Matthew Weflen

    Jim,

    Neanderthals count as humans. They just aren’t our particular species of human. If it has the genus ‘homo’ in front of its name, it signifies a human species.

    Kind of like how there are many different species of cats.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo

  • jim_in_co2002

    That is correct Matthew. I stuggled with how to articulated the concept that there are today people who are pretty indiscriminate about these things. With this as evidence, I wonder why anyone ever doubted that there was interbreeding.

  • Brian Too

    I admit to being tickled by the idea that my ancestors got their Neanderthal freak on. Does this make me a bad person?

  • Avreaux

    Finally, an explanation for Ron Perlman.

  • http://www.cnn.com RaceBaiter

    Which race had more Neanderthal than others?

    1 to 4 %? Which race had 1 which had 4?
    ;-)

  • Grant H

    It’s nice to finally know. It’s been a while now for me, thinking “did we, or didn’t we..?”
    So… part Neanderthal… I feel somehow different after the revelation.

    And the world’s still turning… it looks like people can handle the truth.

  • amphiox

    So… part Neanderthal… I feel somehow different after the revelation

    Given that we shared a relatively recent common ancestor, and our DNA is 98%+ shared at the least, we were always “partly” (or, indeed, “mostly”) Neanderthal. Or you can say the Neanderthals were mostly Sapiens. Probably most accurately, both we and the Neanderthals are mostly Heidelbergs (or whatever the common ancestor turns out to be) with just a few extra ribbons attached, some of which are different ribbons, and some of those we went on to trade.

    With this as evidence, I wonder why anyone ever doubted that there was interbreeding.

    As I understand it, it’s in the context of the larger multiregional vs out of Africa debate. And it has always been my impression that much of the passion associated with that controversy was based on emotion rather than evidence, with respect to the implications of each theory striking a little bit too close to home.

    If the multiregional theory is correct, then modern people living in different areas of the world would have distinct genetic legacies extending back over hundreds of thousands, maybe a million, years or so. Some see in this a potential justification for racism and find it abhorrent. While the out of Africa theory posits a close and recent kinship of all living humans across the globe, and some see this as an uplifting tale of an intimately shared history.

    On the other hand, some see in the multiregional scenario a picture of longterm peaceful cooperative coexistence and eventual unification of many human species, and envision the out of Africa scenario as one in which our ancestors were sadistic, selfish bastards who wiped out all competitors, conquering the earth as a merciless, destructive juggernaut, and are repelled by it.

    It’s really one of those pick your poison scenarios.

    I’m guessing the truth will be in between. Out of Africa with hanky-panky as opportunity allowed, as these new findings suggest, always seemed the most consistent with how human beings generally behave, at least to me.

  • Wong

    How tall is the squeleton?

  • David

    the skeleton is about four feet tall i believe, Wong. Not sure about that. So what does this mean exactly? The fact that neanderthals mated with humans hints at something else. That perhaps where this happened had an abundance of food and fresh water. Otherwise, given our nature, we would have killed them off, rather than have the competition. This implies that there was space, and resources that didn’t have to be fought over.
    Or it implies that our population was small and inbreeding was a possibility, so we mated with neanderthals in order to maintain our population.
    Another thing that speaks for itself is that our races were genetically viable after producing offspring. Meaning that half breeds could bare children. One of the things scientists were doubting was not that a little bit of get togethers didn’t take place, but the children would be barren and unable to bare children of their own. It’s simply amazing, I would like to hear what these genes we have inherited do. Perhaps they control our skin pigment? Who knows but it’s exciting.

  • Nandor

    If interbreeding between Neanderthals and Homo Spains had indeed taken place, on more than a very rare or exceptional basis, would we not have a much larger portion (larger than only 1 to 4 percent) of us today carry evidence of that? In any case the news of this begs for more information. Has any mytochondrial DNA of the Neanderthals been analysed, or Y-chromosomal DNA? Can the Neanderthals be classified into any existing haplogroup? What haplogroups are they related to more than to others? We need far more information to come to informed conclusions.

  • Joshua Zambrano

    Ironically, it’s not much different from the revelation of Genesis 6:4, the “Nephilim”. Bible scholars have struggled for centuries over the apparent suggestion that another race mated with humans back before the Noahic Flood and produced a race of giants.

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